Big Wiffer

By David Nevard wiffle ball

(c) copyright 1996 BHS

...and now, for the first time, the Sox have seen what [Kevin} Mitchell, who hit 30 homers in a strike-shortened 1994 season, can do with a fastball. Both homers were off fastballs, but he's not completely sure of himself on offspeed stuff. One reason is that Mitchell, a world-class Wiffle Ball player, wasn't able to play a lot of Wiffle Ball during the offseason as he recovered from knee surgery.

"Hitting a Wiffle Ball is one of the hardest things to do in sports," said Mitchell. "It's the reason I was able to hit the breaking pitch so well in the big leagues. You have to have complete concentration as a hitter to keep up with it, and the fact that I didn't play at all set me back."

- Nick Cafardo, Boston Globe, 3/28/1996

It was a lazy summer afternoon in Fairfield, Connecticut, 1953. Thirteen-year-old David A. Mullany and his friend were locked in another marathon game of backyard ball. The boys used a broom handle and a plastic golf ball, because every kid knows you can't play hardball in the yard.

"We had tried playing with tennis balls at first, but one day my friend's mother was hanging laundry and I drilled a shot through her arms and into the backdoor light."

David's father, David N. Mullany - a former college and semipro pitcher - watched his son trying to throw a curve with the plastic golf ball, and he got an idea. "Whether they're playing the outfield or infield, warming up or just throwing the ball around, everyone is always trying to throw a curve," he told a Network News Service reporter thirty years later. "Then it hit me. If you could take a plastic ball and make it curve, you'd probably have something."

He needed something - his auto polish business had gone bust; he was broke and unemployed. The elder Mullany called a friend who worked at the nearby Colt Firearms factory. Besides guns, the company made packaging products. "They made a plastic-ball gift box for Coty, the perfume company," said Mullany. "The mold was still there so my friend pulled off some samples for me."

He brought them home, and that night he and his son sat at the kitchen table with white plastic hemispheres, a few razor blades and some scotch tape. With a baseball, a pitcher throws a curve by creating unequal spin on the two sides of the ball. David N. Mullany reasoned that a plastic ball could be made to curve if its two hemispheres were of unequal weight. Father and son cut holes, diamonds, and other shapes out of the balls, to create an imbalance. Then they'd tape two halves together and try out the ball. The Mullanys finally concluded that it was the shape of the holes, rather than the precise volume of plastic removed, was the critical factor in the ball's performance. The ball that worked best had eight oblong holes on the top half, and a solid bottom.

"I'll never forget how the name came about," said the elder Mullany. "It was a rainy day, and I was down in the cellar with Dave writing the rules for the game. I asked him, 'What do you call that game you play?'

"Without a second thought, Dave turned around to me and said, 'Wiffle. When you miss it, it's a wiff.'"

And so was born the Wiffle Ball.

As the younger David Mullany once put it, "The beauty of it is that you can get a guy 30 years old playing against his son who is 12 years old and he can't overpower him with size or strength."

David Mullany the Elder patented the Wiffle Ball (US No. 2776139), got a second mortgage on the house, took out some loans, and started marketing the product. The company never advertised very much, depending instead on word of mouth, and the word spread like wildfire among kids.

For baseball-playing kids, the Wiffle Ball was a uniquely magical and useful product; not only did it allow you to throw curves, but your parents liked it because it would not break windows, fracture facial bones, or necessitate expensive dental repairs. When struck with a plastic bat, the Wiffle Ball travelled just about as far as the limits of a suburban back yard, transforming the yard into a fantasy stadium. The Wiffle Ball gave you the thrill of being a great hitter or a great pitcher, without the draggy and difficult aspects of real baseball. And like all liberating inventions it probably led to the moral decline of our nation's youth. But that is another subject.

WHY DO YOU THINK KIDS AREN'T PLAYING PARTICULARLY BASEBALL -- ON PLAYGROUNDS THESE DAYS?

