UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. See main page for full contents

September 30, 2009

AMERICAN NOTES: WHIFFLE BALL

Matt Flegenheimer, Philadelphia Inquirer - Tie game, extra innings, and there stands Warren Whitehouse, yellow plastic bat in hand, a hero's ending in his sights. Of course, youngsters might be wise to avert their eyes from some of the proceedings - the opposing pitcher flicking a cigarette to the curb; the on-deck hitter chugging a Miller Lite; the sweat-soaked shark tattoo splashed across Whitehouse's left biceps, the one he added "to have [his] ex-wife's name covered up."

But such is the state of a "kid's game" here, in the rented parking lot of a Manayunk condo community, where Whitehouse and a few dozen locals and day-trippers converged this month for an all-day Wiffle ball tournament sponsored by C.J. & Eck's sports bar. . .

Whitehouse's is the new face - one of them, anyway - of a growing sport. From backyards to beaches, corporate offices to college campuses, the skinny yellow bat and gravity-averse plastic ball are enjoying a surge in popularity more than five decades after their advent.

It was in 1953 that David N. Mullany created the Wiffle ball, testing his design by slicing perforations into a plastic molding used to hold perfume bottles. His son, David A., was the first to note the "whiffing" sound of a batter's fruitless swing at the shifty sphere in flight. With that, United States Patent 2,776,139 had its name.

"What really started out as a kid's game has grown to be something much larger than that," said David J. Mullany, third-generation president of Wiffle Inc. "It's nice to see that it's still popular - and growing in popularity."

Mullany attributes the product's recent success, in part, to the dire economic environment. Marketed for $3.55 on the company Web site, the bat and ball combo provides one of the cheapest of cheap thrills. While profits were generally robust throughout 2008, Wiffle's annual sales peak came "right in the middle of the tough economy," according to Mullany. Though he declines to release revenue data, Mullany reports yearly unit sales reaching well into seven figures.

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