The Frisbee, that eminently sailable plastic disk, is moving across the sometimes-thin line that separates toys from sporting goods, leaving behind the Yo-Yo, the Pogo stick and the Bongo Board. It used to be that Frisbee was, as its package says, " America's favorite game of catch," about as competitive as two kids on a teeter-totter. That was before Guts Frisbee was invented, however, before the college kids discovered it and before the Julius T. Nachazel Memorial Trophy was introduced.
Thirteen years ago the Wham-O Manufacturing Company of San Gabriel, Calif.—the outfit guilty of distracting us with Hula Hoops and Super Balls—brought out the first Frisbee. Wham-O purchased the rights from a Los Angeles building inspector named Fred Morrison, who in turn had been inspired by the airworthy pie tins of the Frisbie bakery in Bridgeport, Conn. (which went out of business in March of 1958). He changed the spelling to avoid legal problems.
The thing figured to be a fad toy that would glide well for a year or two and then be grounded, the leftovers to be sold as dog-food dishes. Yet today it is bigger than ever and Morrison, the Father of Frisbee, is doing nicely on his royalties—more than $500,000 to date.
The name Frisbee is, of course, a registered trademark and Wham-O alertly tries to keep it capitalized (like Coke and Ping-Pong) so it won't become a generic term (like cola or table tennis). Frisbee also has a patent, No. 3,359,678, but that hasn't kept much but the "new rib design" (similar to the ridges and grooves in a phonograph record) from being copied.
As in the garment industry, any hot item in the toy and novelty business will have its imitations, called "knockoffs" in the trade. Someone strolling at the seashore this summer is liable to be dodging not only Frisbees in nine different colors and various sizes, but such knockoffs as Identified Flying Objects, Flying Saucers (at least two companies use that name), Flingers and Saucer Tossers, the latter in hot pink, lemon yellow or lime green.
"People of all ages love it," said one knockoffer. "It's a staple in our line, a great summer item."
Wham-O won't reveal any sales figures for Frisbees except to say more of them have been sold in the last two years than in the previous 10. The Cosum Corporation in Minneapolis claims yearly sales of 300,000 to 500,000 Flying Saucers, and a spokesman for Continental Promotions, Inc., also in Minneapolis, says his company already has sold two million Saucer Tossers in 1970.
But it is the Frisbee—Pro Model, Mini, Regular, Moonlighter ("for sailing under the stars") and Master—that has the big share of the market, plus its own official historian, its own international association and its own game, Guts Frisbee, the highlight of the annual International Frisbee Tournament.
The tournament is usually staged at Eagle Harbor, on a Michigan peninsula that juts into Lake Superior, and most of the teams come from nearby towns: Laurium, Hancock, Copper Harbor, Houghton and Calumet. It is copper country, but there isn't much mining going on and the area is depressed economically. The place needs a little fun to perk things up, like a weekend of beer, bratwurst and Frisbee. The 1970 tournament was staged recently on a high school football field in Calumet and drew the local Frisbee fanatics, plus platoons of eager participants from as far away as Massachusetts and California.
One who came on a return visit with his three sons was Frisbee's official historian. Dr. Stancil Johnson, a longhaired, prematurely gray psychiatrist from Sacramento. He not only is at work on a scholarly book about Frisbee, but he is acknowledged to have the most wicked forehand throw in the game, hard to control and even harder to catch (most players throw backhand). Dr. Johnson became a Frisbee freak when he was doing his residency in Iowa. "There's something naturally beautiful the first time you see a Frisbee fly," he says.