Since the first one was crafted from plastic in 1953, more than 60 million Wiffle Balls have been purchased and played with in countless backyards, school gymnasiums and makeshift fields throughout the country and on every continent.
And each one of those Wiffle Balls — including that prototype conceived and created at the Mullany family’s kitchen table 65 years ago — has been made in Connecticut, the vast majority at the current Wiffle Ball Inc. factory, a two-story, 20,000-square-foot brick building in Shelton.
“It might be known and loved around the world, but the Wiffle Ball is and always will be synonymous with Shelton, Connecticut, and vice versa, and we love that,” says David J. Mullany, who, with his brother Stephen, represents the third generation of the family to run the company.
Much like the other towns of the Naugatuck Valley, Shelton’s glory days as a bustling manufacturing hub suffered a steady decline throughout the ’70s and ’80s, as companies either shut down or headed elsewhere chasing after lower operating costs.
But the Mullany family has stayed put, and plans to stay rooted in Shelton pumping out Wiffle Balls for many years to come. (The trademarked yellow plastic bats used to whack them are made in Massachusetts.)
“Honestly, we never even considered relocating, or even trying to use cheaper materials or labor,” David says. “That’s just not what we’re about. Sure, we’re a business, but we’ve never looked to save a few pennies here and there. We’re more concerned with offering quality products we can be proud of at an affordable price and being part of this town. We’re able to make a living doing something we love right where we live. There aren’t a whole lot of people who can say that.”
His brother Stephen agrees. “I don’t think any of us could imagine moving from here,” he says. “Operating in Shelton, the same terrific town we grew up in, is like the Wiffle Ball itself, which is basically the same design as when our grandfather first started making them. If it’s working well, why change anything? I think we’ve been successful for so long because we’ve stuck with what works.”
That same philosophy explains why the Mullany family hasn’t expanded the Wiffle company much either over the past six-plus decades, both in terms of products or operations. “We’ve tried to introduce other products over the years, plastic golf sets, for instance, and we still produce flying disks and a few other items,” David says. “But we’ve realized that focusing on our primary products — a few sizes of the Wiffle Ball and the Wiffle Bat — is good business and ensures that we continue to offer the same quality product that people love.”
According to both brothers, simplicity is a huge part of why the game of Wiffle Ball continues to grow in popularity year after year. “I think what people most love about the game is that you don’t really need much to play it — a ball, a bat, someone to pitch and someone to hit. That’s it,” David says. “You don’t even need that much space, and certainly not the big open space you’d need to play baseball or softball. Two people can play, but so can a large group split into teams. It’s fun for young kids and older people, and various ages can play together. That’s the beauty of the game.”
Organized Wiffle Ball tournaments have grown in number and popularity in Connecticut over the past decade. Ground zero is likely in Greenwich, where, in 2008, teens built a field, complete with a 12-foot-high replica of Fenway Park’s Green Monster, on vacant property. Though the field was ultimately shut down by the town over safety concerns and neighbor complaints, a large tournament has been held in the town each summer since. The town even has a dedicated Wiffle Ball field.
Although the company’s website lists official rules, a conversation about Wiffle Ball with nearly anyone is likely to reveal that individuals or neighborhoods or even the many formalized tournaments and leagues around the country freely adapt the specifics of the game. But David says, “Whether you play it by running around the bases or by how far the ball is hit, inside or outdoors, using the same rules as baseball or your own version, as long as you’re having fun, that’s what’s important.”
It was the Mullany brothers’ father, also named David, who played the very first game of Wiffle Ball with his friends in his family’s small backyard in Fairfield.
That’s when the brothers’ grandfather — his name was David, too — had an idea while watching his 12-year-old son and his pals playing baseball using a broomstick handle and some plastic golf balls they found in the garage.
The younger Mullany and his crew had given up playing regular baseball in the yard after too many windows were broken. Twelve-year-old David also told his father that his arm was weak from trying to throw a curve with the golf ball, so the elder Mullany began experimenting, sitting at the family kitchen table carving up plastic golf balls. Eventually, he found some round plastic containers that were used by a local company to package perfume, and he and his son spent the next few weeks cutting various shapes into the different plastic balls.
That August, father and son decided that a lightweight ball featuring eight oblong, vertical holes on the upper half worked best, allowing virtually anyone to put “action” on a pitch by positioning the holes and adjusting their grip on the ball.
“My grandfather, who died in 1990, and my father, who is semi-retired but still comes in for a few hours most days, would say they had no idea why that particular version worked so perfectly, but it did, and still does,” the younger David says.
The eldest Mullany made a bunch and dropped them off at a nearby diner. Those first few balls sold like hotcakes. He then took out a second mortgage on the family home for seed money, and started making the balls and selling them out of the back of his station wagon.
The name came from slang for striking out a batter, who is said to have “whiffed” by swinging and missing at strike three. Mullany dropped the “h” and the Wiffle Ball was born.
As sales picked up, so did manufacturing, and Mullany hired a few other locals to help with the business, operating out of a small plant in Woodbridge.
When the national retailer Woolworth placed a huge order for the balls, the company blossomed. Needing more space as the orders from more and more retailers large and small started pouring in, the Wiffle company moved to a factory space on Bridgeport Avenue in Shelton in 1959, where it still operates today, employing 15.
“My grandfather told me the first salesman he hired said they might get a few good months or maybe even a year out of this fad,” David says. “Here we are a few generations and 65 years later, and that ‘fad’ is still going strong. We have peaks and dips like any business, but sales have pretty much been consistent throughout the years.”
Last year, the Wiffle Ball was enshrined in the National Toy Hall of Fame, taking its lofty place as a slice of Americana made of white polyethylene. “We all wish my grandfather was around to see that,” David says.
Both he and Stephen say their parents never pressured them into joining the family business, but the idea of working side by side with each other and their father, now 77, was appealing. The brothers have children ranging in age from early teens to early 20s, but Stephen and David are following the example of their mother and father and letting their own kids decide if they’d like to continue the Mullany clan’s Wiffle lineage.
“Things have a way of working out,” David says. “We’ve had so many offers to be bought out over the years, very sizeable offers, but my brother and I love what we do, like our father and grandfather did before us. We’d love to see the next generation follow in our footsteps, but that’s completely their decision. That’s a long way off, though, so for now, we’ll just keep having fun.”
For the record, the Mullany brothers still enjoy playing the occasional game of Wiffle Ball. Another thing they agree on: David’s the better hitter, but Stephen’s the better pitcher.
“As long as there is baseball, there will be Wiffle Ball,” Stephen says. “And as long as people keep playing Wiffle Ball, we’ll keep making them.”
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