Published: June 2, 1992 12:00 am
The curve ball that David A. Mullany threw 39 years ago launched his career - not as a Hall of Fame pitcher, but as co-inventor and maker of one of America's favorite backyard games, the Wiffle Ball.
Mullany, then 13, and his father, David N. Mullany, used packaging material and tape to invent the dancing plastic sphere that makes batters "whiff" - hence the name.The ball, which makes it easy for even the most rag-armed pitcher to throw a curve, slider, sinker or screwball, has provided the family with a living ever since.
"No other ball compares to the Wiffle Ball," said Mike Palinczar, president of the New Jersey Wiffle Ball Association. "With a Wiffle Ball you can make it do just about anything."
Sales of the white perforated plastic balls and yellow plastic bats continue to grow, although figures are a family secret, said David A. Mullany, now 51 and company president. His father died in 1990.
It's no longer just a kid's game. Adults have formed a World Wiffle Ball Association with official rules and a championship tournament that last year drew 35 teams to suburban Boston.
There is a simple premise behind Wiffle's success: Everyone wants to throw a curve. Even President Bush tried to snap off one last year when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Texas Rangers, but it hit the dirt.
Mullany's father was out of work in 1953 and looking for a business venture when he dreamed up the Wiffle Ball.
"My father saw me and a friend using a plastic golf ball and a broom handle to play baseball in our back yard for hours on end, and he saw that we were always trying to throw curves," Mullany said. "He knew he'd have something if he could make a ball that would curve."
A baseball pitcher throws a curve by spinning the ball. The elder Mullany, who had played baseball in college, thought if he made one half of the ball lighter than the other, it should curve.
Using tape and some perfume packaging material, the Mullanys quickly learned that the shape and configuration of the holes in the ball, not the weight, were the key to making it curve.
The Wiffle Ball was born, and the elder Mullany took out a second mortgage and started Wiffle Ball Inc.
The company has depended largely on word of mouth. It operates out of a modest, two-story brick building and employs about 20 people.
Experienced Wiffle Ball pitchers know they can make the balls dance even more by scuffing them a bit. A good Wiffle Ball pitcher can throw a 5-foot curve, a sinker that drops like lead, a screwball, a fastball, just about anything.