''I think the reason that a lot of kids aren't playing pickup games on playgrounds today is that they're just lazy. They just wait for the organizations to make up the games and then they'll play in the organizations, but I just don't think they want to do it themselves. My friends and I (I'm 12 years old), we always play Wiffle Ball, but I just think some kids are lazy." LUKE CALDWELL Cohasset

-- Reader Feedback Poll, Boston Globe, 8/27/93

He played Wiffle ball in his backyard with his brother, Dennis. Dan would be the Red Sox and Dennis would be the Orioles.

-- article on Dan Duquette, Boston Globe, 6/9/95

Who among us baseball lovers, hasn't ripped one of those 70-foot home run shots onto the left-field garage roof and imagined himself Roger Maris or Henry Aaron, taking some ace fastballer downtown?

-- Dan Carpenter, Indianapolis Star

Yes, the Wiffle Ball turned your back yard into a baseball stadium. And like the stadiums of that era, every back yard had its own idiosyncrasies and special ground rules. Our back yard was a popular stadium because my parents -- unlike some -- allowed us to play ball there. The house was painted green, so when we played toward the house you could imagine you were fielding caroms off the left field wall at Fenway. My friends and I played two-person Wiffle Ball for hours on end, just like young David Mullany and his friend. It was the best way to spend a long hot boring afternoon, a shady yard, talking about this or that, imitating batting stances and pitching motions, clouting monster home runs_

Although the big feature of the Wiffle Ball is its ability to curve, pitching was never the big deal in our games. We all wanted to be home run sluggers -- Rocky Colavito, Harmon Killebrew, Roger Maris, Dick Stuart. They were the cool guys we admired. We didn't use the standard skinny yellow Wiffle bats (which I've learned are not made at the Wiffle factory anyway). Instead we used red plastic bats that were shaped a little fatter than a wooden bat. They made a resounding "whompf" sound when you connected just right. Did the ball go further? Who knows. It sounded like it did. And sometimes we used the fake wiffle balls, which had no holes and were made of cheaper, harder plastic than the real thing. I still remember the sound they made as you chased them down the street.

In my neighborhood, baseball was the Little League, and as Little League took hold, kids stopped playing baseball on their own. Little League was like a job -- we were dedicated to it, took it seriously. At first we looked at Wiffle Ball as practice for the real thing. But it soon became a pastime all its own.

After we graduated from Little League, none of us went on to Pony League. We just got more into Wiffle Ball. Sometimes we played a team game in the back yard, but as we got older we found the bases close too together. It was time to move into the streets.

We started the Ubangi Space-a-ball League, and kept stats -- mostly for the home run championship. Games were every evening after supper, at the Canterbury Road Stadium, a quiet intersection under a big oak tree. Usually four players on a team, no walks, no called strikes, you could hit the runner with the ball. There were lots of home runs over the short center field fence, and lots of balls that rolled forever down the street. The games were loud and noisy and funny, and lasted until it was too dark to see.

There were always a lot of younger kids hanging around our games, for some reason. One evening we were playing in a different ballpark -- I forget just why -- the Farnum Road Stadium. One of our players got a hit and tossed the bat away. Well, the bat hit this little girl, an 8 or 9-year-old. She was a bratty kid from a whole family of brats. She couldn't have been hurt too bad, but she ran crying to her house and told her dad. He came out in an inebriated condition and told us to get off the street or he would call the cops. We didn't believe him, and kept playing.

A few minutes later, a police cruiser showed up. The cops told us it was against the law to play ball in the street! We were dumbfounded. We said we didn't know there was any such law. One cop said, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse". I said I'd seen that on TV, which I suppose made me a wise guy. We felt we were doing nothing wrong and that the cops had to side with Old Man C____ because he was an adult and a taxpayer. We sat on the curb and sang "We Shall Overcome", but we didn't overcome. We couldn't play in the street anymore.

One evening we went several blocks away and played catch with a football on the street, but we were so nervous about the police that it wasn't any fun. We tried playing Wiffle Ball at the playground, but it just wasn't the same. On the street you get quick, sharp groundball hops that test your reflexes. When a Wiffle Ball is hit on the grass it just dies. The game had turned us into Dead End Kids; we missed the pavement.

