Wiffle ball entered popular culture 58 years ago this year, in the summer of 1953, when David N. Mullaney of Shelton conceived of the game for his son.
A wiffle ball is about the size of a regular baseball but is made of two hemispheres of molded plastic, with one of the hemispheres having eight holes, each of which are about ¾ of an inch. The holes are key, as the air that circulates within the ball causes it to curve, drop, rise, or dance, depending on atmospheric conditions, temperature, speed, and delivery by the thrower.
Mullaney’s 12-year-old son (who is now 70) and his buddies gave the ball its name, as its unpredictable movement often caused them to "whiff"—baseball slang for striking out. One of the great appeals of wiffle ball is that it’s a great equalizer: a 30-year old can compete against a 13 year old, often with no discernible advantage.
The wiffle ball plant in Shelton, CT is still very much alive, employing about 20 people to make the famous yellow bat and hole-filled balls. David Mullaney died in 1990, but his son and two grandsons still run the company. The game remains extremely popular with both young and old. In fact, adult wiffle ball leagues and tournaments abound these days.
One of the most famous exists in the backyard of Rick Ferroli in Hanover, MA. Rick has turned his backyard into a mini-version of Fenway Park. His facility draws a crowd. The "Green Monster" in left field is 66 feet away from home, with a 14-foot wall topped by a 3-foot screen. Centerfield is 100 feet away, and right field is 85 feet away. The field is replete with light towers and an electronic scoreboard. Rick formed the World Wiffle Ball Association and has hosted numerous tournaments there until recently.
Where Rick Ferroli has left off with hosting wiffle ball tournaments, Pat O’Connor has picked up the slack. O’Connor, a 56-year old IBM businessman, has built not only a replica of Fenway Park in his backyard in Essex, VT, but also a replica of Wrigley Field and has been hosting tournaments there since 2002. The Fenway replica field even includes a Citgo sign in left field. (The story of the field’s construction is detailed in a book entitled Little Fenway.) The best-known tournament hosted there is the Travis Roy Tournament, which began last Friday and ended on Sunday, August 15.
Travis Roy was a gifted hockey player from Yarmouth, Maine, who played for Boston University. Unfortunately, during his first-ever shift on the ice for BU, Roy suffered a catastrophic spinal injury in 1995, which has left him a quadriplegic. This is the 10th year for the Travis Roy Tournament. A graph at the Roy website shows the meteoric rise in fundraising from the tournament from the $20,000 range in 2002 to nearly $400,000 last year. More than $1 million has been raised from the tournament over the years to go to spinal cord research. A celebrity game kicked off the proceedings Friday night. Among the celebrities present were Bill "Spaceman" Lee of the Red Sox and David Mullaney, the grandson of the inventor of wiffle ball from Shelton, CT.
All youngsters playing wiffle ball in the backyard at one time or another imagined themselves to be in their favorite major league team’s stadium. Now that fantasy can be realized for New Englanders. Replica stadiums have sprung up in the region both in Massachusetts and in Vermont, enabling adults to extend their youth, while at the same time funding worthwhile charities.
Notes, Sources, and Links:
- The New England Wiffle Association has 56 teams registered for play on their website; 12 are from Connecticut.
- To tour "Little Fenway," click on this link: http://littlefenway.com/fenway/home#
- To watch a game of wiffle ball in one of the stadiums, click this youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_DSTzZFZKw
4. "Big Whiffer" by David Nevard (1996)
5. NY Times August 23, 1989