Let’s bring ourselves back to 1934: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is president, the Great Depression is in full swing, and many Americans are eating Wheaties cereal out of a box that prominently features New York Yankee Lou Gehrig—his eyes on the outfield as he completes a powerful swing. Wheaties: a breakfast food arguably better known for its slogan (“the breakfast of champions”) and its boxes featuring iconic American athletes than for its wheat and bran flakes. Athletes from across the sporting world have graced the front or back of the box—aviator Elinor Smith, decathlete Caitlyn Jenner (when the world knew her as Bruce), the 1996 U.S. women’s gymnastics team—and as we head toward the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, more American athletes will be added to that orange roster. Their inclusion will continue an eight-decade union between Wheaties and sports.
As with many iconic pieces of American culture, Wheaties (and its athletic connection) has a storied, almost mythical history. Legend says the Wheaties recipe was a bit of a mistake—wheat gruel was accidentally spilled on a hot stove and in the heat that liquid turned to flakes. The health clinician who spilled said gruel liked the accidental concoction so much, he brought it to General Mills’ predecessor, the Washburn Crosby Company, for tasting. From there Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes were born. Obviously the name needed a little ironing out, so a company-wide contest took place searching for the perfect moniker. It was Jane Bausman, married to one of the company’s export managers, who came up with the winning word: Wheaties.
Because General Mills was based in Minnesota, Wheaties was first advertised in its home state. In 1927 the cereal was sponsoring the radio broadcast of the minor league baseball team the Minneapolis Millers, and a slogan was needed. According to marketing lore, Minnesota ad executive Knox Reeves quickly jotted down a few words: “Wheaties—The Breakfast of Champions.”
As for the extension of the Wheaties-baseball connection, it is strong and swift. Before too long the Millers were not the only minor league team brought to you by Wheaties and radio stations across the country were broadcasting minor league games sponsored by the cereal.
Unsurprisingly, radio was a strong marketing tool used by the brand, and the first character featured on the box (even before real-life athlete Lou Gehrig) was a fictitious high school athlete named Jack. Beginning in 1933 Jack Armstrong was a lead character in a Wheaties-sponsored radio show Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy. The radio advertisement that ran before the program highlighted the Wheaties-athlete marketing connection: “That combination of Wheaties, milk, and fruit, is the year-round training breakfast of hundreds of great athletes—many of them champions in their own line of sport. Great baseball heroes like Bob Feller, Johnny Mize, and Frank McCormick. Football champions like Cecil Isbell, Don Hutson, and Parker Hall. Top-flight golfers like Patty Berg and Byron Nelson. And, well I say, I could go on from now until the cows come home just naming the great sports stars who go for their breakfast of champions of almost every morning.”
One such athlete was Lou Gehrig, who, at the time, was a spokesman for the competitor cereal Huskies. “Gehrig was not the ideal [Wheaties] endorser,” John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, told Extra Crispy. “Before coming on board with Wheaties, he had been scheduled to do a live radio spot for a cereal called Huskies. The announcer asked the slugger, ‘To what do you owe your strength and condition?’ ‘Wheaties’ Gehrig told the listeners.” In 1934, Gehrig became the first athlete featured on box.
In nine decades since, Wheaties boxes have become a canvas for spotlighting some of America’s most celebrated athletes—the box’s real estate becoming nearly as prestigious as winning the title, the pennant, the medal itself. Dave Oehler, marketing manager for Wheaties, gave the official word on how decisions are made about which athletes are featured and when. “We have a committee of people who make the final decision on the athletes that appear on Wheaties boxes,” Oehler said. “Athletes are selected based on their athletic achievements and how they personify being a champion both on and off the field of competition.”
While that philosophy has led to many a collector’s item, it has also sparked some controversy, particularly when making choices about which athletes are champions off the field. Greg Louganis, a gold medal-winning diver said to be “the greatest diver ever,” was not featured on the Wheaties box during the height of his fame in the 1980s. At the time, General Mills allegedly said Louganis did not meet their “wholesome demographics.” Louganis interpreted that as the company discriminating against him for being gay.
Earlier this year a successful petition put Louganis on the front of the box. “This means so much more than it would have back then. Getting it now means people see me as a whole person—a flawed person who is gay, H.I.V.-positive, with all the other things I’ve been through,” Louganis told the New York Times. General Mills spokesperson Mike Siemienas told People, “We receive petitions all the time, and that’s not what sways our decision. We have a committee that looks at a wide variety of athletes and determines who is most deserving... In 1984 an 1988 we had Mary Lou Retton, America’s sweetheart, and Michael Jordan—who were both very deserving. We stand by our choices back then,” he said. “Wheaties is an inclusive brand. We are really excited to be recognizing Greg now.”
Athletes today still consider the Wheaties nod a major honor. Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek, who was featured on the box in 2006, told Extra Crispy what the box meant to him. “When I was a teenager, Wheaties did a re-issue of some of the ‘legends’ of Olympic sport,” he said. “Eric Heiden, who is the greatest speedskater and only person to win every Olympic event in his sport, was one of those reissues. I bought one of the boxes but I didn’t eat any of the cereal. Instead I carried it with me for years to every new city that I moved to and trained in. When I made it on the Wheaties box, I kept one of his boxes and one of mine next to each other in my apartment.”
In 2016, many Americans still have a box of Wheaties on their breakfast table. As for which athletes will be staring back at them after the Rio Olympic Games, it’s anyone’s guess. “We do not discuss our future marketing activities,” Wheaties’ marketing manager Oehler said. “We wish all of the U.S. athletes good luck in their events.”
That doesn’t mean that people don’t have opinions, though. When asked which athletes Wheaties should feature next, cheek said, “Wrestler Jordan Burroughs and Judo champion Kayla Harrison,” adding, “They’re both the best in their sports and I think more Americans should know them. Both athletes will be going for repeat gold in Rio.” Breakfast of champions, indeed.