Meanwhile, back in Minneapolis, a great slugger was attracting attention all across the land. He was Joe Hauser of the Millers. In 1933 Wheaties began offering a case for every home run hit by a member of the home team in Nicollet Park. Hauser hit 33 of his 69 that year at home, giving him a grand total of 792 boxes of Wheaties. That would probably be enough to last him until 1982. "Nah, they would have gone stale by now," says Hauser, who at 83 is alive and well and living in Sheboygan, Wis. "I gave most of them out to my teammates. Not that I didn't like them—still eat Wheaties. Oh, that was a great year, though. Did you know that you could have addressed a letter to Joe Hauser, U.S.A., and I would've gotten it?" Today, if you address a letter to Joe Hauser, Sheboygan, Wis., he'll receive it.
That other slugger, Ruth, was a most effective spokesman for Wheaties. When he said, "There's nothing like them to give you energy and pep," who could doubt him? Once, on a radio show, the Babe was asked to push a Wheaties cookie that mothers could bake for their kids. His closing line was supposed to be, "And so, boys and girls, don't forget to tell your mother to buy Wheaties, so she can make these cookies." But in rehearsal, for some reason, Ruth kept pronouncing "cookies" as "kookies" (as in "Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb"). Ruth apologized and promised the director that he would get the word right once he was on the air. But sure enough, the Babe said "kookies." After a moment of silence, he said, "I'm a son of a bitch if I didn't say kookies again." So powerful was Ruth's charm that nobody called or wrote to complain about his language.
In the 1930s Wheaties expanded its team of athlete-spokesmen. One of the first coups came when former Philadelphia Athletics Pitcher Howard Ehmke lined up his old teammates Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw for a grand total of $100. Of the 51 players in the 1939 All-Star Game, 46 had contracts with Wheaties. Carl Hubbell declared in print that Wheaties were "swellegant."
Jack Dempsey ate them. Johnny Weissmuller ate them. Maria Rasputin, "Europe's sensational wild animal trainer—fearless daughter of Russia's Mad Monk," was telling kids from the back of a Wheaties box, "To start the day right, I always recommend Wheaties."
The endorsement game became so competitive that after a while, athletes didn't know whose bowl they were eating from. A cereal called Huskies lured Lou Gehrig away from Wheaties. But when Robert Ripley of the Huskies-sponsored Believe It Or Not radio show asked Gehrig how he started his day, Larrupin' Lou replied, "I usually start with a big bowl of Wheaties." Even Ripley couldn't believe it.
The Wheaties baseball network, that in the mid-'30s had begun to sponsor games other than the Millers', grew to 95 cities by 1939. Ernie Harwell, now the Detroit Tigers' announcer, was working Atlanta Cracker games in the early '40s. "The Knox Reeves people kept in close contact with all of the announcers," he recalls. "In fact, they encouraged us to write our own commercials. After all, we had to do at least nine Wheaties commercials a game. I remember some of the Cracker players used to give me the Wheaties they'd won for hitting a homer. My cocker spaniel loved them."
Wheaties had become-America's breakfast food, topping one million cases in '39. That year General Mills offered a hike-o-meter to Jack Armstrong fans, and this literally emptied America's shelves of Wheaties. Even Shirley Temple sent in a dime and a box top.
Having already pioneered singing commercials, premiums, athletic endorsements and game sponsorships, Wheaties took another bold step as the best man in the marriage of television and sports. On Aug. 26, 1939, a major league baseball game, between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers, was telecast for the first time. Red Barber, the sole announcer, recently recalled the commercials aired that day. "First I put on a service-station cap and talked about Mobil Oil," he said. "Then I held up a bar of soap that was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure. But the big extravaganza was for Wheaties. I poured out an individual serving, added bananas, sugar and cream and said, 'Folks, this is the Breakfast of Champions.' "
On one side of the Wheaties box is all the nutrition information: the percentage of U.S. recommended daily allowances, the ingredients, etc. The last time Consumer Reports did a rating of ready-to-eat cereals, in 1981, Wheaties was ranked in the middle of three groups. In there with Wheaties were Special K and Froot Loops (Oot-fray Oops-lay). Cheerios was judged to be in the top group. The puzzling finding was that Total, a General Mills cereal that is nothing more than Wheaties with extra vitamins, finished in the group of least nutritious cereals. Consumer Reports pointed out that about 30 worth of chemicals makes Total 25¢ to 500 more expensive than Wheaties.
The scientific study was done with laboratory rats. This evokes images of rodents huddled over little tiny bowls, eating with little tiny spoons. General Mills didn't take the tests very seriously. Says Art Schulze, executive vice-president for consumer foods, "We passed around a memo recommending that we start advertising in such periodicals as Good Mousekeeping, Rodent Track and Mouse & Garden."