Playmakers Part III: Wiffle Ball
By Tim Walsh
Wiffle's Big Break
Long before baseball became our National Pastime, it was a pastoral game played in wide open spaces. As its popularity grew, baseball spread into our suburbs and cities. In the 1830s a law was passed in Cooperstown, New York, restricting the play of baseball after shop owners complained about too many broken windows. They didn’t know it at the time, but what the future home of the Baseball Hall of Fame needed wasn’t another law, it was the Wiffle ball.
In 1952, 13-year-old David A. Mullany had an unquenchable need to play baseball but was faced with the friendly confines of his own backyard. Not content to give up on his game, David and his friends devised a way to play using a broomstick and perforated plastic golf ball. The ball worked well because no matter how hard he and friends connected with it, their ball was too light to travel very far and too soft to break any windows. Unfortunately, it was also next to impossible to make the ball curve and “break” like a big league pitcher. David tried harder and harder to snap off his curve, and inevitably complained to his dad that his arm “felt like jelly.” His father, David N. Mullany, a former semi-pro pitcher, realized that throwing curveballs with a real baseball was hard enough on a young arm, let alone trying with such a small, light ball. Concerned, he set out to create a ball that would curve on its own.
The development of the ball that befuddles batters began with a rather unlikely source. The original Wiffle ball prototypes were hand cut from spherical moldings used to package Coty perfume bottles, procured through a friend who worked at a nearby cosmetics factory. The elder Mullany discovered these round plastic containers were just slightly smaller than a baseball. But, like many playthings chronicled in this book, the sweet smell of success was a long way off.
The former pitcher surmised that if he made the ball lighter on one side, it would curve. With a razor blade and some tape, David sat down at his kitchen table and cut the round plastic moldings in half. After taping a hemisphere in which he had cut holes to one that was complete, he created a ball that was more heavily weighted on one side than the other. He gave it to his boy for testing. The ball didn’t curve. After many trips back to the kitchen table, the father-son team learned that the shape and placement of the holes (and not necessarily the lopsided weight), held the keys to altering the ball’s flight. Over the next few weeks father and son tested dozens of prototypes, all hand cut and taped together by the senior Mullany.
When the new ball’s design was finally perfected––virtually anyone could throw a pitch that would curve two feet or more––Mullany decided to venture into the toy business. David A., the boy who gave his dad the inspiration to develop the ball in the first place, also gave the ball its now famous name. This new ball was so hard to hit, it made batters “whiff,” baseball slang for “strike out swinging.”
When the elder David failed to get all the financing he needed, he borrowed money from friends and mortgaged his home to market the newly christened Wiffle ball. If fate meant for his new business to strike out, David N. Mullany decided that he was going to strike out swinging.
After buying an injection molding machine and leasing space in a nearby Woodbridge, Connecticut factory, the Mullany family business was off and running. Their first sale was to Three Judges Restaurant, a diner just down the street from the factory. This unlikely outlet sold the Wiffle ball from its front window at the 1953 price of 49 cents. A humble start for sure, but one that led to orders from local sporting goods stores.
Wiffle Lands in Woolworth’s
Soon word of mouth propelled the ball beyond the backyards of Connecticut. Wiffle Ball, Inc. snagged its first major order from the dominant retailer at the time, Woolworth’s. They were skeptical, but David closed the deal by throwing the Wiffle ball against the buyer’s office window. Impressed, the buyer relented and the Wiffle ball was on its way.
The rules enclosed with the earliest balls suggested using a broom handle as a bat, but by 1954, just a year after the ball’s debut, David had contracted with a wooden handle manufacturer to produce the very first Wiffle bat, called the Wiffle King. It was 31 inches long and had a barrel that was only 1 1/8 inches in diameter, not much thicker than the broomstick that inspired it. The classic yellow plastic bat did not show up for another seven years.
The Mullanys had purchased an injection molding machine to make the very first Wiffle balls in a manufacturing process that was fairly straightforward. Making the long, plastic Wiffle bats was not so easy. David N. and a partner started a separate blow molding business (it was eventually bought outright by his partner) that supplied the bats to Wiffle Ball, Inc. The plastic Wiffle bat was first released in 1962 and has been a backyard staple ever since. But as identifiable as the bright yellow Wiffle bats and the bright white Wiffle balls may be, they are only a part of Wiffle’s lasting appeal.
