History of Wiffleball
It was just another summer evening in 1953. A man, down on his luck but hiding his difficulties from his family, came home, as he always did, to find his boy and some friends playing ball in the backyard, as they always did.
But on this night, an idea struck him. He saw the boys struggling with a small plastic golf ball, trying to give it what pitchers call action -- a little curve or a little slide.
''My dad comes home and sees us no-good kids trying to throw curveballs and throwing our arms out,'' recalled the man's son, David A. Mullany. ''So he decided he wanted to make a ball that would make it easier for us to pitch.''
With that thought, 50 years ago on Sunday, the Wiffle ball was born.
What started out as an idea in a backyard in this Connecticut suburb has since drifted into the popular imagination and now ranks with the Hula-Hoop and Barbie as quintessentially American toys.
And unlike some other fad items, the Wiffle ball remains as popular as ever.
''They never go out of style,'' said Evan Lederman, the sporting goods buyer for Modell's, which has more than 100 stores. He said it did not matter what age people were or where they lived, Wiffle balls sold well.
While he could not put a number on last year's sales, he said: ''It's a lot. And as long as we have them, we sell them.''
Adults have definitely gotten into the Wiffle scene, forming leagues from Costa Mesa, Calif., to Rehoboth, Mass. An organization known as the United States Perforated Plastic Baseball Association was founded a few years ago to help organize the sport.
Although toy companies have approached the Mullany clan many times over the years offering vast sums of money to buy the brand, the business remains a family affair. How many Wiffle balls they sell and how much money their company makes remains a tightly held secret.
''You have to do something in this life,'' said David A. Mullany, now 62 and the company's president. ''And this is what we do.''
Standing outside the same small, two-story brick factory here that has churned out the wispy polyethylene plastic balls with the holes in the top since 1959, Mr. Mullany told the story of how his father, David N. Mullany, came to be an inventor.
It was the turn of the century and the Mullany family worked a tobacco farm in Hatfield, Mass., making the wrappers for cigars. Mr. Mullany was the only one of the family's children who got to go to college, and he went off to the University of Connecticut.
But he finished school in the 1930's, in the throes of the Depression.
''He couldn't find a job anywhere,'' his son said.
Fortunately, in college, Mr. Mullany had done pretty well for himself as a left-handed pitcher and the area around New Haven had a large industrial economy with many of the companies fielding ball clubs.
Mr. Mullany bounced around the industrial leagues for a spell, living in the Y.M.C.A. in Bridgeport, until he got a break through a friend he met playing ball and landed a job.
But he had a family and was looking to do more than load and unload trucks. When a friend told him about a patent they could buy for a new wipe-on, wipe-off auto polish, the two started their own business.
At first, things went well. But through some bad deals, Mr. Mullany lost the company and was facing bankruptcy. He hid this failure, cashing in a life insurance policy and pretending to go to work each day.
''Things were tough for him, but he didn't let on,'' his son said.
It was just after World War II and, while much of the country was booming, for the Mullany family, things looked dim.
Then, on a summer evening in August, Mr. Mullany came up with the idea for the Wiffle ball.
On the face of it, the whole idea sounds a bit like Tim Robbins's character's refrain in the film, ''The Hudsucker Proxy,'' about the invention of the Hula-Hoop: ''Y'know, for kids.''
After seeing his son, then 12, struggling to throw a curveball, the two began cutting holes in plastic orbs that were used to package cosmetics, trying to come up with a design.
''Most of the samples didn't work,'' David A. Mullany said. With his mother standing in as a batter, they tried balls with square holes, diamond-shaped holes and all other sorts of holes.
Finally, they came upon the design that still exists today. Eight oblong slots cut in the top of a feathery plastic ball that weighs two-thirds of an ounce, less than a third of the weight of a baseball.
But there was still the matter of a name. ''The kids used to taunt a batter when he struck out, saying he whiffed,'' David A. Mullany said. So they decided to drop the ''h'' and trademark the name Wiffle.
At first, after mortgaging the house to finance the venture, they sold the balls for 49 cents each from the back of a station wagon and at a local diner.
In 1954, they became an incorporated company and hired a marketing agent based in New York. Soon, they were selling the Wiffle balls on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan.
And when they struck a deal to sell the product in Woolworth stores, the rest was history.
While there were all sorts of homespun games modeled on baseball, like stickball in New York, or corkball in St. Louis, or halfball in Philadelphia, the Wiffle ball was widely embraced.
''It has become something of an icon without even really trying,'' said Richard C. Malley, curator of technology at Connecticut Historical Society. He said it fit a pattern of other toys, like the Slinky, that were born out of the technologies made during World War II and fed by the optimism of the era.
''The whole postwar era was an era of prosperity and we had all these new materials that came out of that era,'' he said. ''People looked at these new products and imagined other ways for them to be used.''
The company has only made one major advertising push, -- in the 1960's, it got Whitey Ford to endorse the product and appear in a short film about how to throw the Wiffle ball -- but it ultimately decided it was not worth the expense.
The family, which employs about a dozen people, has distribution contracts with many of the major sporting goods stores.
The price has risen only slowly. The suggested retail price for a Wiffle ball today is $1.29, about 70 cents more than it was a half-century ago.
The company has made several types of bats over the years, introducing the familiar yellow plastic version in 1959. It also makes Whiffle golf balls and flying discs.
David N. Mullany died in 1990 and David A. plans to pass the business on to his two sons, David J. and Stephen, who now work at the factory as vice presidents.
On the walls of the office, they have old newspaper clippings along with a letter of thanks from Dick Cheney, then the secretary of defense. During the first gulf war, one of the items on the top of the soldiers' wish list was Wiffle balls and bats, so the company sent them a bunch.
''It's kind of neat to know that we are a little part of American history,'' David J. Mullany said.