What began almost 80 years ago as a crispy whole-wheat cereal flake with a catchy ad slogan “The Breakfast of Champions” has grown into one of America's most celebrated sports icons. The legendary cereal flake in the orange box was the first breakfast product to venture into the world of sports marketing, when in 1933. General Mills featured the first usage of the “Breakfast of Champions” tag line on the left field wall at old Nicollet Park in south Minneapolis.
Overwhelming response to the catch phrase led the cereal giant to launch one of the most successful, popular and longest-lasting product packaging concepts in American history: the athlete on the cover of the Wheaties box.
The first athlete to appear on a Wheaties box in 1934 was Yankees great and eventual Honorary 500 Home Run Club Member Lou Gehrig. The year that General Mills honored “The Iron Horse,” Gehrig won the Triple Crown in 1934, with a .363 average, 49 homers and 165 RBI. Among the statistics that qualified Gehrig for the honor of being the “first Wheaties Athletic Cover person” were the facts that he holds the record for career grand slams at 23; and that he hit 73 three-run homers and 166 two-run shots, giving him the highest average of RBI per homer of any player with more than 300 home runs. Gehrig was a true shining star, which is precisely what the Wheaties people wanted.
Wheaties' storied sports heritage went on include endorsements by many of the greatest baseball players of all time, including other eventual 500HRC members - Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson (Honorary), Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.
While Babe Ruth was never featured on a Wheaties box during his playing days, because General Mills did not hatch the marketing phenomenon until after his glory years, he was the center of one of the most famous and memorable Wheaties print advertisements ever. The simple hand-colored illustration showed an awestruck young boy eating the “Breakfast of Champions” while dreaming of The Babe in living color. The simple caption said: “Champions get many a small boy to eat a good breakfast.” Note: Ruth was featured years later as part of a 60th Years of Sports Heritage collectors Wheaties box set.
Wheaties baseball radio broadcasts, including personal testimonials by professional athletes, continued to be immensely popular throughout the 1930s, spreading from one team to 95 minor and major league baseball teams across the country. Two months after that 1939 All-Star Game (which featured 500 Home Run Club members during their prime, including: Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott and Lou Gehrig, who served as captain of the AL team), Wheaties sponsored the first televised commercial sports broadcast when, on August 29, 1939 NBC presented a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers for some 500 owners of television sets in New York City.
General Mills has continued to make news with its Wheaties’ brand over the years, and on January 23, 2002 the company announced that Hammerin’ Hank Aaron would appear on the front of the orange Wheaties cereal box as a special-edition Black History Month package that was available throughout the US throughout February 2002. This is the second time the all-time home run king appeared on the Wheaties box. In 1970, Aaron was featured along with Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench and golfer Tom Weiskopf.
"It's an honor for me to join the ranks of some of the great baseball players who have graced the Wheaties package over the years," said Aaron, who has also been in a television commercial for the breakfast cereal.
Lou Gehrig was also subsequently featured for a second time on Wheaties front (and back) of the box with a special commemorative package after his passing. As was Honorary 500 Home Run Club great Jackie Robinson, who appeared on three varieties of Wheaties box in rapid succession: regular Wheaties, Honey Frosted Wheaties and Crispy Wheaties ‘n Raisins.
Ken Griffey Jr. graced the Honey Frosted Wheaties box in 1996 and - after a ten year hiatus - the 500 Home Run Club fraternity was represented by Alex Rodriguez on a special-edition Wheaties box in 2006.