Peanuts, But No Cracker Jack
<comments voting="Plus" />
What baseball fan doesn’t know by heart the lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” with its immortal line “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks”? This hit 1908 song referenced ballpark food as it existed at the time. Yet food at sporting events pre-dates 1908, pre-dates even the beginning of professional league baseball in 1871. This article will offer some items in that history.
Apple sellers (see lower middle) at baseball game. From an 1867 lithograph.2
Foodstuffs have been sold at sporting events since ancient Rome built its Colosseum. In early 19th Century America, horse-racing was the most popular spectator sport, and the race tracks routinely sold, or allowed to be sold, viands ranging from “excellently barbecued shoat, with appurtenances and condiments” to “the verriest rot-gut and Jersey lightning.”3 These traditions would be familiar to Americans as they began to flock to baseball games.
There are abundant mentions of food sales at pre-1871 baseball games. The first found so far is from the New York Herald, July 20, 1860, of a game played the day before, between the Excelsior of Brooklyn and the Atlantic, at the Excelsior Grounds, foot of Court St. The day was hot, and the thousands of fans got thirsty.... "An enterprising German made an excellent thing by carrying the ubiquitous lager around, while boys with peanuts, apples and pies had reason to consider the day as a most auspicious one for them."4
Peanuts and popcorn seem to have been staples at early ballgames. Consider this, from a Cincinnati game in 1870:
“The crowd inside was emphatically a noisy one, and kept itself busy by shouting ‘down in front’ to every little ragged urchin who ventured to raise his head, and calling for the ‘Police’ whenever any person left his seat to purchase peanuts or popcorn.”5
The first enclosed baseball arena, Cammeyer’s Union Grounds in Brooklyn, featured the viands of Sam Lewis, who
“attended to the inner man in the manner for which he is so well known. Sam’s chowder is becoming celebrated. There is another institution coming prominently before the ball-playing public, and that is the cocoanut-candy man—“fifteen cents a quarter of a pound—ten for five cents.”6
The Union Grounds, which opened for baseball in 1862, featured a “saloon.” Captain Samuel Lewis (1825-98) managed the nearby Odeon Gardens, a “fashionable summer resort” which featured ice cream, turtle soup and other delicacies. Lewis also provided the food during the winter, when the Union Grounds were turned into an ice-skating rink. The local newspaper assured the world that “the immortal Sam Lewis keeps a permanent larder and guaranteed that he can satisfy the keenest appetite that comes off the pond.”7
An 1867 game between Cleveland’s Forest City and the Reserve of nearby Hudson, played on a hot day, featured: “A number of enterprising individuals… selecting eligible sites for business, in the shade of trees, or under awning erected for the purpose, and opened, upon counters improvised from dry-goods boxes, a stock of pop, soda water, ice-cream, fruit, etc., to the great delectation of the large juvenile element in the crowd.”8
Similarly, a July 4th game in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania boasted “ice cream, lemonade, spring chickens and fireworks.”9 Who goes to a ballgame today and doesn’t partake of ballpark beer? The same was true in the 1860s, and it is fitting that one story comes from St. Louis, where Busch Stadium celebrates the brand name of the country’s largest beer brewer. In the then heavily Catholic city of St. Louis the Archdiocese forbade Catholics from going to beer taverns on Sunday. Not to be outmaneuvered, the city’s Irish and German-Catholic baseball teams got around that restriction by playing Sunday games and bringing their lager with them!
Reporting on an 1867 game, the Fort Scott (KS) Patriot noted how refreshing cold ice cream was to fans standing out in the open air:10
Fans with more elite palates could purchase a three-course meal, complete with a pasta dish, at Brooklyn’s Union Grounds in 1862.11
All these examples are of food for spectators. But the players were known to partake of what was termed in those more polite days “refreshments.” Early on, ballplayer drinking was discouraged. In 1859 the New York Herald archly noted that “No ‘refreshments’ are allowed on the occasion of baseball matches.” Human nature rebelled against this, and particularly in friendly games, alcohol flowed. In an 1867 game between Chicago Printers and Journalists, the players consumed ample quantities of “lemons and lager”—so much so that one baserunner passed out at third base! A similar game in Cleveland between two rival newspapers found the Cleveland Herald nine exhibiting “a repugnance to defeat, a desire to smash its opponent, and a willingness to draw aid and comfort from a quart bottle.” The knowledgeable crowd added to the fun with such cries to the shortstop as “take another swig, Lynett.”12 The more serious clubs found other ways to refresh their thirst. When the Brooklyn Atlantics visited Irvington, New Jersey, the visitors found “a large can of strawberry lemonade under the scorer’s desk, ready for them when they got warmed up.”13
Historian Bill Ryczek characterizes the ballparks of the post-1870 National League as full of vendors selling peanuts, popcorn, pies, candy, fruit and sandwiches. Beer sales alone became an integral part of the revenues of those teams in cities where such sales were allowed. Some historians claim that beer sales basically kept the St. Louis teams financially afloat in the 1880s.14 But the vendors of the 1880s—and the 2020s—are merely part of a grander tradition that long predates Cracker Jack.
And no, no Cracker Jack, not prior to 1871, at least—it wasn’t invented until 1893, and not perfected until 1896.
1 The author would like to thank Bob Tholkes and Richard Hershberger for their contributions to this article.
3 The Tennessean, May 13, 1859; Opelousas Courier, May 5, 1853.
4 An 1859 advertisement of “Richardson & McLeod,” “public caterers,” boasted that “Dinner and refreshments served on Cricket and Base Ball Grounds.” It is not specified that the catering occurred during a game. See the New York Clipper, July 23, Dec. 17, 1859.
5 New York Times, June 20, 1870.
6 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 22, 1867.
7 For Lewis and the Odeon, see Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 14, Nov. 8, 1855; Jan. 6, Oct. 26, 1860; Jan. 12, 1864; Dec. 5, 1867; Dec. 3, 1868; The Odeon Gardens were located at the corner of South 4th and 5th Streets.
8 Cleveland Leader, July 27, 1867.
9 Harrisburg Telegraph, July 4, 1867.
10 Fort Scott Patriot, July 31, 1867.
11 Peter Morris, A Game of Inches (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 2:107, citing Pietrusza et al, The Total Baseball Catalog, 28.
12 New York Herald, Oct. 16, 1859; Chicago Tribune, Aug. 8, 1867; Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sept. 9, 1867.
13 New York Clipper, June 23, 1866.
14 William Ryczek, When Johnny Came Sliding Home (Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 1998), 35; David Pietrusza, The Formation … of 18 Professional Baseball Organizations, 1871 to Present (Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 1991).