David A. Mullany and his 12-year-old buddies just wanted to play ball that summer in 1952, but they kept fielding trouble. Broken windows, roughed-up shingles and then the worst: A baseball sailed through the arms of a mother hanging clothes on the line and it smashed her porch light.
When even tennis balls landed them in hot water, Mullany rummaged in the garage and found some plastic practice golf balls. Finally, they could play ball in peace in his backyard in Fairfield, Conn. (pop. 57,340).
“We’d play eight hours a day,” recalls Mullany, now 64.
While the boys were no longer knocking out windows with errant baseballs, Mullany’s father discovered another problem. “Dad could see us trying to throw a curve and screwing up our arms to get that rotation.”
His father, David N. Mullany, had played for the University of Connecticut’s baseball team and even scored a job with a pharmaceutical company because his pitching arm was needed for the company ball team. He knew about sore arms and decided to try to design a plastic baseball that even the smallest boy could easily make curve and one that could be whacked in a backyard without wreaking havoc.
The resourceful Mullany rounded up some hollow plastic spheres used to wrap perfume bottles and began carving holes in them while sitting at the kitchen table. “I’d try ’em out the next day,” David A. recalls.
After about two dozen duds, one ball curved wildly when the boys threw it and it was a challenge to hit. The funny looking ball had a solid half and eight oblong holes cut in the other half. The kids wore out the homemade balls pitching curves, sinkers and risers—and the elder Mullany knew he had a winner.
At the time, Mullany needed some good news. His car-polish business had failed, but he kept it a secret. Every morning, he dressed in a suit and went to “the office,” but he was really looking for work. Mullany had already cashed in a $2,500 life insurance policy, and with some of the money, he hired a company to manufacture the perforated plastic balls.
Meanwhile, the boys had devised rules for their modified backyard baseball game, such as ghost base runners so as few as two people could play, and they even had their own slang for when the broom-handle bat swung and missed—or “whiffed”—the ball.
“We called it whiffle ball, then took out the “h” so we could save money if we needed to paint a sign for the company,” David A. says.
In 1953, the first dozen Wiffle balls were sold on consignment at a nearby business. Mullany made and sold wooden Wiffle bats the next year. Woolworth stores soon placed orders, and Wiffle balls have been sailing through backyards and thwacking garages ever since.
The inventor’s grandsons, David J., 39, and Stephen, 37, run the family business today in an unassuming brick factory in Shelton, Conn. (pop. 38,101), with 15 employees. Their father stepped down as president last year, but he still lends a hand. Grandpa Mullany died in 1990.
“This business is very personal to us,” David J. says. “I’ll run into little kids playing and guys my dad’s age who have stories about Wiffle Ball. People play it as a family.”
The Wiffle Ball design hasn’t changed one whit, but wooden bats were discontinued in 1972 and replaced with yellow plastic ones. The company sells three sizes of Wiffle Balls by the millions each year. Ball and bat sets retail for $2.99 to $4.99.
Fans such as Mike Alessie, 38, of Milford, Conn. (pop. 50,594), have never stopped playing. He directs the Wiffle Up! tour, which attracted 570 teams with tournaments in 12 cities nationwide in 2004.
“It’s America’s favorite backyard sport,” Alessie says. “It’s kind of a cult now. The ages of the guys on the teams are 23 to 35.”
David J. smiles when he hears such talk about adult teams. Of course, he and his brother still play Wiffle Ball.
“And on Saturdays, we’ll come in to get the mail and start throwing the ball around,” he confesses.
So far, they haven’t broken a single window.