The Wiffle Effect

Wiffle ball goes big time—well, not so big

If the phrase "organized adult Wiffle ball" has a slightly ludicrous ring to it, that's because we invariably associate the white plastic sphere with childhood, backyard fields, and quirky ground rules. A one-hopper off the tool shed was a double, a shot over the boxwood hedge was a home run, and a foul ball into the fenced province of the neighbors' dog meant the game was over.

That version of the sport still exists, fostering, as one enthusiast's Web site puts it, "the ruining of America's backyards." But in the mid-1990s isolated groups of adult players—usually in their twenties or thirties—discovered on the Internet that plenty of others out there shared their passion. Adult tournaments have been around for years, particularly in the Northeast, where the Wiffle tradition runs long and deep, but competitive adult Wiffle ball has now grown into a thriving subculture of self-described "touring pros," structured competitions, cash prizes, and slick playing fields. Forget the boxwood hedges; these guys swing for low, Fenway-green outfield fences eighty to 110 feet from home plate. And forget those plastic Wiffle bats, too. "That little yellow bat just doesn't cut it today, especially against the pitchers you're facing," says Mike Palinczar, the organizer of two annual tournaments in Trenton, New Jersey, and one of the game's premier pitchers. "If you're up there with a yellow bat, you might as well give up." Today's players wield sturdier plastic or aluminum bats (including one manufactured by Palinczar) with names like Ledge Sledge, King Stick, and Wiffle Pro. A carbon-graphite model, the Moonshot, sells for $120.

The sport reached a milestone in January of 2001, when six players from various parts of the country, frustrated by bitter rivalries and a lack of organization, convened in Baltimore to see if they could invest the game with some semblance of order and uniformity. Two days later they emerged as the United States Perforated Plastic Baseball Association, a governing body that publishes rules, sanctions a series of tournaments on both coasts during baseball season, and conducts post-season playoffs that culminate in a fall national championship. The organization's name may suggest a lack of seriousness, but the players, most of whom played baseball in high school or college, intend nothing of the sort. Billy Owens, of Costa Mesa, California, a thirty-four-year-old electronics distribution manager, is one of the association's founders and the editor of an online Wiffle-ball newsletter called Fast Plastic. Owens bristles at the notion that he is consumed by a child's game. "For ex-baseball players," he told me, "this is the closest thing they can get to playing college-level baseball or even semi-pro."

To be sure, USPPBA Wiffle ball, for all its similarities to baseball, is a significantly different game. Teams field just three players (though five may rotate in the batting order). Games go six innings instead of nine, and take about one hour instead of three. And baserunning is not a component. As with the backyard game, hits are awarded according to precise ground rules: one base for a ball that lands safely in the outfield, two bases if it rolls to the fence, and three if it hits the fence on the fly. A home run, naturally, occurs when a ball clears the fence. In a sense this is poor man's baseball, but it is played with a devotion bordering on obsession. Owens, a family man famed in Wiffle circles for his pitching prowess, crossed the country thirty-five times over three seasons to compete against the best talent in the Northeast. "I've spent thousands and thousands on airline tickets and other expenses," he says. Owens's former teammate Mark DeMasi, a thirty-six-year-old married father of two who lives in Atlanta, flew to California seven times in six months last season to compete in the USPPBA's West Coast series of one-day tournaments.

"Almost every other weekend I'm gone," Mike Palinczar says. Such dedication can discourage girlfriends: "I had one for seven years, and Wiffle ball actually drove her crazy."

For a grown man to reveal that he spends his weekends playing cutthroat Wiffle ball can't be easy. "I tell people at work and they're baffled," admits Bruce Chrystie, from Rehoboth, Massachusetts, a thirty-eight-year-old pricing specialist for Metropolitan Life who is the executive director of the USPPBA. "It's like saying you collect Tonka trucks." Chrystie plays for In the Box, a top team in the East.

When Tom LoCascio, a Long Island schoolteacher, met the woman he would later marry, he addressed the matter head on: "I play Wiffle ball," he said. "Is that an issue for you?"

Chad Anderson, a twenty-four-year-old account executive for Sharp office equipment, never gave the image problem a thought. He is one of three brothers who, along with an uncle and a family friend, make up the A-Bros, a virtually unbeatable team from Ventura, California. After getting his first taste of tournament play, in 2000, Chad had team business cards printed identifying the A-Bros as the "#1 Wiffleball Team in the Nation." The boast seemed brazen at the time, even though the A-Bros had won several competitions, but last season they clobbered everyone in sight, compiling a 47-0 record before the USPPBA national championships, in Granite City, Illinois, where they beat the hosting Lakeside Kings three games to none, without allowing a run.

Wiffle ball's great advantage over baseball has always been that it requires so few players. Its great disadvantage—from a spectator's standpoint, anyway—is that the ball itself skews the enterprise decidedly in favor of the pitcher. Those who have learned how to fully exploit the ball's aerodynamic idiosyncrasies can throw pitches that dart about like hummingbirds.

Billy Owens once carried a no-hitter into the sixteenth inning in a tournament final before surrendering a home run and losing 1-0; the opposing pitcher had a no-hitter going too. In last season's eastern playoffs Ryan Hunsel, the Lakeside Kings' nineteen-year-old prodigy, threw back-to-back no-hitters. Chad Anderson tells of pitching Wiffle ball a few years ago against some triple-A baseball players and Cory Snyder, then a major-leaguer: "They couldn't touch me. Then I started telling them what was coming, and they still couldn't touch it."

