Some of the most ingenious ideas come from out of left field. That certainly was the case with the invention of the Wiffle ball, which was named for a strikeout, but has become one of the biggest hits in toy history.
Sixty-five summers ago, a Connecticut man came home from work to find his 12-year-old son and the neighborhood kids playing baseball in his backyard using a small plastic golf ball and a broomstick handle for a bat. The boys attempted to make the ball curve and slide to no avail.
“My dad sees us no-good kids trying to throw curveballs and throwing our arms out,’’ recalled David A. Mullany in a New York Times interview several years ago. “So he decided he wanted to make a ball that would make it easier for us to pitch.”
The elder Mullany, also named David, began experimenting by cutting holes into plastic orbs that were used to package cosmetics. He tried square holes, then diamond-shaped ones, but those experiments failed. The thrown ball flew through the air straight as an arrow.
Mullany’s eureka moment came when he cut eight oblong slots on the top of a feathery but resilient plastic ball that was roughly the same size as a regulation baseball, but hollow inside. The new perforated design enabled throwers to effortlessly toss pitches that dipped, rose, curved and fluttered, depending on the grip and air resistance. With this new invention, young arms would be saved from the stresses of trying to throw breaking pitches. Players afraid of being bruised by hard-hit baseballs now had a game in which fear struck out. Being hit with a whizzing, three-quarters-of-an-ounce Wiffle ball could sting, but it was nothing like being plunked by a baseball—which weighs roughly nine times as much.
Mullany needed a name for his new creation, and the kids who had turned his backyard into a ball diamond provided one. The boys used to taunt a batter when he struck out, saying he whiffed. Another eureka moment. Mullany decided to call it the Wiffle ball, dropping the “h” because he figured it would be one less letter he would have to print on signs, ads and packages.
Believing he had stumbled onto something with great potential, the former industrial league pitcher mortgaged his house to finance the venture, selling the balls for 49 cents each from the back of the family station wagon. After incorporating his company in 1954, he hired a marketing firm to get the word out and began peddling the balls on Canal Street in lower Manhattan.
That led to a deal to sell the product in Woolworth department stores nationwide, and the toy took off like an Aaron Judge home run.
In 1959, Mullany expanded operations to manufacture the familiar skinny yellow Wiffle ball bat. And, in ensuing years, the company began making Wiffle golf balls and flying discs. The business remains family owned and operated, with two of Mullany’s grandsons now calling the shots. The company produces more than five million balls per year.
What started as a kids’ game has become an adult game, too, with hundreds of competitive leagues and tournaments popping up throughout America and the world. Some tournaments have become quite large, with thousands of dollars presented to the top finishing teams. The World Wiffleball Championship was started in 1980 and remains the oldest tournament in the sport. It was ranked No. 20 in the popular book, “101 Baseball Places to Visit Before You Strike Out.”
There are stories of adults building mini-versions of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field in their backyards. A Wiffle ball-crazed man with money to burn in Encino, Calif. spent $700,000 to build Strawberry Field, which boasts lights for night games, bleachers and a press box.
Yours truly has fond memories of less structured Wiffle ball games in his old neighborhood. I loved it because no matter how much I studied the diagrams of curveball grips in sports books and magazines, I could never master the art of throwing one with a real baseball. But I couldn’t help but toss a breaking ball or a knuckle ball with a Wiffle ball because of the perforations and lightness. As I discovered, it’s darn hard to throw a straight ball with one. And tossing breaking pitches with a Wiffle ball doesn’t place the stress and strain on elbows and shoulders that throwing a baseball does.
The other thing that is great about Wiffle ball is that you don’t need a ton of players to have a game. In fact, I remember playing games with just two of us. And, unlike baseball, there was no danger of breaking windows, which my mom and the neighbors greatly appreciated. I even remember tossing and hitting Wiffle balls in our unfinished basement, with no fear of breaking anything, except an occasional light bulb.
I’m glad to see Wiffle ball finally receiving some long overdue recognition as a quintessential American toy—as enduring as Legos, Barbie dolls and Monopoly. Last year, the Strong National Museum of Play added it, the board game Clue and the paper airplane to its long list of National Toy Museum enshrinees. And Sunday, the Rochester Red Wings will celebrate its place in our culture by distributing 1,000 Wiffle balls to fans attending that day’s game at Frontier Field against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
Though named for the strikeout, the Wiffle ball clearly has been a home run. An idea out of left field continues to be played in backyards throughout America six decades after its conception.
]Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.