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The tradition at Cracker Jack is a real prize

Forget the peanuts. Can the popcorn. Think prizes.

Cracker Jack is nothing without the sweet anticipation millions of people have felt as they tore into a box of the glazed popcorn and peanut snack, hoping the prize hidden inside would be "a good one."

It's been around for 100 years, and a centennial celebration is set to begin Wednesday at _ where else? _ a baseball game at Chicago's Wrigley Field.

More than 17-billion prizes have gone into the boxes over the years, such as whistles, games, spin-tops, yo-yos, brooches, joke books, instant tattoos and miniature pinball games.

F.W. Rueckheim introduced his peanuts, popcorn and molasses treat at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was a hit but had no name.

The name didn't appear until several years later, after a salesman tasted the confection and exclaimed: "That's a cracker jack!" which is slang for "fantastic."

Sailor Jack, modeled after Rueckheim's grandson, and his faithful dog, Bingo, didn't appear on boxes until 1918.

But it was the prizes, introduced in 1912, and Cracker Jack's relationship with baseball that sealed the snack's place in history.

The prizes, all made in the United States, are now collectors' items. They reflect a changing America, said Alex Jaramillo Jr., a collector from Fontana, Calif., who wrote a book on the Cracker Jack prizes.

"In the '50s, the prizes reflected that era by being baseball cards, TV stuff, cowboy stuff," he said. "In the '60s, there was flower-child items. In the 1940s, you'd have the World War II-type prizes _ soldiers, airplane spotter cards and things like that."

In 1908, composer Albert Von Tilzer and lyricist Jack Norworth wrote Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which forever tied the snack to baseball with the line, "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack." Three-quarters of the nation's ballparks sell the snack.

Today, Cracker Jack is much the same as it was in 1893, but the company recently began selling a Butter Toffee-flavored version made at Cracker Jack's only plant, in Northbrook, Ill.

But Cracker Jack, now a division of Borden Foods, has seen its share of bad days. In the 1930s, the company was deluged with complaints about a toy sailor prize with a pipe because many consumers saw a resemblance between the sailor and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.