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Jim wrote this at the end of his sportswriting career, marrying a miserable spring with the history of the Wiffle ball.

White plastic ball can even strike out bad weather

April 23, 1993

Here in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, spring has again been a mirage.

"Oh, crikeys," frustrated baseball coaches have been heard to utter as they peered out the window at sky that looked like a wet sidewalk.

Their players stuff down parkas into lockers and sit before these coaches in time-share gymnasiums, wide-eyed and hopeful for variety in the endless practice sessions.

"Get some Wiffle balls. That will teach the boys to hit the curve ball," an extremely creative mind suggested to a coach one day as the forecast for snow hung overhead like a bad debt.

unofficial wiffle ball bat

During the 1960s, this proved to be the ideal bat to hit a Wiffle ball.

The white, hollow plastic Wiffle ball is, of course, the ideal indoor practice choice. It does no damage to something so fragile as nose cartilage, and if you can throw you can make the thing curve. Eight evenly spaced, oblong holes on one side of the ball guarantee that.

And it's one heckuva American thing to do. This summer the Wiffle ball celebrates its 40th anniversary in delightfully affordable style.

"When my grandfather first started selling them they were 49 cents," says David J. Mullany from a humble building in Shelton, Conn. "The suggested list price on one today is 89 cents for the baseball size."

With inflation, isn't the ball actually cheaper today than it was in 1953?

"We make sure we pay real close attention to what we're doing," explains Mullany, 27. He's the third generation of his family to produce what is certainly an American staple of entertainment. "We don't have a lot of defective product, and we do no advertising."

Unemployed after failed business
It was a few years after World War II when Mullany's grandfather, David N. Mullany, quit his job with McKesson-Robbins, a pharmaceutical company. He started an auto polish business. When it failed, 40ish David I found himself unemployed and with a family. That was a bad scenario for a middle-aged man in the 1950s, when there was one paycheck per family.

During mornings when David I had trudged off to that pharmaceutical job, it seemed that a neighbor and his son were often in the yard with a broomstick and a golf ball. The neighbor's lawn didn't get mowed, the garbage didn't get dumped and the dog didn't get fed.

Now unemployed, he recalled that scene and sat down to carve on plastic balls. The design he preferred had eight oblong holes on half the globe. He promptly took out a second mortgage on his home and began selling balls.

"It was regional at first," David III recalls. "It was slow and steady growth."

Kids loved the product. David II called the game his friends played with the ball "whiff," because that's what you do when you miss, and you can miss a lot against the Wiffle ball.

David II is now 53 and president of the company. David III and brother Stephen, 26, also work there. They do "a little bit of everything."

One word: Plastics
Amazing. Small, white pieces of plastic sold cheaply have fed three generations of the Mullany family, and 20 current employees. Even technology hasn't made the product obsolete.

David III explains that Nintendo, television and arcade games can't monopolize every child's attention.

"There's only so long you can sit in front of a TV screen," David III says. "Not every kid will play ball, but there are plenty. We get notes from them every year. They like the ball because they aren't afraid to stay in the batter's box. They aren't afraid to get hit by it. Our sales prove that it's not an obsolete product."

There are cheap imitations in a quality sense, but the Wiffle ball is the most durable. So durable that it seems as though you could only sell one to a family.

"We want to produce the best plastic ball available," David III says. "But the dog chews it. They get lost. We believe at 89 cents, mom isn't going to say 'no' if a kid asks for a new ball.

"Maybe we could get more for them, but we still feel that most of our customers are young kids, and we like to make it an affordable product for them. We don't look for huge gains, just a profit."

It gets cold and wet this time of year in New England, too. Most of the product has been shipped for the summer, so there's a little floor space in the warehouse.

"Our busiest time of year is starting to come to an end," David III is saying. "Before the baseball season gets going, the weather here is pretty lousy. We have a little extra room indoors, so here at the plant we like to get in a little practice time."

Let it rain.

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