Forty-nine years ago an out-of-work Connecticut man named David Nelson Mullany cut holes in a hard plastic orb of Coty perfume packaging with the intention of creating a marketable ball for kids that wouldn't break windows and would curve easily. Neither he nor his thirteen-year-old son, David, who helped him experiment with different designs, could have foreseen that their creation would become one of the most enduring toys in American history.

The office and modest factory of The Wiffle Ball, Inc. have long resided in a two-story brick-and-block building in Shelton, Connecticut, just east of New Haven. David A. Mullany is now sixty-one and the president of the family-owned company. When his father asked him what they should call the ball, he said "whiffle," for the slang word "whiff," meaning "strike out." The boy suggested they spell it without the h. "If we ever have to make a sign for over the door," he explained, "that's one less letter we'll have to pay for."

Mullany won't disclose exactly how many balls the company sells each year, leaving it at "a few million." The phenomenon of adult play? "I'm aware of it," he says without enthusiasm; the company has no plans to get involved. Everything about the Wiffle company, from its office to the box the ball comes in, looks frozen in the 1950s, and indeed Mullany seems most comfortable talking about the past. He recalls that his father, who died in 1990, cut holes in just one half of the ball because he thought that the resulting weight imbalance would cause the ball to curve. "A lot of the hole shapes didn't work out," he says. "We couldn't get a ball that curved, regardless of how many holes we had or where we put them." Finally, after days of trial and error, they found a design that worked: a circle of eight evenly spaced oblong holes perpendicular to the center seam, all in one hemisphere.

Last July, fourteen Wiffle-ball teams from six states battled for bragging rights and $800 in prize money in a Massachusetts tournament consisting entirely of players who weren't even alive when Mullany invented the ball. The contest eventually narrowed to two teams. In the Box, the one that ultimately prevailed, owed its survival in tough quarter- and semi-final games to the wiles of its pitcher, Bruce Chrystie, who befuddled the opposition for fifteen innings, allowing just one run. Like most successful Wiffle hurlers, Chrystie throws an assortment of junk: curve balls, sliders, changeups, screwballs, cut fastballs, drops, and a pitch impossible to achieve with a baseball—the riser. And like all successful Wiffle hurlers, he can't imagine taking the mound with a new, unblemished ball. In the forty-two feet between the pitching rubber and home plate a pristine ball might curve two or three feet. A properly scuffed ball can curve at least twice that far. It will also travel faster and more predictably.

Scuffing is illegal in baseball, but in Wiffle ball it's essential. "A Wiffle ball right out of the box is one of the most unpredictable things in life," Billy Owens says. "It's crazy." The manufacturer's literature indicates that the ball curves in the direction the holes are facing, and if you toss the ball thirty or forty miles per hour, that is indeed how it flies—at least, Chrystie says, "until you scuff the ball, and then it works completely the opposite." Now the ball curves away from the holes. But Wiffle pitchers release the ball with a "muzzle velocity" somewhere in the range of sixty to eighty miles per hour. At those speeds a pristine ball gets squirrelly, whereas a scuffed ball keeps breaking away from the holes.

Many pitchers prefer balls that are not merely scuffed but dented, softened, squashed, or otherwise disfigured. To produce such effects they use bats, sticks, hammers, gravel, bricks, asphalt, concrete, sandpaper, X-Acto knives, freezers, microwave ovens—almost anything goes. "You're not allowed to alter the molecular structure of the plastic," Chrystie says.

Just why a Wiffle ball behaves as it does in flight is left to conjecture; no one, apparently, has ever gone to the trouble and expense of scientifically researching the matter. The game's best pitchers can tell you what the ball will do, but not why. We do know that the elder Mullany erred in thinking that rendering one hemisphere lighter than the other would cause a ball to curve. Depending on the spin axis, says Robert G. Watts, a professor of engineering at Tulane University and a co-author of a 1991 book on baseball physics, either "nothing special happens" or the ball "will wobble but not curve."

A fundamental theorem of fluid dynamics, Bernoulli's principle, states that as the speed of a moving liquid or gas (air, for instance) increases, its pressure decreases. Robert K. Adair, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics at Yale University, the author of The Physics of Baseball (1990) and a former physics consultant to the National League, speculates that a pristine Wiffle ball curves toward the holes in part because air moves over that side of the ball faster than it moves over the smooth side. "My guess is that the perforations disturb the air so that there are, effectively, bulges," Adair told me recently. "The air would have to go faster over that side of the ball to go around all the bumps," lowering the pressure on that side and causing the ball to move in that direction. Having posited this theory, Adair reviewed it in his mind and then laughed. "I don't really understand it," he said.

The Wiffle ball used in USPPBA competitions is essentially the same size as a baseball but only about one sixth the weight. The aerodynamics of baseballs are tricky enough, says the sports-physics expert Peter J. Brancazio, a professor emeritus of physics at Brooklyn College. "But a Wiffle ball is even worse, because you've got holes in it, it's hollow, it's light, and the air can do all sorts of crazy things to it. That's an extremely difficult thing to research." Speculation is cheap, however, and Brancazio's educated guess is that scuffing the ball essentially takes the holes out of the equation. When the smooth, unperforated side is sufficiently roughened, he argues, it may disturb the air more than the perforated side does, reversing the pressure asymmetry—Bernoulli again—and causing the ball to curve away from the holes.

Given all the other aerodynamic phenomena to consider, from the effect generated by the ball's spin to drag coefficients, boundary layers, shearing forces, and wake turbulence, perhaps David Mullany has the right idea. Half a century has passed since he and his father created the Wiffle ball, yet in all those years he has never attempted to learn why the ball does what it does. Nor has he any intention of doing so in the future. "If it works," he says, "what the hell does it matter?"