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'Sailor Jack' On The Cracker Jack Box Was A Real Boy From Chicago

By Linze Rice | November 1, 2016 6:03am
"Sailor Jack" and "Bingo the dog" were real characters in Chicago actually named Robert Rueckhim and Russell.
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DNAinfo/Linze Rice

WEST RIDGE — The smiling, patriotic boy and his dog greeting people on the front of each box of Cracker Jack were actually once real characters in the life of the snack's inventor, and, tragically, would come to define the boy's short life.

He was Robert Rueckheim, born in West Ridge in 1913 as the grandson of Frederick Rueckheim. 

The elder Rueckheim was a German immigrant farmer-turned-entrepreneur who, along with his brother Louis, created the snack empire selling their peanut and molasses-covered product in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire.

In 1893, the brothers sold an early version of the snack at the World's Columbian Exposition, and in 1896 the product was coined Cracker Jack after a taster of the now-famous food exclaimed it was, "cracker jack," slang for greatness at the time. 

Listen to Linze Rice describe the Chicago history of Cracker Jack.

By 1908, shortly before the last time the Cubs won the World Series, Jack Norworth included the lyrics, "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack" in his classic song, "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" and popularity of the product exploded. The "Cracker Jack brand is immortalized," the company's website says.

A decade later, the company would add prizes in its boxes, a tradition still carried on today. 

Around 1918, images of Rueckheim's young grandson Robert with a dog began appearing on packaging and became branded as Sailor Jack and Bingo. 

In reality, Bingo was a stray dog named Russell who in 1917 had been adopted by Henry Eckstein, a man who had invented special sealed boxes to keep the popcorn fresh. Eckstein had insisted they include the dog on the box, according to the Cracker Jack Collectors Association. 

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Robert and Russell's image became iconic Crack Jack imagery, including several iterations over the decades, though sadly it's also the picture that immortalizes the young Rueckstein.

In 1920, the boy died of pneumonia at age 7. He was buried among family members at St. Henry Cemetery in West Ridge.

His tombstone was emblazoned with the well-known Cracker Jack image, but the grave on Monday did not have the logo. It has since been either stolen or removed.

Russell, or Bingo the dog, died of old age 10 years later in 1930, according to the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. 

"Take Me Out To The Ballgame," meanwhile, became a tradition at Wrigley in 1982, after broadcaster Harry Caray brought the tradition he started in the 1970s while with the White Sox. When he died in 1998, the Cubs recruited a host of celebrities to sing the song during the 7th inning stretch, including Bill Murray and Eddie Vedder over the weekend.

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