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Neither New nor Improved
Franz Lidz
July 28, 1997
Behold the Wiffle ball, still dipping and diving 43 years after its modest debut
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July 28, 1997

Neither New Nor Improved

Behold the Wiffle ball, still dipping and diving 43 years after its modest debut

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A Wiffle ball will not dent a duck. Or a chicken. Or, for that matter, a turkey. I know this because my daughters play Wiffle ball in our barnyard. Farm rules dictate that braining a turkey with a batted Wiffle ball is an automatic out. A chicken is two outs. And a duck retires the side. We've had lots of fowl balls around the poultry pen, but, so far, not one dead duck.

This property of benignity accounts for much of the Wiffle ball's appeal. "Will not damage property, hurt bystanders or players," boasted the box holding the original Wiffle ball in 1954. Four decades later the box crows, "Bat It! Bounce It! Safe Anywhere!"

"However," says David A. Mullany, 56, "in today's litigious society, one never knows." He ought to know. He's the guy for whom the Wiffle ball was invented. He even took the first whiff.

Mullany was 13 when his old man, David N., gave birth to the Wiffle ball in Fairfield, Conn. Bullied off the local diamonds, the boy had to play ball in the unfriendly confines of his backyard. He and his buddies would swat at plastic golf balls with a sawed-off broomstick. "Those balls were hard to pitch," David A. recalls. "I'd snap my wrist to get rotation, and by the end of the day my arm would be like jelly."

One night young David A. told his father that his arm was breaking off from throwing golf ball scroogies. David N., a former semipro pitcher, was almost broke himself. His car-polish company had lost its luster and had gone into bankruptcy. In need of a new career, he decided to fashion a perforated ball that would behave somewhat like the real thing.

Mullany the Elder razored designs into some plastic moldings made to hold perfume bottles. Round and hollow, the casings were slightly smaller than baseballs. Mullany the Younger tested each prototype in the backyard. Most were duds. But kitchen-table tinkering produced a ball with a solid bottom half and eight elongated holes on the top half. The ball swooped like a barn swallow and didn't strain young Mullany's arm. So old Mullany took out a second mortgage on his house and filed for U.S. patent 2,776,139: the Wiffle ball. The march of progress is irrepressible.

Calling the ball Wiffle had been David A.'s idea. "You swung and missed so much," he says, "it just seemed logical." Every bit as logical as dropping the 'h' in whiffle. "I came up with that, too," says Mullany. "I told my dad it would be cheaper to make signs with fewer letters."

Wiffle Ball Inc. is a cozy little operation. David A. ascended to the presidency several years before his father's death in 1990. His two sons, David J., 31, and Steve, 30, are the firm's vice presidents. The family's marketing strategy is minimalist: Advertising and promotion are disdained; player endorsements taboo. "Today's ballplayers demand too much money," Mullany says. "We're trying to keep our balls affordable." The first Wiffle ball retailed for 49 cents; over 43 years, the same model has "inflated" to a suggested retail price of $1.20. A Wiffle bat and ball sell for $9.99.

For 38 years the Mullanys have stamped out plastic balls in a modest two-story brick building in Shelton, some 20 miles from Fairfield. An injection-molding machine coughs up Wiffle ball halves with a consumptive wheeze. Another machine seals them together. Balls—in junior, baseball and softball sizes—roll out several at a time, every two or three seconds.

With its roundhouse curves and cutouts, the Wiffle ball has been called the most unaerodynamic projectile ever conceived. "Maybe it is," Mullany says with a shrug. "Personally, I have no idea why a Wiffle ball whiffles."

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