This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.Article Published August 19, 2019
Summer is a great time to get together with friends and family for cookouts and other activities, and one ubiquitous presence in Connecticut backyards is Wiffle ball. The iconic yellow bat and ball with strategically placed holes that cause it to move wildly are a favorite among children and adults alike. Wiffle ball is recognized all across the nation, but the plastic pairing has humble beginnings in our very own Nutmeg State.
While many people have played Wiffle ball in a casual game, some on the shoreline are trying to take that competition to another level. Wiffle ball leagues continue to crop up for athletes and enthusiasts alike.
A Bit of History
The story of the Wiffle ball began in Fairfield in 1953, when David N. Mullany was looking for a solution for his son, David A. Mullany, to play baseball in the backyard with his friends. Starting with a plastic golf ball and a broom handle for a bat, the young Mullany and his compatriots were able to play without risking damage the house’s windows or aluminum siding. Unfortunately, after a day of trying to throw breaking pitches, the children’s arms were pretty sore.
To help with that problem, the elder Mullany called in a favor from a friend in the perfume industry, who helped obtain plastic spheres that easily split in half to house bottles of perfume inside. The Mullanys cut plastic holes in separate halves and pieced the hemispheres together in various combinations. Testing out the different iterations, it soon became evident that a ball constructed with eight oval-like holes on one side was the best version. It was simple enough to throw balls that would break in the pitcher’s intended direction. When the ball became a hit in the neighborhood, Mullany decided to go all-in on Wiffle ball, as the kids had dubbed it, after all the whiffs it induced from hitters.
A Plethora of Playing Fields and Rules
Wiffle ball has the advantage of being able to be played in nearly any area. Backyards big and small with all sorts of obstacles can provide a great venue for a classic game. Teams can range in size, and the rules can be adjusted accordingly. Home run derby was a favorite for the current Wiffle Ball, Inc., president David J. Mullany and his brother Steve Mullany, who also works at the Wiffle Ball Headquarters in Shelton. The grandsons of the Wiffle ball’s inventor engaged with the ball just the same as countless other children.
“When my brother Steve and I played, it was just home run derby. A clothesline stretched across the backyard and that was the home-run fence. There was a five-inch gap between the clothesline and, if you hit it between there, it was a grand slam,” Mullany said. “You can always design a field space to suit the style of play you want and the number of players you want. The game fits the environment. Every neighborhood, every backyard plays a little differently.”
People who are looking to play a version that resembles a baseball game can involve a constructed or makeshift strike zone, along with different rules on what constitutes a base hit and what to do about base runners. Wiffle ball teams vary in size, ranging from just one player to a more traditional baseball style lineup. Generally, though, Wiffle ball is played with somewhere around three players on a team, such as in the Clinton Wiffle Ball League that was started by town residents Brady Fritz and Tyler Greenhouse this summer.
Though the league has humble beginnings, Fritz can see a more formalized league taking shape in the future.
“We started at the beginning of the summer playing a few times a week. Right now, we’ve got six three-person teams. All kids from Clinton,” Fritz said. “I think next year we’re going to get team names and make T-shirts and make it a bigger thing.”
The Clinton Wiffle Ball League hosts most of its games at the softball field at The Morgan School. Teams primarily play on the grass surface and have used some ingenuity to construct the strike zone.
“We constructed a wooden strike zone, and we set up on the outfield grass,” said Fritz. “We like to be close enough to fence so that when we hit one out, it’s a little bit more satisfying. We usually put the strike zone about eight- to 10 feet from the infield. Then we mark the field with cones or sometimes rubber bases. The pitcher’s mound is 40 feet away.”
On defense, a team features two fielders and a pitcher. Base hits are determined by a rule known as pitcher’s poison, meaning that there is a bit more running involved for the batter than in a home run derby like the Mullany brothers played. Any ball caught in the air is an out, but a batter can outrun a play for a base hit. If a batter gets aboard, base runners are kept track of with ghost runners. A ghost runner advances when another batter reaches base, but those ghosts are still susceptible to double plays.
“We run and play pitcher’s poison. So, the batter has to reach first base before a fielder throws to the pitcher,” Fritz said. “If a runner reaches, we have a ghost on base. We also play the fielder gets the lead runner if the pitcher gets the throw, and the pitcher can tag the runner out or throw and hit the strike zone for a double play.”
Some variations of these rules include a scenario in which any ball that gets by the pitcher and stops moving before it’s fielded counts as a base hit. Sometimes, fields will have lines to delineate how far a batter must hit a ball for a double or triple.
