How Wiffle Ball Has Endured Without Advertising, Licensing or Product Placement

This ordinary plastic sphere with 8 holes became the national pastime of the American backyard

Wiffle still makes all of its balls in a two-story brick building in Shelton, Conn. Dianna McDougall

Nineteen fifty-three was a seminal year in world history. Biologists discovered the double helix of DNA. Sir Edmund Hillary reached the top of Everest. Dr. Jonas Salk perfected the polio vaccine. And in a suburban backyard in Fairfield, Conn., a bunch of kids played the first game of Wiffle Ball.

All right, so maybe a kids’ game doesn’t quite rank with those feats—but still, in the traditions of leisure, in the annals of Americana, it’s hard to find a game as accessible, universal and enduring as Wiffle Ball.

Consider: While the company does not release sales statistics, millions—likely tens of millions—of Wiffle balls are sitting in American homes at this moment. The U.S. boasts over 40 Wiffle Ball leagues. There is a Wiffle Ball World Series and Fantasy Wiffle Ball, too. Bill Murray has played Wiffle Ball to raise money for charity. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban played Wiffle Ball inside his Dallas mansion. The bankers at Goldman Sachs play Wiffle Ball. Baseball legends like Derek Jeter have played the plastic ball, too, and retired Yankee Scott Brosius has said: “I can’t imagine a kid not growing up playing Wiffle Ball.”

Which is to say that you, dear reader, have probably played Wiffle Ball, too.

That Wiffle Ball is not only a legendary game, but among the most successful brands in history, is to the credit of one David Mullany, a man who, at the start of the Wiffle story, was at a low ebb in his life.

David Mullany (1, right) invented the Wiffle Ball in 1953, and promoted its curious aerodynamic properties (2) that let any kid pitch like a pro. When Woolworth placed an order for its five-and-dime stores, Wiffle sailed its way into American boyhood (3). Indeed, the toy eventually defined childhoods everywhere, which is how Jimmy Fallon and Little League champs Scott Bandura and Mo’ne Davis found themselves smacking a Wiffle around on The Tonight Show five years ago (4). Meanwhile, The Wiffle Ball Classic (5) hits a home run for charity—and puts PGA golfers at bat, no less.
Courtesy Wiffle Ball; Getty Images [4,5]

In the summer of 1953, facing the failure of his car-wax business, Mullany was supporting his family with money from a cashed-in life insurance policy. “I don’t think my grandmother was aware of the fact that he was out of a job,” his grandson Stephen Mullany recalled. So it was that, trudging home one evening, David Mullany saw his son (also named David) in the backyard, trying to throw curve balls with a practice golf ball made of plastic.

Baseballs had always been a lot to handle for little kids, Mullany knew (he’d pitched in the industrial leagues himself)—but coaxing a curve from a tiny plastic ball was trouble. “You’re going to hurt your arm doing that,” Mullany told his son.

So Mullany set to work coming up with an alternative, a baseball-size ball that would be substantial enough to pitch with, but lightweight enough that it wouldn’t break windows. He found his solution in a spherical plastic container that cosmetics brand Coty had used as packaging for its perfumes. Mullany cut incisions of various sizes and configurations until finally settling on eight oblong holes arranged symmetrically on one hemisphere of the ball. This is the model that passed muster in the backyard—not least because its curious aerodynamic properties make it easy for anyone to throw a curve ball—and it’s the ball that Wiffle makes to this day out of low-density polyethylene, .06 of an inch thick.

Throughout its 66-year history, Wiffle Ball has been a steady seller that’s required no advertising—with one exception. In 1960, the company hired legendary New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford to endorse Wiffle. Ford’s face appeared on the packaging, and he starred in a minute-long TV spot showing kids how to pitch curves and drops using “the ball with the holes on one side.” No doubt, kids responded to seeing one of their heroes on the screen, but hiring Ford “was so expensive,” Stephen Mullany said. Wiffle sales were just as good without advertising, so the company didn’t do it again. Ever since, Mullany added, “we have been able to [prosper] on word of mouth.”

The Mullanys patented their ball and, following a few lean years of doorstep selling (price: 39 cents), managed to interest Woolworth in stocking them. The rest took care of itself—and has ever since. Wiffle does not advertise, license or bother with product placement. It still makes all of its balls in a two-story brick building in Shelton, Conn.

These days, a Wiffle Ball and bat set goes for about eight bucks, the exception being the shipments that Stephen Mullany sends to American troops deployed overseas. He recalls getting a letter from one soldier telling him that, back home, Wiffle Ball games had to stop when it rained, but in Iraq “it stops because of mortar rounds.”

With the notable exception of dropping bombs, then, nothing else has stopped Americans from playing Wiffle Ball.

This story first appeared in the May 6, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.