Inside General Mills - April 4, 2010
Wheaties and baseball: A long, happy marriage
April 4, 2010
The eight-decade marriage between Wheaties and baseball keeps going, with St. Louis Cardinals’ star Albert Pujols among the five star athletes featured on the Wheaties Fuel cereal packaging.
The brand's long association with baseball stretches back to Minneapolis’ long-gone Nicollet Park, where the phrase “Breakfast of Champions” was born.
In fact, shortly after Wheaties was discovered in the 1920s, its partnership with baseball grew so deep that of the 51 players selected for the 1939 Major League All-Star Game, 46 endorsed Wheaties.
On the back of the player contracts with Wheaties was a “Wheaties Eating Facts” questionnaire, which asked questions such as:
- How often do you eat Wheaties?
- At what meal?
- At what other meal?
- What other foods do you eat for breakfast?
60 boxes of Wheaties in a small apartment
Players under contract received a case of Wheaties every six weeks, and additional cases after hitting home runs. A player could end up with a lot of Wheaties for the neighborhood.
Cincinnati Reds’ outfielder Hank Sauer was one of the players under contract in 1948, and his deal with Wheaties had been negotiated by a New York public relations representative named Louis Gordon. It was an era when few players had representation, and most had winter jobs.
Sauer’s winter job was as a set erector in Hollywood, Calif., so he arranged to have his cases shipped to Gordon’s New York apartment that November.
“My wife and I haven’t any children, and there must be 60 boxes of Wheaties to a case,” Gordon told New York sports columnist Red Smith that winter. “Did you ever see 60 boxes of Wheaties in a small apartment?”
A happy accident
You probably know that the iconic cereal brand famous for featuring athletes on its boxes was discovered by accident in 1921 when a health clinician in Minneapolis spilled some bran gruel mixture onto a hot stove, which quickly sizzled into a crisp flake.
He brought the crisped gruel to the people at the Washburn Crosby Company, a General Mills predecessor. Head miller George Cormack went about strengthening the flakes so they didn’t turn to dust when shipped in boxes. After 36 versions, Cormack had the perfect cereal flake.
Within a decade, Wheaties was including flip picture book premiums in its boxes that depicted Babe Ruth hitting a home run, and Wheaties was sponsoring the local minor league Minneapolis Millers ball club.
WCCO and 'The Breakfast of Champions'
The call letters for well-known Minneapolis radio station WCCO harken back to when the Washburn Crosby Company owned the station. The station's broadcast deal with the minor league Minneapolis Millers included a large advertising board on the outfield wall at Nicollet Park, and the company needed something to put on the sign. An executive came up with, “Wheaties - The Breakfast of Champions.”
It was the heyday of the marriage between Wheaties and baseball. General Mills was up front about promoting the game.
“Throughout its sponsorship, General Mills has consistently maintained that baseball broadcasting is a three-way alliance," Donald D. David, president of General Mills, said at the time. “It must sell the station to the listener, it must sell the sponsor’s goods to the consumers, and above all it must sell baseball attendance to the public.”
Nearly all clubs whose games were broadcast under sponsorship of General Mills enjoyed attendance gains in 1936, The Sporting News reported.
That year, Philadelphia radio station WCAU won a trophy offered by General Mills for “outstanding achievement in building increased attendance for professional baseball.”
That trophy contest was part of a program established by General Mills to stimulate interest in the game. Each baseball club’s standing, plus any evidence showing that increased attendance was due to the broadcasts, was taken into consideration in deciding the winner.
Furthering Ronald Reagan's career
David presented a silver cup to WCAU and a smaller cup to broadcaster William Dyer, who handled play-by-play of the Philadelphia Athletics and Phillies that year.
The award helped land Dyer the announcing job for the year’s World Series on CBS radio, and a similar award in 1937 played a role in sending Iowa broadcaster Ronald “Dutch” Reagan to Hollywood for a screen test. You probably know the rest of the story, which was punctuated by Reagan being elected president of the United States in 1980.
General Mills continued its alliance with baseball when it became obvious that television might eventually draw an audience to baseball. It was Wheaties that brought us the first televised commercial sports broadcast.
Two months after the 1939 All-Star Game, Wheaties sponsored the first NBC broadcast of a baseball game, available only in New York City. The contest between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers was an elite event: About 500 New Yorkers owned TV sets at the time.
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