In many informal games, a lawn chair is often used to dictate the strike zone. The specifics of the rules aren’t quite as important as getting all parties to agree on how they want to play the game, whether that be in a league or a casual pickup game. However, quite often, kids just want to swing for the fences. Madison resident Chris Hartmann sees a lot of kids going deep while working camp counselor at the Surf Club.
“I work down here at the summer camp, and we play once or twice a week. Certain kids will want to play, and I’ll pitch to them in a home run derby or see who can hit it the farthest. It keeps them busy for a little bit,” Hartmann said. “I played baseball through high school at Hand. It’s kind of similar, but you need different skill sets to play each because of the weight of the ball and the bat.”
A Wiffle ball can dance in the hands of a skilled pitcher. Depending on how quickly the pitcher can get the ball to spin, a ball can break from four- to five feet. The iconic holes in the ball make it take some wicked turns, and that’s one of its major selling points.
With decades of refinement, pitchers have really started to exploit that advantage. Ben Fiore, the co-founder of the Connecticut Wiffle Ball League, is a student of Wiffle pitching.
“I like to throw balls that drop, that slide, and rise. I learned a lot just by watching different Wiffle ball players,” Fiore said. “The sport is all over the country, and there are plenty of people showing how to throw online, and that’s how I learned. There are guys out there who can throw a Wiffle ball 75- to 80 miles per hour and hit that strike zone with a lot of movement.”
In the Clinton Wiffle Ball League, there is an innings limit for each player on a team to help even the playing field a bit. One dominant pitcher can throw off the competitive balance of the league, according to Fritz.
“There are things you can do with a Wiffle ball that a baseball just can’t do. Our rule is that you can pitch seven innings every three games that you play. We had to do that just in case you have a dominant pitcher,” Fritz said. “I throw with a bunch of movement. I throw the riser, but my strikeout pitch is the drop. It’s like a fast 12-to-6 curveball and, when I can spot it, it’s basically unhittable. Then there’s my teammate Garrett Garbinski. He just throws super hard, and a lot of people have a hard time touching him.”
It can be difficult to get any organized sport off the ground and running. Fiore saw that firsthand this summer during the Connecticut Wiffle Ball League’s inaugural season. Fiore played informally with his friends for years, but wanted to develop a higher level of competition. Fiore started to put together his own league with the help of his Xavier classmate Alex Inglis.
“I started to play Wiffle ball with a few kids in the neighborhood. We used to play with a plastic Wiffle ball and shaved down hockey sticks,” Fiore said. “We were looking at Wiffle Ball videos online, and I didn’t know Wiffle ball could get so professional. There were leagues that had full-on jerseys, and they were doing interviews. I wondered if we could take our own thing and do something like that.”
Many of its participants had other obligations like American Legion and AAU baseball, causing some scheduling difficulties. The league ran a draft and set teams, but eventually had to cancel the regular season.
“We ran a draft once we downsized to about 25 guys in early April. As much as we all wanted to play, once summer baseball started, availability was extremely limited,” said Fiore. “It was unfortunate, but we’re doing tournaments with the teams that we selected instead. We get to play a bunch of games and get the feel of it to see how next season might go.”
On Saturday, Aug. 24 and Sunday, Aug. 25, the Connecticut Wiffle Ball League will hold its first of these tournaments called The Backyard Wars at Ridge Road School in North Haven. For info on the league, visit www.thectwl.com. Fiore expects a good turnout and hopes to whet the appetite for his players.
“The Backyard Wars tournament will really be our first main event of the year,” Fiore said. “Given what we’ve gone through with getting the league up and going, we’re going to try to get some of these tournaments into the fall. We want to play as much as we can, but we know that varsity sports are coming up for a lot of these guys too.”
Feel Good, Inc.
Looking back, David J. Mullany appreciates the fact that his grandfather and family have had a huge impact on the lives of so many people through the invention of Wiffle ball.
“I think when you’re a little kid, it doesn’t really register. You know that’s what your family does, and that’s it. When you’re seven years old, your world is pretty small,” said Mullany. “I didn’t realize the impact Wiffle ball had until I got a little older. Then when I was exposed to more people and saw how many played, I realized the impact that the product has had.”
In the years since the company’s inception, many leagues and events have sprouted up. Anyone who is looking to start or join either a league or tournament can contact Wiffle Ball, Inc., at www.wiffle.com to get started.
“That’s the appeal of it. Any age bracket can play, and any skill level can get involved. For people to want to put on a publicized event with promotion behind it, they have to contact us because we have a process for them to get involved,” said Mullany. “We’re here to help people out and have fun. It’s Wiffle ball. We try to be as inclusive as we possibly can.”