The 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Wheaties

Wheaties has been around for nearly 90 years, but when did they start putting athletes on the cover?

Courtesy of General Mills

Where Wheaties Got Its Start

Michael Phelps and May-Treanor Wheaties Boxes
(Courtesy of General Mills)
In 1927, Knox Reeves, a Minnesota advertising executive, needed to a slogan to go on a billboard for Wheaties, then a fledgling cereal brand that sponsored the radio broadcasts of the Minneapolis Millers, a minor league baseball team.

Reeves sketched a Wheaties box, paused, and then wrote: "Wheaties-The Breakfast of Champions".

That began one of the iconic and enduring marriages between sports and product. Soon, nearly 100 radio stations were carrying Wheaties-sponsored broadcasts of minor league baseball. So it was natural in 1934 to put Triple Crown-winner Lou Gehrig, pictured finishing a powerful swing and seemingly watching the ball fly out of the park, on the back of a Wheaties box. By the 1939 All-Star game, 46 of the 51 players had endorsed the cereal.

In the decades that have followed, one legendary athlete after another has graced the orange box, names like Ted Williams, Larry Bird, Bob Feller, Ervin "Magic" Johnson, Dan Marino, Lee Trevino and Chris Evert Lloyd. The choices are a barometer on the country's fascination with sport. While baseball players dominated the early years, stars from other sports including football, basketball and eventually women's soccer and snowboarding become part of the mix, the face of a new brand of champion. The cover above is the latest Wheaties box, with Olympians Michael Phelps and Misty May-Treanor gracing the cereal aisle.

What follows are 11 things we bet you didn't know about Wheaties boxes:

The First Wheaties Cover Model Wasn’t Even Real

Jack Armstrong Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)

The first character to be featured wasn't an athlete or even a real person. It was Jack Armstrong, the "All American boy" and star of a fictional radio show sponsored by Wheaties that began in 1933. In the stories, Armstrong was a popular athlete at Hudson High School who traveled the world plunging into one adventure after another, recovering lost uranium, rescuing passengers from a sinking ship and being trapped in a cave of mummies.

Lou Gehrig Was the First Athlete on the Box

Lou Gehrig Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)

Lou Gehrig became the first athlete on a Wheaties box in 1934, appearing on the back. It was a pretty good year for the Iron Horse. He won the Triple Crown with a .363 average, 49 home runs and 165 RBI. Wheaties also featured him in print advertisements. “I believe any man who wants to go places in any sport has to keep in good physical shape," he said in the ad. "I always watch my eating pretty closely and make it a point to put away a good breakfast in the morning. But I want my food to taste good, too. And there’s nothing better than a big bowl of Wheaties with plenty of milk or cream and sugar. That’s a ‘Breakfast of Cham- pions’ you want to try. You’ll be glad you did.”

The First Woman on the Cover Was a Famous Pilot

Elinor Smith Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)

The same year Gehrig became the first athlete on a Wheaties box, Elinor Smith became the first woman to have that honor. Smith had been named the best female pilot of 1930, beating out Amelia Earhart. She set the solo endurance record, flying more than 13 hours in an open cockpit in zero degree weather, then reset the same record a few months later, flying more than 26 hours. She also set the world's altitude record and flew her plane under the four bridges of New York's East River, a feat that has never been duplicated.

A Circus Troupe Tightrope-Walked Its Way to a Wheaties Box

Wallenda Troupe Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)
While baseball players like Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Joe Medwick and Dizzy Dean were the foundation of the marketing campaign, appearing on boxes throughout the 1930s. Wheaties also featured a few football players and daredevils, notably The Wallenda Troupe, who appeared in 1936. The original four-person troupe, founded by Karl Wallenda, the great-grandfather of Nik, who sky-walked across Niagara Falls earlier this year, debuted with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1928, performing on the high wire without a net in Madison Square Garden.

There Wasn’t an Athlete on the Front of the Box until 1958

Bob Richards Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)
In 1958, after dipping into alliances with “The Mickey Mouse Club” and “The Lone Ranger” to market Wheaties to children, the cereal returned athletes to the forefront, putting two-time Olympic gold medalist Bob Richards on the front of the box, a first. Richards, who won gold medals in the pole vault at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, also became the first traveling spokesman for the cereal.

Before He Was a Kardashian, Bruce Jenner Was the Iconic Wheaties Cover Boy

Bruce Jenner Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)
Wheaties went without featuring an athlete on the front of the box for nearly two decades until Bruce Jenner's gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The 1977 cover shows Jenner, wearing a red USA singlet with his arms raised in victory, creating what may be Wheaties' most iconic image. Whether it's the nostalgia for that victory or Jenner's more recent fame on a reality TV show, the box is a favorite of collectors (yes, there are cereal box collectors) fetching prices as high as $100.

It Took ‘Til 1984 to Put a Female Athlete on the Wheaties Box

Mary Lou Retton Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)

Another Olympian, Mary Lou Retton, became the first female athlete on the cover of the box in 1984 after her stunning victory in the all around competition scoring perfect 10s in the floor exercise to edge Ecaterina Szabo of Romania.

Sweetness Was the First Pro Football Player on the Cover

Walter Payton Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)
Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, Sweetness to his fans and the National Football League's career leading rusher at the time, became the first professional football player on the front of the box in 1986, the year his team won the Super Bowl after a season in which he ran for 1,551 yards.

The First Team to be Featured on the Box Isn’t Who You Think It Would Be

Twins Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)
What was the first team featured on the front of a Wheaties box? Not perennial champions like the New York Yankees, nor the Boston Celtics, or even the Green Bay Packers. It was the 1987 Minnesota Twins, who defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to win the World Series. Wheaties flew off the shelves in the Upper Midwest with Minnesota fans grabbing more than 500,000 boxes within a few days. (General Mills is based in Minnesota, so there may have been a home field advantage)

Michael Jordan Has Been on the Cover 18 Times

Michael Jordon Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)

The king of the flakes is Michael Jordan, who has appeared on Wheaties boxes 18 times, whether solo dunking the ball or with his Chicago Bulls teammates. Air Jordan first appeared in 1988, becoming the seventh athlete honored on the cover. His last appearance came in 1999 after he retired for a second time (he would return in 2001 before retiring for good after the 2002-3 season).

The Greatest of All Time Wasn’t on the Cover Until 1999

Muhammad Ali Wheaties Box
(Courtesy of General Mills)
It wasn't until 1999 that perhaps the most famous face in the world appeared on a Wheaties box. Muhammad Ali, a polarizing figure during his boxing heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, appeared on the box 18 years after his final bout.

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