By Jeannine Henderson-Shifflett
When Fairfield resident David N. Mullany created the concept for the Wiffle Ball, he didn’t know his invention would change the way children across the United States played backyard baseball. Light and easy to throw, the Wiffle Ball allowed American children to play baseball without worrying about the risk of injury or destruction of property. The popularity of Wiffle Ball has only increased since its introduction in 1953. The Wiffle Ball factory and headquarters in Shelton reports that its workers manufacture more than a million balls each year.
Child’s Play Inspires Game Changer
The spark of inspiration for the Wiffle Ball came when Mullany watched his son and a friend playing baseball in the backyard. As the boys practiced their curve balls, they used a perforated golf ball instead of a baseball, and Mullany, a former semi-professional pitcher, worried that repetitive motion and the particular arm dynamics involved in curving a pitch might cause his son permanent injury. Mullany also realized that every baseball player wanted to throw the perfect curve ball. By creating a ball that could be thrown repeatedly and curve, he thought he would have a popular product.
Out of work because his auto polishing business had folded, Mullany re-embraced his entrepreneurial spirit. He used a mold from the Colt Firearms Factory, which produced not only guns but also packaging materials that included a plastic ball gift box for the perfume manufacturer Coty. A friend of Mullany’s worked at Colt and gave him the samples. Once Mullany had the mold, he set to work creating a ball that would be lightweight and curve easily. After many attempts, only one seemed to work consistently: a ball with a solid bottom and eight oblong holes at the top. Mullany’s son named the ball Wiffle, explaining that when a player swung and struck out it was a “wiff”—thus the name.
Toy Wins Fan Following among Adults, Too
Mullany patented the Wiffle Ball, secured loans and took a second mortgage on his home so that he could begin manufacturing and marketing his product. He displayed his first batch of Wiffle Balls in a diner in Woodbridge, and they sold out within a few weeks. Buoyed by this success, Mullany contacted a toy company representative who agreed to take on the Wiffle Ball with the guarantee of exclusive rights to the US line.
Wiffle is not only a ball; it is also a game with rules and tournaments. Devised by Mullany’s son, who based the rules on those he used as a child, the rules of Wiffle Ball have remained constant since 1953 and stipulate the minimum and maximum number of players, the positions, the batting order, how a player is tagged out, and how a player can score.
As a result, adults have joined the fun. In 2001 the United States Perforated Plastic Baseball Association formed. The group has a governing body that publishes rules, authorizes bi-coastal tournaments, and organizes post-season playoffs that culminate in a championship game. The game of Wiffle Ball has reached an international level with countries as far away as Spain participating.
Founder Mullany died in 1991 and left the company to his son David A. Mullany. It remains a family-owned company.
Jeannine Henderson-Shifflett, whose work includes curating several exhibits at the New Britain Youth Museum and researching and writing a walking tour for Connecticut Landmarks, holds a graduate degree in Public History from Central Connecticut State University.