yankees

Play Ball! Wiffle Ball, That Is

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 1, 2014.

Baseballs and city neighborhoods don’t mix. Windows loom; shattered glass and lost allowances are just a line drive away. When I was a kid, we didn’t even think of playing hardball in my backyard on River Avenue in Providence. But we didn’t have to. We had Wiffle ball.

In 1953, in Fairfield, Conn., David Mullany came home to find his 12-year-old son trying to throw curves with a small plastic golf ball, to no avail. Mullany, a former semi-pro pitcher, knew that throwing breaking balls wasn’t good for adolescent arms. So he set out to design a ball that would let his son do so without harm.

Mullany found inspiration in an unlikely place: the hard plastic orbs that served as packaging for Coty perfume bottles. After cutting holes of various sizes and shapes in the re-purposed spheres, he arrived at an eight-slot design that made them curve and rise and sink when thrown.

While Mullany was the inventor, his son was the marketer. The 12-year-old came up with the name for the ball, a play on “whiff,” which is slang for “strike out.” (Whiffing batters was the whole point of throwing curves!) In an act of typographic economy — and branding brilliance — the Mullanys dropped the “h” in their spelling. Thus, the Wiffle ball was born.

In the early 1970s, Mullany’s plastic masterwork transformed our tiny Providence backyard into baseball heaven. We threw curves like Steve Carlton, with no fear of shredding elbow ligaments. We swung for the fences like Harmon Killebrew, with no worry of destruction.

Our playing field was quirkier than Fenway Park. The trunk of a maple tree and a clothesline post became our foul poles. An eight-foot concrete retaining wall, adorned top to bottom with a painted garden mural, provided a welcome backstop. We oriented home plate in front of one of the wall’s giant sunflowers. The span of its petals formed our strike zone.

And there were strikeouts — the curving, rising, sinking Wiffle ball lived up to its name. But there was plenty of contact, too. We rapped liners off den windows for doubles, dinged the dormer of my bedroom for triples, sent long balls over the roof for home runs. When a gutter swallowed the ball (ground-rule double), my little brother would climb out a second-floor window, creep down the crunching shingles, and pluck the ball from its aluminum holding pen. Don’t tell Mom!

The copy on the Wiffle ball package explained why the ball was a godsend to those of us playing in city backyards: “BAT IT! BOUNCE IT! SAFE ANYWHERE!”

Anywhere but our dog’s mouth, it turned out. A bouncing Wiffle ball turned Georgie into a canine Bert Campaneris. When she chased down a ball, we were one chomp away from disaster. We’d carefully pry the ball from her clench and then banish her to the house.

When a Wiffle ball did crack from all our mashing and Georgie’s gnawing, duct tape prolonged its life. And when a ball was beyond repair, we pooled our change and ran up to Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue to get a new one. There is nothing better than pitching with a brand new Wiffle ball.

My brothers, friends and I all played Little League baseball, of course. I remember one Opening Day at Nelson Street playground: a blaze of sunshine and promise. Crisp uniforms bore the names of local sponsors: the Lawyers and the Medics, Quinn’s Funeral Home and Lions Cleansers, Fifth Ward Democrats, the Elms.

But as much as we liked organized baseball, it was Wiffle ball that we lived for. You could always get a game together — Wiffle ball accommodated various numbers of players. And best of all, like basketball, you could play one-on-one.

My best friend, Chris, and I squared off against each other for what must have been 60 Wiffle ball games in the summer of 1972. I know that the Yankees, my team, won the regular season and that the Orioles, Chris’s team, took the World Series. After the seventh game, we ran into the locker room (also known as the garage) to celebrate. I poured champagne (soda) over Chris’s head, and he took it as the honor it was intended to be.

A grainy Super 8mm film from 1967 plays in my mind: I see my father in Bermuda shorts, cigarette in one hand, Wiffle ball in the other. He pitches to me, and I hit a hard liner off his calf. “Ow!” he mouths, grabbing his leg. Then he grins at me in approval.

Cross-fade to a video from 1997: now it’s me as dad, throwing a pitch in the backyard to my 4-year-old son. I watch as the Wiffle ball, like the arc of my life, bends to his eager swing.

 

Take Me In To The Ball Game

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You know what’s wrong with sports video games? They weren’t around when I was growing up. No Madden NFL, no NBA Jam, no MLB The Show. Damn.

I would have loved those games. Because I loved sports. I loved to play sports, I loved to watch sports, and I loved games that simulated sports.

It all started with electric football. There was something so promising about the shiny metal field – it looked perfect as my brother and I lined up our plastic players for the kick-off. And then with a flick of the switch, everything went to hell. Players slid unpredictably to electric football’s relentless hum, or locked arms in a gridiron square dance. Every pass was a Hail Mary, and forget about attempting a field goal. No wonder we ended up cranking the vibration screw as high as it would go. That’s what electric football was good for: simulating earthquakes.

Bobby Orr Hockey was in a different league. The table-top game put control of all six players at your fingertips. The overhead scoreboard dropped pucks for center ice face-offs that rewarded good eye-hand coordination. Sure, the action could slow to the pace of a Fischer-Spassky match when one of us tried to line up a pass from flat-metal Johnny Bucyk to flat-metal Phil Esposito – very unlike real hockey, to be sure. But the game was fun to play. Lots of fun.

The only problem was, you needed two people. What about those mornings when my older brother was off working at the Y and my younger brother was still sleeping? I needed a game that I could play solitaire.

My cousin Steven took care of that. When he got a new Strat-O-Matic Baseball Game in the late 1960s, I was the recipient of his old one. Lucky me.

Strat-O-Matic calls itself “The ORIGINAL Fantasy Sports Games!” According to The New York Times, “For youngsters whose thoughts are turned more to spring and baseball than summer and camp, there’s an array of cerebral board games that keep the mind limber with batting averages, earned-run averages, and fielding percentages. The most ingenious is a card-and-dice game put out by Strat-O-Matic.”

I spent the summer rolling dice, consulting charts, keeping box scores, adjusting standings. My house league consisted of the Cardinals and the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Tigers. Even now, the line-ups are fresh in my mind: Brock, Flood, Maris, Cepeda…

Strat-O-Matic Baseball was my “video” game, with the action playing out in my head. But it didn’t keep me from going out to play. Nothing could do that – well, nothing but Mrs. Gordon. She was our next door neighbor on River Avenue in Providence. Mrs. Gordon’s husband had a heart condition. He needed to rest in the morning, she said. So Mrs. Gordon asked that we refrain from whacking Wiffle balls off the side of her house until 9:30. Mrs. Gordon was nice, but in a no-nonsense way. I wasn’t going to cross her – or my mother, who assured Mrs. Gordon that we would comply with her request.

*     *     *

In the early morning light, the Wiffle bat stands untouched in the back hallway. Inside, I sit on the den floor amid charts and dice and Pop-Tart crumbs. Through the magic of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, I keep company with Bob Gibson and Denny McClain and Mickey Mantle and Yaz… Periodically, I run into the kitchen to check the time on the stove clock. 8:30… 9:00… 9:25… YES!

Out I bound into the backyard.

“Good morning, Mrs. Gordon!”

My best friend Chris walks up the driveway, as I scribe the backyard dirt with the knob of the Wiffle bat: a perfect batter’s box and home plate.

Play ball!

With thanks to my cousin, Steven Paulson, for the hand-me-down Strat-O-Matic Baseball years ago and for recent research support.

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