Saturday, February 23, 2013

1914 Cracker Jack Baseball #5, Ward Miller

Just over a century since future ballpark staple "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" swept America in 1908, no snack connects to game day like Cracker Jack. I've seen its caramel-popcorn-nut boxes in every pro park and expect sales to continue as long as there's baseball to play. (Yankee Stadium tried to replace it with Crunch 'n' Munch in 2004--fans rebelled and Cracker Jack quickly returned.)

Back when Cracker Jack itself was young, the company cemented its baseball popularity with consecutive, near-identical sets of AL, NL, and Federal League stars: 1914 (144 cards) and 1915 (176 cards). That era's business and wartime context made them significant beyond being "just" 100 year-old cards.
  • Cigarettes largely left the market after 1911, opening the door for candy makers to collect what money kids had to spend; this set gave them baseball without the preteen smoking habit
  • Cracker Jack packaged prizes debuted in 1912, so buyers knew each box would have a card; 1915 is also one of the first times a publisher sold albums and complete sets
  • 1914-15 matched the Federal League's brief lifespan, so is a collector's best chance to obtain cards of its players; Ward Miller, for example, suited up for its St. Louis Terriers
  • Three pre-scandal Black Sox appear in the set, including Shoeless Joe Jackson; he's one reason PSA called the 1914 set "nearly impossible to complete...even with unlimited funds"
  • Modern counterfeiters found Cracker Jacks an appealing target, given their thin paper stock and star power; both official reprints and fakes exist in today's marketplace

Several 1914-15 Cracker Jack players later served in WWI, including Ty Cobb, Branch Rickey, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, and Hank Gowdy. (Eddie Grant, the first ballplayer killed in action, doesn't appear in either set.)

1914 Cracker Jack #88, Christy Mathewson (pitching)

Christy Mathewson's already one of the key cards, but his pose change rates as the sets' most significant variation.

1915 Cracker Jack #88, Christy Mathewson (portrait)

Card backs give a player bio and determines whether a given card's 1914 ("set of 144") or 1915 ("set of 176"). The "Three Eye League" mentioned on Miller's card was a minor league of teams from Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, and fielded good talent for several decades.

Note the production company's Rueckhein & Eckstein, since Cracker Jack was just a product in 1914. They renamed to the Cracker Jack Company prior to their purchase by Borden in 1964.

Value: 1914 singles came on thin, semi-transparent paper and show damage easily. Low-grade singles cost $20-40, with prices in the hundreds for star players.

Fakes / reprints: So many have reprinted Cracker Jacks that I've personally struggled to separate ungraded fakes from authentic cards. The thicker stock used for 1915 holds up better than 1914 and is easier to find, so I recommend getting a type card from that set.

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