Just a cereal? Wheaties is as much a box of marketing savvy, billboards, home runs, broadcasts, political aspiration and the slogan behind Kurt Vonnegut’s best-seller, “Breakfast of Champions.”
The full-throttle start of today’s Major League Baseball season conjures the unbeatable story of a product that simmered for a few years before flooding across America’s breakfast tables during the Great Depression.
As the Depression ebbed, the original whole grain cereal – although no one called it that at the time – had 46 of the 51 members of baseball’s 1939 All-Star team under contract and was the centerpiece commercial of the first big-league baseball telecast.
On that historic Aug. 26 day, announcer Red Barber pitched Mobil Oil and Ivory soap during the broadcast from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, but his filleting fresh fruit into a bowl of Wheaties and milk was the most homespun of the on-camera advertisements.
By then, Wheaties was tethered in the minds of Americans as “The Breakfast of Champions.”
That phrase first appeared in 1933 on an outfield wall in long-gone Nicollet Park in Minneapolis, where the minor league Minneapolis Millers played. The huge letters on the outfield wall were part of the $10,000 deal Wheaties struck for the rights to broadcast Millers’ games on WCCO, the Minneapolis radio station that was started by an ancestor company of General Mills.
The story Wheaties likes to tell about “Breakfast of Champions” is that years after the product debuted in 1924, a guy with the dashing name of Knox Reeves scribbled “Breakfast of Champions” on a pad, seemingly with alacrity and confidence. What’s always left out is that times were dire.
Days before the Millers opened the ’33 season, Franklin Roosevelt – just off the first of four U.S. presidential inauguration victory parades – declared a “bank holiday,” a nice way of categorizing the closing of the nation’s banks to let some air out of a balloonful of economic anxiety.
Good luck if you wanted to take the edge off that anxiety by visiting a saloon for a legal gulp of alcohol. The repeal of Prohibition was months away.
There was no group like Feeding America to nourish the gaunt during any day, let alone after an eyeball-rattling earthquake dissolved parts of Long Beach, Calif., days before the Millers opened their home season. More than 100 people died, thousands more went to live in tents, and businesses plugged along by pulling their goods and services onto the street from under roofs that sagged like hammocks.
That was the landscape against which the “Breakfast of Champions” billboard rose.
While folks waited for better days, Babe Ruth – who soon was speaking for the brand – was asking for more the $60,000 a year to play baseball. That would be about a million bucks today. Such a demand in a submerged economy didn’t keep Ruth or teammate Lou Gehrig from selling Wheaties.
Gehrig, by the way, was the first living person to appear on the back of a Wheaties box (fictional Jack Armstrong was the first character depicted).
During that 1933 “Season of the Billboard,” Wheaties offered a case of cereal to each Millers player who homered at Nicollet, with its cozy right-field. Left-handed first baseman Joe Hauser hit 69 home runs, 33 at home, good for nearly 800 boxes.
The practice of dangling Wheaties for home runs soon extended to major league players, each of whom had to attest in writing that they ate Wheaties.
Baseball players helped to make Wheaties, but Wheaties made Ronald Reagan president of the United States. Of course, that’s a bold conclusion that the brand disclaims, but a regular guy can believe what he likes.
Reagan, 25, was a sports announcer at WHO Radio in Des Moines, Iowa, with “a thorough knowledge of the game, a gift for narrative and a pleasant voice,” according to The Sporting News. It was 1936, and he became a prominent contender in that weekly newspaper’s broadcaster popularity contest.
It was a time when broadcasters ripped play-by-play reports from teletypes and recreated baseball game action in a studio. They never saw the game.
Reagan announced the Chicago White Sox and Cubs’ games that Wheaties sponsored, a job that led Reagan to Hollywood in 1937 for a screen test. He climbed from film star to president of the Screen Actors Guild to governor of California to U.S. president, a gig that brought him to baseball’s time-honored moment.
In 1984, Reagan became the 15th U.S. president to throw out the first pitch of the Major League Baseball season.