It is perhaps the ultimate compliment America's collective pop consciousness can bestow: a brand becoming intermingled with the product it names.
In other words, a company makes a product so good, so memorable, that its own brand name becomes as recognizable as the product it produces.
Think of some of the great consumer brands of our time where the product and brand name became synonymous; you know 'em, you use 'em, you love 'em — adhesive bandages: Band-Aid; photocopy: Xerox; tissue: Kleenex; soda: Coke. The list doesn't stop there. There's Vaseline, Polaroid, Velcro, and Dixie Cups, to name a few.
And everybody knows baseball played with that yellow plastic bat and ball is called Wiffle ball. It is a testament to this enduring brand that Wiffle's name itself has become analogous with the game for which it was created — "Wiffle ball."
But make no mistake: Though Wiffle seems to be everywhere, it's a hallowed brand nearly 60 years standing. In other words, Wiffle = Wiffle .
This American phenomenon continues to grow and reach new generations of fans. We've all played the game and chances are our kids and grandkids will play the game, too. How many things can you say that about?
Wiffle has made an indelible mark on American culture since its inception nearly 60 years ago. From the early department stores where Wiffle was first sold, it has jumped off the shelves and into the hearts and minds (and yards, car trunks, gutters, and garages) of people across the country and around the world. You will find Wiffle ball played in parks, backyards, at charity events, on college campuses, and even in professional Wiffle leagues and tournaments.
More impressive, all this has happened without a single penny spent on marketing since 1975. Wiffle's marketing budget is zero, nada, zip. Mattel, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, Disney, and other American megabrands have worked their way into our collective memories — but via multibillion-dollar marketing budgets. Wiffle is the rare brand these days that is truly organic, with people coming back year after year not because they saw a commercial or print ad, but because they love it. Because their dad played it when he was little. Because it gets people outside and interacting. Because nothing is more fun.
Wiffle has curved and swerved its way into books, paintings, and comic strips, not to mention television shows, movies, music, and video games. As a beloved piece of Americana, it has been enthusiastically referenced and increasingly revered.
It has become one of the most enduring toys in American history, one whose followers have a "devotion bordering on obsession," according to The New York Times.
VH1's special I Love Toys ranks the Wiffle ball and bat set as the 10th best toy of all time, between the Slinky (9) and Play Doh (11), leaving the Frisbee (45), Nerf (23), and even the bicycle (14) in the rearview mirror. The Hula Hoop, Barbie, and LEGO filled the top three slots; not bad company. The New York Times seconds that, proclaiming, "Wiffle ranks with Hula Hoop and Barbie as quintessentially American toys."
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And so says Tim Walsh, author of The Playmakers, a glossy history of the most influential toys of our time. "The Mullany family is so uncelebrated. If you create a piece of music that sells a million copies, they give you a gold record and put you on the cover of Rolling Stone." Walsh believes the Mullanys need their due. "They're still relatively unknown. [If] an album that sold as many copies as Wiffle has sold, well, [the Mullanys would] be as big as the Beatles or Michael Jackson."
Paradoxically, in the Age of the iPod and the video game, Wiffle, with no moving parts and featuring principles in physics that were new in 1738, is more popular than ever. It's everywhere. Wiffle balls and bats are sold in all 50 states and in dozens of countries. In the warm summer months, you can't walk into a store without seeing that familiar 24-count Wiffle display. It's in drugstores, it's in sporting goods stores, and it's in department stores.
To give you some idea of the iconic American-ness of this thing, here's a story from Hank Paine, owner of The Connecticut Store, which sells Connecticut products to customers worldwide. "We have a customer that orders [Wiffle products] in quantity and the only way to get them there is by Express Mail, so I end up standing in line at the post office. The guys are used to seeing me come over there. They'll say, 'Hey Hank, where are we going today?' And one day I answered, 'Well, we're going to send some made-in-Connecticut Wiffle balls to China.' There was a pause and the clerk looked at me and said, 'What'd you say?' I said, 'We're sending Wiffle balls to China.' He said, 'Holy crap, Hank, that's great,' and the people in back of me just started to applaud."
The appeal of this simple kids' toy cuts across ages and generations. They're playing Wiffle ball in backyards, they're playing it in schoolyards, they're playing at the South Pole, and they're playing it in Afghanistan. What's the deal? It's just an odd little ball and a yellow plastic bat. How did this unlikely duo get to be so popular? To answer that question, we need to go back to a different era, to 1953.
Pop culture exploded in the years following World War II. The 1950s were a relief from the Depression, the war that followed, and all of the rationing and stress that came along with both. The national mood had changed. It was the era of Marilyn Monroe, of fins on Cadillacs, and of Tupperware. Popular culture was evolving as the country healed from the war. I Love Lucy, From Here to Eternity, and Tony Bennett all topped their respective charts. It was a prosperous new era of mass production and mass consumption. The watchword was buy, buy, buy as standardized, branded consumables went mass- market, becoming more affordable than ever. 1953 saw the first color TVs, the first TV Guides to go with them, and the first Corvette automobiles.
It was a juncture of technological change that shifted the way people lived their daily lives. Injection molding, the process by which plastics are heated and shaped, was coming into its own. It allowed for products from milk cartons and combs to toothbrushes and garbage cans — anything plastic — to be produced more easily than ever before. It's no accident that the '50s was the age of simple injection-molded toys like the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee.
Perhaps most important, all these developments were being fueled by the postwar baby boom. People were getting hitched and making babies in record numbers. They were moving out of cities. In response to this exodus, mass production hit the housing market too — with the advent of the G.I. Bill and with it the invention of the suburbs. As Levittowns sprouted, so did Wiffle balls and bats in those Levittowns' garages.