Wiffle began in David’s mind as just a ball that could curve, but with the help of his son, he shrewdly released it with instructions for an entirely new game. In 1953 (and today), kids faced three daunting obstacles if they wanted to play a game of baseball: Not enough players, not enough room, and not enough money for expensive equipment. The very first Wiffle balls came with a flyer that explained the solution:
The directions also suggested using an area 20 feet by approximately 60 feet, with scoring areas spaced away from the batter at 20-feet intervals. Hit a ball that lands uncaught up to 20 feet from home plate and you score a single. A distance of 21–40 feet is a double, 41–60 feet is a triple, and launch one more than 60 feet uncaught and you clear the bases without running a step. Of course, most of us had our own ground rules, which made a game of Wiffle Ball even more fun and uniquely our own.
The corner deck and clothesline posts marked the foul lines in my boyhood backyard. Anything off the tool shed was a ground rule double; into the oak tree branches scored a home run. Our strike zone was always a lawn chair set up against the side of our house. Years later we were still playing, having graduated to a new and bigger ball park––our high school parking lot. We were a little more official at that grander asphalt field, but the old lawn chair remained from our backyard days. The clank of the ball hitting the chair and the clack of the bat remain vivid memories of summers past.
By 1959, the success of their balls and bats allowed Wiffle Ball, Inc. to move into a modest two-story brick office/factory in Shelton, Connecticut. David A. Mullany, the 13-year-old who inspired his dad, started working for the company in the 1960s and became its president sometime in the early ’70s. By the time Wiffle Ball entered its twentieth year in 1973, it was evident that kids weren’t the only ones playing.
Today, David A. Mullany’s sons, David J. and Stephen Mullany, run the company their grandfather started a half century ago while resisting buyouts from the bigger toy and sporting goods conglomerates. “We’re approached to sell all the time,” says the third David to preside over Wiffle Ball, Inc. “We just really love what we’re doing. We’re making a product that people enjoy and have fun with.” David’s brother Stephen agrees. “Truthfully, we can’t see ourselves doing anything else. It’s a unique business.” The summer of 2003 marked the 50th Anniversary of this unique business––a business of fun and family.
David N. Mullany died in 1990 at the age of 81. He saw his invention reach millions, passed the reins of his company to his son, and was alive to see it then passed on to his grandsons. “He was a really neat guy,” says grandson David J. “I had a few years with him [at Wiffle Ball, Inc.] and I’m glad I had that opportunity.”
The Mullany family does not divulge sales figures, saying only that they sell millions of balls per year. A hint of their success comes from one of their best accounts, The Connecticut Store, an outlet that has proudly shipped orders of Wiffle balls and bats to every state in the nation and 26 different countries. That’s a long way for a ball to travel, especially from its rather modest beginning in the window of a small town diner.
In the face of corporate buyout attempts, it’s comforting to know that Wiffle Ball Incorporated hasn’t changed. It remains a family-owned company powered by just 12 full-time employees. They work to make a legendary product that continues to fly in the face of the $25 billion toy industry, which decrees that hit toys must be heavily advertised. Low overhead and no advertising budget mean you can still buy a Wiffle ball and bat set for under $3.50. In these days of greed, when for the love of money Major League baseball players have insulted their fans in recent years with talk of “work stoppages,” Wiffle Ball reminds us of a simpler time when playing was for the love of the game and the only “strike” you feared was your father’s wicked Wiffle curve.
About the Author
© 2004 Keys Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission from The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys, (Keys Publishing 2004). Photographs © 2004 Herb Booth, unless otherwise noted. Photograph of Kay and Bob Zufall courtesy of the Dover Community Clinic.
Playmakers Part II: Play-Doh
Cans of it are in preschools, nursery schools and tucked away in kitchen cupboards and family playrooms around the world. Recipes on how to make it continuously pop up in magazines and on the Internet as its maker, Hasbro, fights to keep its name from becoming a generic label for all “modeling compounds.” Its status as one of the most beloved toy products ever created makes its origin one of the weirdest of all toy stories. Play-Doh, that moldable stuff from childhood––sold in 75 countries in the staggering quantity of 95 million cans a year––was first invented as commercial wallpaper cleaner.
Copyright © 2009 Parents' Choice Foundation. All rights reserved.