How it all began:
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 Mullany's 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.
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 Mallany's, 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 Mallany's 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.
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Information from: http://www.bostonbaseball.com/whitesox/baseball_extras/whif.html