Baseball Books Reviewed: Wiffle Ball: The Ultimate Guide

Wiffle Ball: The Ultimate Guide by Michael Hermann (Triumph Books, 150 pg. $12.95). PB, 2010.

Of all the major team sports baseball is the one which has engendered the most variations upon a theme in terms of playing the game. Far from requiring nine to a side, kids, by themselves or in the smallest of groups, have found innumerable ways to replicate the baseball playing experience, often using something other than a baseball to do so. Corks, rocks, bottle caps, golf balls, tennis balls, rubber balls, and even rubber balls sawed in half (among others) have all served as substitutes for actual baseballs, but the king of all baseball substitutes is a specially-made plastic ball, known as the Wiffle ball. This quintessential American invention has reigned over impromptu bat (or stick) and ball games in our country’s backyards and school parking lots for more than a half century, yet its story has never been told in book form until now, in Wiffle Ball: The Ultimate Guide by Michael Hermann.

The origins of the Wiffle ball are simple, family-oriented, and as naturally American as corn flakes. As Hermann reveals in Chapter 2, “History,” the toy was invented out of opportunity and necessity. In the summer of 1953 in Fairfield, Connecticut, David N. Mullany, an out-of-work, failed auto-polish entrepreneur, noticed his son, David A. Mullany, and his friends constantly playing a bat & ball game with miniature plastic golf balls. Try as they might the boys were unable to get the small balls to curve, and Mr. Mullany, a former pitcher for the University of Connecticut, had the epiphany that making a plastic ball that would curve on its own was the key to creating a new recreational sensation and perhaps, finally, a successful family business. Mullany and son then spent the next three days making and experimenting on larger plastic balls, until they hit on the secret which has made the Wiffle ball what it is today: carefully sized-and-placed holes in the top half of the ball only. “The rest, as they say,” is sketched out by Hermann in the remainder of Chapter 2, including a reproduction of the complete 60-point patent application filed by the Mullanys in 1957 and a photographic series illustrating the process involved in the production of the Wiffle ball today.

The main reason the Wiffle ball story has remained untold until now is the low-key approach of the Mullany family -the third generation now runs the company- towards advertising and promotion. In the early years, the family arranged for the endorsements of a few major league players, such as Whitey Ford, Eddie Matthews, Jackie Jensen, and Ted Williams, and at one point the panels of the Wiffle ball box came adorned with logo-air brushed-out photos of various major league players; but eventually, the Mullanys decided, correctly, that the toy had insinuated itself into the everyday fabric of American life to an extent that the toy would basically sell itself. It is a common lament in our time that American children no longer play unsupervised outdoors, that all the electronic games and gadgets available to them have turned them into sedentary, softened wimps and robbed them of the best parts of an old-fashioned, rough-and-tumble, self-actuating childhood. While this is true to a sadly large extent, it is also true that the Wiffle ball remains one of the old standbys capable of rousing the typical kid out of his electronic stupor.

Wiffle Ball: The Ultimate Guide is published in a handbook format, which is most appropriate, as it can and will no doubt from now on serve as a back pocket and backpack reference for devotees. And make no mistake about it: there are plenty of them in all parts of the country. According to Hermann, there are at least 50,000 Wiffle ballers who participate in organized leagues. There is even money to be made by the very best players who win the purses of national championships … as much as $10,000 a pot. In Chapter 4, “Leagues,” Hermann covers all this, adding profiles of the pioneers in league organization as well as profiles of superstar players. An Appendix lists a state-by-state League Directory with contact information.

The book also includes “How To” and “Science” chapters: the former, a manual on how to throw the entire gamut of pitches, including a real “riser” which in baseball is an optical illusion; the latter, a short treatise on the principals of physics which cause the Wiffle ball to act as it does, including the Bernoulli Principle and the Magnus Effect. My favorite though is the chapter on some of the best dedicated playing fields that Wiffle ball fanatics have constructed to serve their passion, including miniature to-scale versions of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field build by Pat O’Connor in Jericho, Vermont. They’re fantastic! Cute cartoons, fetching artwork, numerous photos, and celebrity testimonials (the best one by George “Gar” Ryness, “The Batting Stance Guy”) round out this little book, which will satisfy most readers as thoroughly as a harmless line-drive Wiffle ball triple off the windshield of Dad’s car.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (May 12, 2010)