Nineteen fifty-three was a seminal year in world history. Biologists discovered the double helix of DNA. Sir Edmund Hillary reached the top of Everest. Dr. Jonas Salk perfected the polio vaccine. And in a suburban backyard in Fairfield, Conn., a bunch of kids played the first game of Wiffle Ball.
All right, so maybe a kids’ game doesn’t quite rank with those feats—but still, in the traditions of leisure, in the annals of Americana, it’s hard to find a game as accessible, universal and enduring as Wiffle Ball.
Consider: While the company does not release sales statistics, millions—likely tens of millions—of Wiffle balls are sitting in American homes at this moment. The U.S. boasts over 40 Wiffle Ball leagues. There is a Wiffle Ball World Series and Fantasy Wiffle Ball, too. Bill Murray has played Wiffle Ball to raise money for charity. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban played Wiffle Ball inside his Dallas mansion. The bankers at Goldman Sachs play Wiffle Ball. Baseball legends like Derek Jeter have played the plastic ball, too, and retired Yankee Scott Brosius has said: “I can’t imagine a kid not growing up playing Wiffle Ball.”
Which is to say that you, dear reader, have probably played Wiffle Ball, too.
That Wiffle Ball is not only a legendary game, but among the most successful brands in history, is to the credit of one David Mullany, a man who, at the start of the Wiffle story, was at a low ebb in his life.
In the summer of 1953, facing the failure of his car-wax business, Mullany was supporting his family with money from a cashed-in life insurance policy. “I don’t think my grandmother was aware of the fact that he was out of a job,” his grandson Stephen Mullany recalled. So it was that, trudging home one evening, David Mullany saw his son (also named David) in the backyard, trying to throw curve balls with a practice golf ball made of plastic.
Baseballs had always been a lot to handle for little kids, Mullany knew (he’d pitched in the industrial leagues himself)—but coaxing a curve from a tiny plastic ball was trouble. “You’re going to hurt your arm doing that,” Mullany told his son.
So Mullany set to work coming up with an alternative, a baseball-size ball that would be substantial enough to pitch with, but lightweight enough that it wouldn’t break windows. He found his solution in a spherical plastic container that cosmetics brand Coty had used as packaging for its perfumes. Mullany cut incisions of various sizes and configurations until finally settling on eight oblong holes arranged symmetrically on one hemisphere of the ball. This is the model that passed muster in the backyard—not least because its curious aerodynamic properties make it easy for anyone to throw a curve ball—and it’s the ball that Wiffle makes to this day out of low-density polyethylene, .06 of an inch thick.
The Mullanys patented their ball and, following a few lean years of doorstep selling (price: 39 cents), managed to interest Woolworth in stocking them. The rest took care of itself—and has ever since. Wiffle does not advertise, license or bother with product placement. It still makes all of its balls in a two-story brick building in Shelton, Conn.
These days, a Wiffle Ball and bat set goes for about eight bucks, the exception being the shipments that Stephen Mullany sends to American troops deployed overseas. He recalls getting a letter from one soldier telling him that, back home, Wiffle Ball games had to stop when it rained, but in Iraq “it stops because of mortar rounds.”
With the notable exception of dropping bombs, then, nothing else has stopped Americans from playing Wiffle Ball.