Old Man C_____ got his at Halloween.

The Guerin crowd plays with a Swiss cheese plastic ball manufactured by the Cosom company in New Jersey. But trying to convince this crowd it is playing Cosom Ball is like getting it to believe Wildwood is on the Pacific Ocean.

"No doubt in my mind it's wiffle ball," declared Calse. "Oh, it's a wiffle ball."

Calse started children playing wiffle ball here when he arrived at Guerin nine years ago. It is all part of his self-appointed mission to save baseball in Philadelphia.

-- Michael Vitez, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/26/94

The high season of Wiffle Ball manufacturing runs from the day after Christmas through May. Clear polyethylene crystals are mixed with similar bits of white plastic and forced hydraulically into molds that deliver either the solid half or perforated half of the ball. The halves are then joined, through heating, by another machine. "That's all there is to it," says Mullany the younger.

-- Nathan Cobb, Boston Globe, 9/16/85

Incredibly in this day and age, Wiffle Ball Inc. has not been taken over by a giant international conglomerate which makes ovens, dog food, asphalt shingles and sporting goods. It is still a privately held company and does not disclose its sales figures, except to say that millions have been sold. Experiments with Wiffle golf, basketball, and football were flops, but the original ball has been a steady seller.

David A. Mullany, the first person to throw a Wiffle curve, became president of the company. His father passed away in 1990, but two more Mullanys, grandsons David J. and Stephen, are now vice presidents. The Wiffle factory is a small "undistinguished" two story building in Shelton, Connecticut, 10 miles from New Haven. The company employs about 20 people, working three machines.

The Wiffle Ball sold for 49 cents in 1959, only 75 cents in 1985. The original Wiffle bat was wood, but for many years it has been a skinny yellow fungo-shaped plastic bat, manufactured by another company. Today you can buy the bat-and-ball set as cheaply as $2.49.

From 1956 until 1992 the familiar Wiffle Ball box displayed a picture and endorsement from a big league star, like Whitey Ford, Eddie Mathews, Ted Williams, Jackie Jensen, Pete Rose, Mike Scott, or Rick Sutcliffe. The Mullanys never met any of these stars; they just purchased the photos from agents. "I've had a lot of people write in because we've had someone like Lou Piniella on the box," Mullany the Younger told NNS. "They bill themselves as the world's greatest Wiffle Ball pitcher and want me to set up a match with Lou."

The endorsements were discontinued in '92 because (surprise!) player endorsements were getting too expensive. And after a few early attempts, the company hasn't advertised at all. "We saw that the sales generated by the ads were about the same as we spent on the ads, so we stopped," young Mullany told the Associated Press. As he told Cobb, "Maybe I should sell a Wiffle Ball hat or a Wiffle Ball T-shirt to promote the thing. But I don't."

The box always featured diagrams of how to throw a curve and a slider, but according to Nathan Cobb of the Globe, the diagrams are wrong. Mullany the Elder, a southpaw, showed a graphic artist how he gripped the ball. The artist then drew a right hand, while keeping the ball in the same position. So the diagrams were backwards, and they were never changed. Young David Mullany admitted this Cobb, "Yeah, but in all that time I've only gotten two letters about it."

Until the mid-1960s, the box included a set of "loosely structured" rules, derived from David A. Mullany's backyard game, with 2 players and imaginary baserunners. The rules are still available from The Wiffle Ball Inc., PO Box 193, Shelton, CT 06484.

An "official" Wiffle Ball field is triangular, with foul lines forking to the left and right of home plate. A single is any ball not caught between home plate and the second base line at 24 feet, a double a ball hit from 24 to 44 feet, and a triple one swatted from 44 to 64 feet. A home run is any ball hit beyond 64 feet.

