Wiffle Ball – Saving Windows Since 1953
Growing up on a cul-de-sac in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the early 1980s, I had the distinction of being the only girl in a neighborhood bursting with little boys. Unless I wanted to play alone, I had to play what the boys wanted to play — football, basketball, kickball, and, of course, baseball.
It turns out, a cul-de-sac is a great place for a game of baseball. The home plate, the pitcher’s mound, and second base were represented by specific cracks in the pavement. The first and third bases were the Stiles’s and the Key’s mailboxes, respectively. If we didn’t have enough kids to represent both teams, we used ghost players as stand-ins. We somehow managed to never break a window but did have some close calls involving personal injury, the most memorable being when my younger brother hit a line drive toward my face. I’ve never been the most coordinated individual or claimed to have great reflexes, so it was no surprise to anyone but me when the baseball connected squarely with my face, knocking me flat. After a trip to the ER and a series of x-rays (and, the next day, two impressive black eyes), my parents banned the use of baseballs for anything other than games of catch.
Little did I know, a similar scene played out almost exactly 30 years earlier in Fairfield, Connecticut, only the drama involved broken windows and dented siding rather than black eyes. David N. Mullany, former UCONN baseball player, pharmaceutical company purchasing agent, and then an automotive polish manufacturer found himself unemployed after the car polish business ran into financial difficulty and closed its doors. David went through the motions of going to “work” every day, looking for an employment opportunity without much luck. One afternoon, he noticed his 12-year-old son playing a form of baseball with a group of friends. The boys had been prohibited from using real baseballs after a rash of broken windows. Instead, they were playing with broomsticks and a perforated plastic golf ball. The golf ball let them play safely but left them with sore arms after trying to throw curve balls all day. As a former semi-pro pitcher, David Mullany knew a few things about curveballs. He set out to design an improvement to the plastic golf ball.
David’s business connections came in handy. He got in touch with Coty Perfume, which was packaging its bottles inside hollow plastic balls that opened in halves similar to plastic Easter eggs. With several of the plastic balls to work with, David and his son began experimenting. They cut various shapes of holes into the plastic halves of the balls, snapped them together, and finally found a design that made for a perfect throw. Eight oblong holes in one half and no holes in the other produced a ball that allowed the pitcher to throw curveballs, sinkers, and risers with control and minimal effort. Better yet, the ball wasn’t a risk to windows, siding, innocent bystanders, or the players’ own heads!
Still unemployed and worried about starting his career over relatively late in life, David wondered if the ball his son and his son’s friends were enjoying so much would appeal to other kids. He took out a second mortgage, borrowed money from friends, and formed a new toy company. The product only needed a name, and for this, David turned to his son. The kids had a particular word that seemed perfect. If you swung and missed, you ”whiffed.” Whiffle became Wiffle for the simple and wonderful fact that dropping the H meant they had one less letter to pay for on the signs. Wiffle Ball, Inc. was born!
Fast forward to today, and the 12-year-old who helped invent and name Wiffle Ball back in 1953 is now semi-retired. His two sons, David and Stephen, currently run the company. The Wiffle Ball you can buy and play with today is essentially unchanged from the Wiffle Ball of the 1950s. All production is still done in the USA at their facility in Shelton, CT. In fact, walking into the factory and offices is a bit like taking a trip back in time. For a classic, highly recognizable toy, the company itself is relatively small. The office area is a big, open room without cubicles. Staff talk to each other face to face without needing to jump on the phone or rely on email. Memorabilia hints at the reach of Wiffle Ball — on display, you can see US flags given to Wiffle Ball as a thank you for balls and bats the company shipped to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cartoons that have mentioned Wiffle Ball over the years dot the walls, an informal reminder of the company’s history. Wiffle Ball is as much a part of Americana as apple pie and, well, baseball.
It’s fascinating to think about the role of Wiffle Ball today. When we picture kids playing now, we think of screens, highly organized activities, and helicopter parents. I asked Dave Mullany about the role of Wiffle Ball in a world of technology and his answer was as straightforward as a game of Wiffle Ball itself. He said, “People still gotta get outside sometimes. Parents still throw their kids outside for fresh air.” And he’s right.
The simplicity of Wiffle Ball is its greatest appeal. You can play with two people or ten. You can make the game as complicated or as basic as you want. You can learn to throw a wicked curve or barely get the ball across the plate and still have a good time. Give a couple of siblings a Wiffle Ball and bat and they can argue over it as much as their little hearts desire or play together in the kind of way that makes parents feel like rock stars. They probably won’t break any windows or send each other to the ER. A game of Wiffle Ball doesn’t require a great deal of time or skill or a stellar attention span. No other equipment needed, just the ball, the bat, and a bit of a competitive spirit.
Unsurprisingly, Wiffle Ball has a dedicated following of players and fans across the country. For example, the Travis Roy Foundation runs a Wiffle Ball certified tournament every year. Teams converge on Essex, Vermont to play on Little Fenway, Little Wrigley, and Little Field of Dreams, competing and raising money for spinal cord injury survivors. The tournament attracts 32 teams from across the country with pitchers in particular showing off some serious throwing skills. A quick search on YouTube will bring up video after video of Wiffle Ball enthusiasts sharing their techniques and talents.
Does Dave Mullany play Wiffle Ball all day? If you’ve ever run a business, you probably already know the answer — he’s too busy working to play all day. That’s not to say he doesn’t feel immense pride in the family business. Walking into the factory, smelling machine oil and corrugated cardboard on a humid summer day brings him right back to childhood when a visit to the factory on a quiet Saturday morning meant he could take a ride on the conveyor belt. He grew up playing Wiffle Ball and still appreciates the fun of the game.
While talking to Dave and learning more about the history of Wiffle Ball, one thing became clear. Wiffle Ball is a true family business. What has been passed from grandfather to son to grandsons is more than just a factory, a brand name, and some offices. It’s a culture of quality, consistency, and focus on letting the end product speak for itself. A Wiffle Ball you buy today will be the same as a Wiffle Ball you bought 20 years ago or a Wiffle Ball you buy 10 years from now. You can certainly go out and buy some other plastic ball, but it won’t be a Wiffle Ball. It will be just another piece of plastic.
To visit them on the web please visit: The Wiffle Ball, Inc. – Official Site www.wiffle.com
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