It's been almost 60 years since the first Wiffle Ball was sold. In that time, the ubiquitous yellow bat and white ball have become an iconic symbol of summertime fun. It all started in the backyard of one Connecticut family.
"My grandfather grew up in Massachusetts on a tobacco farm," said David J. Mullany, president of Wiffle Ball Inc., based in Shelton, Conn. "He was not thrilled about being a farmer, so he went to school at the University of Connecticut and was a good baseball player on the baseball team."
Unfortunately, the eldest Mullany happened to graduate in the midst of the Great Depression and jobs were hard to come by. After some searching, he was offered a job at a pharmaceutical company in Connecticut with one condition; he would have to pitch for the company's baseball team. Several years later, Mullany found himself out of a job. He cashed out his insurance policy and once again began searching for a job.
Inspired by watching his son and his friends play baseball in the afternoons, he started looking for a way to create a lightweight ball that wouldn't damage the neighbors' windows and siding but could also be thrown with a curve, like a baseball. [America's Favorite Toys Through the Decades]
"He fiddled around for a few nights," Mullany said. "He added weight to one side, cut holes in it and just tried all different configurations.”
Mullany's final solution came when he cut eight oblong holes into a plastic sphere that was part of the packaging for a perfume bottle. With that, the Wiffle Ball was born. When Mullany's son and his group of friends approved of the product, he took out a second mortgage on his house and borrowed money to start Wiffle Ball, Inc., in 1954.
"Once my grandfather had the product, he needed a sales force," said Mullany. "He went to a manufacturer and sales representative in New York who had been in the business for a long time. He told them it was a neat item, and he may get a few years out of it. Hearing that right at the start, I don’t think anyone could have imagined it would become the brand it is today."
The company got its big break when their products started being sold in Woolworth stores. Since then, growth has been mainly organic. In fact, the company has aired only one advertisement - in the early 1960s featuring Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford.
Today, Wiffle Ball employs between 15 and 20 people and still manufactures the bats and balls at the same factory that the company moved into in 1959. The company has refused several attempts by larger toy companies to buy Wiffle Ball Inc., and remains run by the Mullany family. [Yogi Berra on Baseball and Business]
"We enjoy what we are doing," said Mullany. "It is a great opportunity to come to work every day with my dad [David A. Mullany] and my brother [Stephen Mullany]. We haven't had any interest in selling because we are having too much fun."
Although the company has longevity on its side, it has still faced challenges.
"At any given time, there is always something that is coming down the pike that will be a challenge," Mullany said. "It's not like things run on autopilot; there is always something that pops up."
One such challenge has been the advent of new toys in recent decades such as video games and competition from other companies trying to replicate the magic of Wiffle Ball. Mullany contends that the quality of the product is the main reason behind the sustained success of Wiffle Ball. As for the challenge of other electronic toys, Mullany believes there is no substitute for physical activity.
"There is only so long you can spend indoors, exercising your thumbs," Mullany said. "Kids need to get outside to get fresh air, exercise and enjoy physical activity that you don’t get from being indoors. One of the big outlets for kids is baseball and that is a part of our success."
Although the company has experimented with other products like golf balls, the main source of their success comes from the patented Wiffle Ball. That's because the company believes in sticking to what works. Other than a switch from a wooden bat to the traditional yellow plastic bat in 1972, Wiffle Ball has remained the same product that it was when Mullany’s grandfather first started the company.
"We use the same materials; we have new molds built to the same dimensions of the original," said Mullany. "A ball today is virtually the same as one you bought 40 years ago. We have decided that we should stick with what works."
When it's said and done, however, Mullany's business motto is as simple and grounded as his product.
"Be fair and honest in your business dealings," Mullany said. "That’s what I learned over the years both from experience and from discussions from my dad and grandpa. We make an honest product, look to offer it at a fair price and try to be straightforward with the stores and distributors that purchase our products. Simply, we really strive to make the consumer happy and give them a solid product."
Reach BusinessNewsDaily staff writer David Mielach at Dmielach@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @D_M89.
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