As a lifelong baseball fan, I always looked forward to this time of year. Sure, the weather reports might have mentioned ice and snow, but I knew that down South, baseball teams were getting ready to …
As a lifelong baseball fan, I always looked forward to this time of year. Sure, the weather reports might have mentioned ice and snow, but I knew that down South, baseball teams were getting ready to open their spring training camps. First to report were pitchers and catchers. A few days later the rest of the team arrived to prepare for the opening day of the baseball season.
But this year, due to an ongoing lockout by the owners and the failure to get a contract acceptable by both sides, spring training might be in jeopardy along with the previously scheduled opening day.
Growing up, when baseball season was approaching, my friends in the neighborhood broke out our bats, balls and mitts to play. It was the “National Pastime” and our rite of spring. When we did not have enough kids to field a team a few of us resorted to an alternate way to play baseball. We replaced wooden bats and hard baseballs, with plastic substitutes. We played Wiffle Ball.
All you needed to play was a plastic Wiffle Ball and bat, a pitcher and a batter. Soon you realized the game was better if you drew a square “strike zone” on a wall behind the batter. Without fielders, you had to designate distances to determine single, doubles, triples and home runs. That was the easy part. The hard part was learning to actually hit the ball.
The plastic Wiffle Ball design included eight oblong cut outs that made it possible to throw curveballs, knuckleballs and even fastballs depending on how the pitcher held and threw the ball. It took a lot of hand-eye coordination for the batter to hit the Wiffle Ball. That is where the product got its name. In baseball terminology a strikeout is known as a “whiff.”
I always wondered why the game and product were not known as Whiffle Ball. What happened to the “H?” Little did I know as a young teenager that someday I would get my answer directly from Dave Mullany, whose father invented the Wiffle Ball.
Many years later, I met a friend name Nick who also played Wiffle Ball as a kid. We got to talking and decided to create the “National Wiffle Ball Tournament.” We wrote a rulebook and even created a cardboard mockup of what the playing field would look like. But we knew we had to get permission from the Wiffle Ball company in Shelton, Connecticut.
We contacted the owner, Dave Mullany, whose father invented the product. A week later, we met with him and got a tour of the factory. We also got an earful of history. His father had worked for a perfume company. He was tired of having to replace the windows in their house caused by the boys hitting hard baseballs through the glass. So, he began carving holes into the round baseball-size plastic containers that had held byproducts of perfume. Soon he perfected the Wiffle Ball. Dave told us the “H” was removed from whiffle, to “save money on company signs.” Of course, he said that with a wry smile so who knows if that was true.
He loved our idea of a tournament and that led to meetings with his lawyers and eventually a contract. To gain attention and with a signed contract, I was able to persuade the NY Yankees to allow us access to Yankee Stadium to film and interview players before a game with the Baltimore Orioles. I interviewed Don Mattingly during batting practice who told me his Wiffle Ball experiences as a grade schooler. He learned to pull the ball for a homerun because his backyard had a huge pine tree in center field. I interviewed the Ripken brothers, Cal and Billy, who also told me about growing up with Wiffle Ball. But we had trouble finding corporate sponsors. So, after many attempts we “whiffed” and pulled the plug.
Wiffle Ball is as American as apple pie and baseball. So, if the impasse with owners and players continues, get yourself a patented Wiffle Ball and bat. Gather a few friends and enjoy the opportunity to relive your childhood. As an umpire might say, “Play Wiffle Ball!”
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