SHELTON, CONN. - David N. Mullany was 40-something, unemployed and living in Fairfield, Conn. It was 1952. One day, after pounding the pavement for work, inspiration struck in his own back yard. Wiffle ball was born.
What he noticed that day was his son, David A. Mullany, and a friend playing baseball with a broomstick bat and a perforated plastic golf ball. David A. was 12 years old. Now 56, he runs Wiffle Ball Inc. in Shelton with his two sons.
The popularity of Wiffle ball exploded, rivaling croquet and badminton as a backyard contest. Simple directions showed how to grip the white balls, with perforated slots on one side, to throw big-time curveballs, sliders, even screwballs.
Today, seeing the white balls and long yellow plastic bats, with packaging that hasn't changed much since the 1950s, evokes a host of memories: from playing as a child to boozy college home run derbies to simple fun with your own children - a plastic version of the tear-jerker game of catch in ``Field of Dreams.''
All for $3 retail, for a bat-and-ball set, or about a dollar for just the ball.
David N. Mullany died in 1990, but the company remains family owned. David A. and his sons, David J. and Stephen A. Mullany, with about 20 employees, still crank out Wiffle balls on two aging, 300-ton Impco injection molding machines.
Polyethylene resin is fed from a box beside the presses. The ball halves are fused together on a hot-plate welder, four at a time.
Wiffle Ball Inc. buys the bats from blow molder Hartford Plastics Inc. of Windsor, Conn.
Interviewed at the Shelton plant in late summer, David A. Mullany talked about memories of his father, his own childhood and his family's decision to remain focused on a handful of products for more than 40 years.
Baseball was a passion for him as a boy growing up in Fairfield.
``We'd have kids waiting to start first thing in the morning and we'd play until dark,'' he said.
They would play in the schoolyard, but had to use a tennis ball to avoid breaking windows. When the game switched to his own yard, space was tight. The golf ball wouldn't go very far. Something as common as boys at play touched a nerve with his father, a former college and semi-pro pitcher.
``He'd be out hunting for work and trying to keep everything together. Of course, he'd come home every night and see me in the backyard with my friends doing nothing, not helping the cause any.''
They made several test balls at first, trying to develop a plastic baseball that would curve like a champ. They tried different hole patterns.
``Our thought was just to take enough weight off of one side of the ball so you could throw a curve or a slider without putting too much rotation on the ball,'' he said.
His father contacted a company that made the golf balls and had developed a machine to heat-seal together the two halves of a low density PE ball. He took out a second mortgage, set up a factory and started molding Wiffle balls in 1953. The original building still houses the production area. The Mullanys have added an office and top floor warehouse.
``Wiffle'' is trademarked, Mul-lany said. That means the word can be used only to describe products made by Wiffle Ball Inc. (The name is a play on ``whiff,'' slang for strikeout).
Mullany said he has no idea how much the name is worth. He does say this: ``Don't screw around with our name. It's capital W-i-f-f-l-e. It is a registered trademark. I get sensitive about that.''
Patent numbers are molded into every ball, but Mullany said that doesn't mean much. Knock-offs, made with minor changes, came out within a few years after the company was founded.
Defense of the Wiffle name, and pride in making a quality product, have kept the balls flowing in Shelton-though the firm won't dis-close how many, or its sales.
Once the leaves fall, motorists on Route 8 can see a lighted sign on the factory. Sometimes a curious fan will stop in, and the Mullanys say they usually have time to give a tour, or even sell a ball or two.
The company injection molds Wiffle balls in three sizes - regulation baseball, softball and junior size - plus practice golf balls.
Mullany is particularly proud of the plastic golf balls. He said they are the company's response to cheap imports.
``Most of the [plastic] golf balls you get these days, it seems, come from mainland China. I mean, granted, it's a little `nothing' product, but it's such garbage, and yet people buy it and they put it in their back yard,'' he said.
``You don't necessarily have to play fast pitch. You can throw junk. When my kids were growing up, when they were first learning how to play baseball, I could strike 'em out pretty easy. And then pretty soon they were striking me out pretty easy.''
Mullany never pressured his sons to join the company. Both have college degrees and are vice presidents. Son David J. said the company once did some custom molding.
``But at some point, my dad and my grandfather said, `Let's keep it simple and do what we do best','' he said.
Now he can't wait to go head-to-head with his two young children.
``It's nice to be able to make something and say that people enjoy it,'' he said.
The Hartford Plastics-made bats help set the game apart.
``We've been molding for them since 1980,'' said Hartford Plas-tics President Bill Roncaioli. ``We refer to it as the Cadillac of the plastic bat industry. It's a real quality and long-life bat.''
Hartford blow molding ma-chines have parison control to keep wall thicknesses precise.
Also, the bats are extra long, for adults trying to smash that low-and-away breaking pitch.
David A. Mullany said: ``It's not just a kid's game. You get a group of guys that are in a softball league and after they get finished playing softball, they want to be playing Wiffle ball and having a beer at the same time.''
With tremendous name recognition, the firm no longer has to advertise. But that wasn't always the case. Until about a decade ago, the company used endorsements from major-leaguers.
``Maybe when we first started out, a person like Whitey Ford or Ted Williams had a little bit of appeal. Because, who the hell knew what a Wiffle ball was?'' Mullany said.
The telephone rings, interrupting the interview. The secretary and just about everybody else is on vacation, so Mullany picks up. Jotting down a small order for golf balls from a longtime customer, he says, ``Send me in that check for $13.20.''