-- Ask the Globe, Boston Globe, 3/30/91

Running clockwise is only the beginning. The field is one of cracked asphalt. The base paths are white lines of fading paint. The bases are painted white rectangles. The left field wall, a seven-foot-high chain-link fence, is 73 feet from home plate, considerably farther than the right field fence. Yet left field is the most frequent location for home runs for one simple reason: Except for one tree guarding the left field line, the ball's path is unimpeded.

-- Michael Vitez, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/26/94

Bottorff knows of three other Whiffleball leagues around the country, but as far as he knows, his is the only one with regional sites that lead to a championship. In Boston, one league is played in a man's backyard, which was designed into a replica of Fenway Park. "I've been there," Bottorff said. "It's pretty neat. But their game is a lot different. They play fast pitch with no defense. It's basically what we call line ball where you hit for distance. They don't run the bases."

-- Jim McCurdy, South Bend Tribune

For some players, the Wiffle Quest goes on long after age 13.

Our research has uncovered two major tournaments in the U.S. The World Whiffle Ball Championship is held in July in Mishawaka, Indiana. The World Wiffleball Association tournament is held in September at Hanover, Massachusetts. Both claim to be the spiritual center of Wiffle-ism. Here are the major theological differences:

* Indiana spells Whiffle with an "H", to avoid potential copyright infringement. Massachusetts spells it without the H.

* Indiana has four-person teams, Massachusetts has two-person teams.

* In Indiana, players run the bases; base stealing and bunts are allowed. Runners can be put out by tagging them, by hitting them with the ball (below the neck only) or by throwing the ball to the pitcher. Massachusetts uses invisible runners.

* Indiana plays slow pitch, with an arc. Massachusetts plays fast pitch.

* Indiana lets teams umpire their own games, with captains settling disputes. Massachusetts hires umpires.

* Indiana plays six innings of three outs, no walks, three strikes and you're out. Massachusetts plays seven innings of three outs, three balls for a walk, two strikes and you're out.

* Indiana has a 15-run slaughter rule. Massachusetts has a 10-run slaughter rule.

* Dimensions at Indiana's Ward Baker Park are Home Plate to LF and RF - 100 feet; LF Corner to RF Corner - 100 feet; Home Plate to CF - about 85 feet. Dimensions at Massachusetts' Appollo Field are Home Plate to LF - 66 feet; Home Plate to RF - 85 feet. Home Plate to CF - 100 feet. Appollo Field is Rick Ferroli's back yard, which he has turned into a replica of Fenway Park. The left field wall is 14 feet high, topped with a 3 foot screen.

* The Indiana tournament was begun in 1980 by Jim Bottorff, the Massachusetts tournament in 1977 by Rick Ferroli.

* Indiana's World Whiffle Ball has a home page on the World Wide Web, complete with official rules, history, and Hall of Fame (although we had some trouble accessing parts of it). The Massachusetts tournament may or may not still exist any more; our information is based on a 1988 newspaper article. Our attempts to reach Mr. Ferroli were unsuccessful.

Former Red Sox pitcher Darrell Brandon umpired the Massachusetts tournament one year and told a Globe reporter, "If you don't believe it's tough, get a bat and get up there and try it. I hope you're guessing right because the ball moves so fast. It's got a lot more movement than a major-league ball. This thing's likely to go any which way. Believe me, it's difficult. You can't believe how tough it is."

Some like the game because it is so challenging, others because it is so easy. While the Massachusetts tournament was giving $1000 first prizes, the guys in Indiana didn't even have a trophy. "The whole thing was started very tongue-in-cheek," Jim Bottorff explained to the South Bend Tribune. "It still is. The idea is that it's supposed to be like when you were a kid out there fending for your self ... It's sort of a fantasy thing. I know the reason I played Whiffleball when I was a kid was because I could never swing a baseball bat."

{Sources: Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury, Associated Press, Network News Service, South Bend Tribune, Indianapolis Star}

Webmaster's note: Wiffleball (and WHiffleball) fanatics are encouraged to check out the Cincinnati wiffleball league. They have run a national tourney for the last two years, and were featured in Sports Illustrated.

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