A celebration of the humble Wiffle Ball
Author JOE KEOHANE
IT WAS A CROWNING achievement in a life perhaps not altogether rich with athletic triumph. I stood on the mound—well, the tar spot on the parking lot that served as our mound—facing down my adversary, Flynny. The close game had built to this moment, the two of us having, for several hours, polluted the sultry neighborhood air with trash talk and profanity, and I had pulled ahead with a long home run in the last inning. This was sudden death now. By our rules, each batter got two strikes or six balls. Flynny had two outs and a strike against him. I reared back and submarined a screwball that hissed as it skimmed a hair’s breadth above the asphalt before suddenly cutting up and in. Flynny swung and missed, which would have been enough for me, but the evil deuce had a mind of its own; it kept cutting and rising, and before Flynny finished his swing, it hit him square in the face. In my memory the resulting smack was so loud it flushed pigeons from nearby rain gutters; the part of his face that wasn’t glowing red from the pitch was darkened with shame. I was 16 and it remains the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.
It’s almost impossible to articulate the significance of Wiffle Ball in my young life. I’m not alone. Since the ball debuted more than 50 years ago, its fans have been legion. There are leagues around the country, some playing in scale replicas of pro fields like Fenway Park, full of fanatics endlessly jawing about the finer points of grips, arcane rules and pitch placement, chattering against that distinctive hiss and snap of plastic ball and bat. The game owes its existence to one David N. Mullany, a Connecticut businessman (and skilled lefty curveballer) who invented the ball in the ’50s after his children, run off of the local fields by older kids, started playing in the yard with a tennis ball, wreaking havoc on the nearby houses. After unsuccessfully trying to get the kids to play with plastic golf balls, Mullany, then out of work and struggling financially, called a friend who manufactured bottles of perfume that were packaged in plastic orbs similar to pantyhose eggs. He took some of those and cut holes in one side so they’d curve. They worked well enough that in 1954 he decided to patent the design for a plastic ball in which several holes are “grouped in one portion of the ball surface to cause the wind-resisting characteristics of the surface of the ball to vary unsymmetrically, whereby the ball, when spinning in flight, will follow a curved path,” according to the patent, which was granted in 1957. A “curved path” is a gross understatement. One can accomplish feats with a well-scuffed ball that make Phillies ace Cliff Lee look like he’s throwing cantaloupes.
The opportunity to throw such dazzling junk made up much of the appeal of the game for us. When I was growing up, Wiffle Ball occupied probably two-thirds of my nonschool, nonwork waking hours. In the summer, we would play from morning to night in various parking lots in the Boston area using folding chairs and, as we got better, single metal fence posts, for strike zones. We seldom kept track of innings. We’d just play until it got hard to see the ball or our arms were about to fall off, then we’d cap it. Those games were epic. Laissez-faire open-endedness notwithstanding, they got heated. Bats were occasionally thrown, names called, mounds charged. Our pride was all bound up in the game. I have a very vivid memory of riding my bike to one of our venues with a good friend at the time, Robbie. We were about 12. I had beaten him badly the day before, and as we rode in the cool morning air, I reminded him of this fact at great length and volume. He listened quietly for a while, then, as we turned to speed down a hill toward the parking lot, he jammed his Wiffle bat into my spokes, catapulting me off my bike and very nearly into traffic. I can’t remember who won that day’s game, though I figure that means I lost and repressed all memory of what was no doubt at least 24 subsequent hours of intense ragging. Not that that stopped us. A couple of years later, the two of us nearly missed our Catholic confirmation because of a close game that ran long. I remember our being annoyed at the senselessness of being compelled to end that game in a tie.
Good as those years were, they were not without turmoil. Just when my perpetual dominance of the neighborhood seemed assured, my brother’s friend devised an unhittable pitch dubbed simply “the Nasty”—a high, fast, hissing, sinking curve that would cross the plate a foot over your head and still land right in the strike chair, or ping off the post. The Nasty seemed to bend space and time, and it ushered in a sort of Dark Age for all of us: day upon day of grueling 0-0 ties; whole weeks spent waiting for fat, hanging curves that would arrive with the frequency of comets. Still, we doggedly played on, like those under an unending wintertime siege or summer drought, faithful that if we just held out, this too would pass.
I don’t get to play more than once or twice a year these days, which I regret. But I recently dropped by the modest headquarters of Wiffle Ball Inc. in Shelton, Conn., located on a gritty strip of car dealerships and strip malls outside of Bridgeport, to chat with the inventor’s amiable grandson, Dave Mullany. He runs the company with his brother, his father and about a dozen employees. (The Mullanys all have Wiffle-themed license plates.) He gave me a tour of the facility, which is really an office space with a few desks on one side and a factory floor with a bunch of boxes and a handful of people working machines on the other. We talked about his family history, tossed a new ball around on the factory floor (Dave snaps a nice knuckler) and traded tips on extracting maximal enjoyment from the game, such as never, under any circumstances, running bases.
Standing by the injection molders that churn out millions of balls annually, with the smell of hot plastic in the air, Mullany handed me a fresh one. It was warm and a bit so , practically glowing white, as if it had been left out in the sun on a summer day waiting for game time. Holding it, I thought of how much we used to get out of these things. It made me think about finding a game. It made me think maybe I should call up a certain old friend and see if that screwball still works. If he’s smart he’ll bring a goalie mask.
Executive editor JOE KEOHANE hopes his dead arm comes back to life in time for the annual Fourth of July game.