There is one last piece of our puzzle: The early '50s were also a golden age of baseball, with Yogi and The Mick taking the Yankees to their fifth consecutive world championship in 1953. That was also the year that the curveballing legend Dizzy Dean was inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1953, America was baseball-crazy, the national pastime was at its postwar zenith, and here's the connection: baseball, the suburbs, backyards.
Before 1953, a kid could play baseball or stickball or stoopball. There was no plastic bat-and-ball set. It simply didn't exist. So getting a baseball game together was no easy feat.
It took a whole bunch of guys, for starters. You needed baseballs, gloves, and a backstop. And you needed a lot of room. So if you played it in, say, a suburban backyard, you were going to break every window on the block.
And forget throwing a major-league curveball.
After 1953, a suburban kid and a couple of friends could play a baseball game in his own backyard, with a ball that curved as if thrown by Dizzy Dean himself. Just as important, it wouldn't break a window even if the batter was lucky enough to get a piece of it. That simple invention — a lightweight, injection-molded plastic ball with funny holes (the bat came a little later) — made all the difference.
It caught on like gangbusters.
In 1953, the first Wiffle balls went on sale. By the early 1960s, Wiffle was a staple up and down the Eastern seaboard as the game to play at picnics, charity events, and school competitions, among others. "Wiffle" quickly became a part of the American vernacular. And not just as a toy that protects windows but as a pastime unto itself.
Why has it been such a success? Part of its charm has to be the simplicity of the idea. Chris Byrne, a.k.a. "The Toy Guy," is one of the toy industry's top consultants. "What makes the toy different, or what makes the toy sustain is that each subsequent generation brings to it their own sense of fun and play," he says. "Things like an Etch-a-Sketch, or a Slinky, or a Wiffle ball, or any of these classic toys, they really are nothing until they are brought to life by the child."
Also — and this is no small consideration — it works. Exactly as advertised, a Wiffle ball curves like crazy, won't break windows, and delivers a satisfying baseball experience. "And, the game, as we know, happens in the imagination, so that the child is imagining that he or she is a big-league baseball player. And the closer it replicates the ability to throw a slider or throw a curveball, or something ... that replicates a real baseball experience, you know that's a good toy," says Byrne.
And don't forget that the whole family can play across age and gender lines. Your dad can pitch a no-hitter and so can your sister.
There's the iconic, unmistakable, you'd-know-it-in-the-dark ball. It's old school and new school, unique and ubiquitous. The Wiffle ball remains the great equalizer, as they call it, befuddling batters of all ages. With its humble holes, it curves, zips, and zooms, turning everyone into a major league pitcher. It's a fad-proof fan favorite. Tim Kennedy, president of Kennedy Design, a NYC-based industrial design firm, says there's mom, apple pie, and the Wiffle ball. "I think Wiffle is an American design classic. I would put it in a category with things like the Frisbee, the Airstream trailer, and the Fender Stratocaster, American design products that have just endured as great designs through generations."
Another key to Wiffle's timeless appeal has to be its born-in-the-USA, still-made-in-the-USA pedigree. The same family, the Mullanys, has been making the Wiffle balls for almost 60 years — and still use some of the original machinery.
Today Wiffle ball is bigger than ever. From the Smithsonian to South Park, the white plastic ball has become part of the fabric of American life. Saturday afternoons are for Wiffle ball games, but so are Sunday mornings, and Sunday comics strips have featured Wiffle prominently. Jeffy from Family Circus wants to know what happens to all the holes in his "Wiffle (Swiss) cheese." The Far Side, Hagar the Horrible, and In The Bleachers, too, have gotten a kick out of the Wiffle ball.
David Eisenhower played Wiffle ball on the White House lawn while his father-in-law, Richard Nixon, governed the nation from the inside.
The Wiffle ball was featured as one of the "Humble Masterpieces" in a recent show by the same name at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
It has been featured in countless advertisements for other products, most recently Target and Converse, providing that essential piece of casual Americana for set decoration.
A Wiffle-themed wedding/fundraiser in Massachusetts had the 90-year-old grandmother of the bride, Laura Goulet, tossing out the first pitch on her happy day. The scouting report had her as "awesome."
Even the Beastie Boys have made reference to a Wiffle bat. Enough said.
The Wiffle ball has been enshrined into the permanent collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Wiffle seems nearly recession-proof and, even in tough economic times, it continues to sell briskly. How many Wiffle balls have been sold? Only three people know — and they're not talking. A good guess would be in the hundreds of millions, at least.
After nearly 60 years, Wiffle is still a terrific bargain. It costs under five bucks, it's made well, and you can use it again and again. For the price of a couple of slices and a Coke, you've got a full summer of fun.
As new generations of fans continue to discover the Wiffle phenomenon, they can thank recent developments like league play and aluminum bats. It's now a whole new ballgame.
To sum up Wiffle's part in the American psyche is someone who gets it: Connecticut governor Jodi Rell. Speaking about having the all-American company in her state's own backyard, she says, "The fact that the maker of an iconic piece of Americana like the Wiffle ball calls Connecticut home is one more feather in our cap. Wiffle ball conjures up so many positive images and emotions. For me, it evokes thoughts of summer, laughter, youth, excitement, family, and fun. Wiffle ball has been, and continues to be, an indelible part of America's recreational pastime."
This is mass-production in practice, this is Bernoulli's Principle and the Magnus Effect in action (more on that later). This is, for crying out loud, what they built the suburbs for. This is Wiffle ball.