Lou-Gehrig
Jul 13, 2015 • By

How General Mills helped shape baseball broadcasts

By the time furniture that talked was nestled against a far wall in nearly half of American parlors in the 1930s, companies like General Mills were using those radio sets to tell people about their products.

Baseball was an ideal radio advertising vehicle. Games were played during the day, and most women worked at home. During the summer, kids listened, too.

The speedbump was the owners of professional baseball teams. As is usually the case with monolithic monopolies, progressive thinking wasn’t their style.

Most owners – influenced by newspapers that didn’t want broadcasts to disrupt their monopoly on coverage – believed that giving away the games to listeners would erode gate receipts.

Only a few owners like Chicago Cubs’ William Veeck Sr. understood the value. Kids who listened to broadcasts were tomorrow’s paying customers.

Women might be, too. Which is why the grandfather of St. Paul Saints’ owner Mike “Fun is Good” Veeck promoted a weekly Ladies’ Day at the ballpark. Women got in free.

That only a few owners understood marketing all seems silly today, as Major League Baseball’s 85th All-Star Game nears. The sport has more revenue streams than ever, yet no one has to watch a game.

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Highlights from tonight’s game will be found on the Internet. No need to view the event. Of course, you’ll see plenty of advertisements along with the highlights.

Baseball owners didn’t see this coming about a century ago. Companies like General Mills did.

Shortly after radio – a set cost about $700 in today’s dollars – got a foothold in the U.S. in 1921, sellers of goods had demonstrated that radio could puff profits.

Boosted by General Mills’ sponsorship of baseball broadcasts on nearly 100 radio stations, Wheaties was filling cereal bowls nationwide. It had been largely a regional success before that.

By the time baseball’s seventh Major League Baseball All-Star game was played in 1939, 46 of the 51 players in the game were under contract with Wheaties.

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General Mills was spending more than $1 million annually to sponsor major and minor league radio broadcasts as the 1940s dawned.

The company slid as unhesitatingly into TV as it had radio.

A  Wheaties commercial  in which broadcaster Red Barber sliced fresh fruit into a bowl of crispy flakes was the centerpiece ad spot on baseball’s first televised broadcast in 1939.

Barber, a radio staff announcer who did an occasional baseball broadcast, segued into full-time, Hall of Fame broadcasting career after discovering he was good at it. General Mills paid him $8,000 – a nice post-Depression salary – to broadcast Brooklyn Dodger games on the radio in 1939.

Before Barber there was no blueprint. An announcer might be joined in the booth by comedians and others who had nothing to do with the sport.

Once General Mills started to pay the freight, broadcasters met at an annual dinner. The company directed these men to be non-partisan and avoid criticism of players and umpires.

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General Mills President Donald D. Davis addresses a meeting of baseball announcers, in the early 1940s.

Sponsorship also brought experimentation to the booth.

In the 1940s, General Mills was behind the first woman baseball announcer. That was Helen Dettwiler, who was also the first professional woman golfer. She was said to be not qualified for the baseball commenting job.

But then many were not.

It took a pioneer like Barber to turn baseball broadcasts into summer’s sound track, capably narrating the daily melody.

Barber primed the pump of a listener’s imagination. He focused on reporting. If a baseball took four hops to reach the leftfielder, that’s what the listener learned.

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Highly regarded as he was, Barber falls short of the highest-ranking baseball broadcaster employed by General Mills.

That would be a man who pronounced his name Ree-gan back in the ‘30s, when he announced Wheaties’ sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games.

Ronald Reagan was 25 when he was a sports announcer at WHO Radio in Des Moines, Iowa. He didn’t see the games he broadcast.Wheaties-Ronald-ReaganIt was a practice for an announcer to be in studio, but deliver game play-by-play from telegraph reports as if he were at the game. Imagine calling a friend on your cell phone and reporting a game as a third person tweets the account to you from the ballpark.

In 1937, Reagan went to California to cover spring training, took a screen test and became a film star.

And eventually President of the United States.

Accounts maintain that Reagan had the talent to “rip and read” game accounts flawlessly. Which perhaps set the groundwork for his presidential nickname: The Great Communicator.

Editor’s note: The General Mills Archives provided information and images for this post. You can learn more about our past on GeneralMills.com and GeneralMillsHistory.com.

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  • Brad

    JIm, thanks for this — nice piece. I had no idea!