David Mullany was a typical 12-year-old boy in 1950s Connecticut. He loved playing ball in the backyard. Problem was, baseballs and softballs were just too hard. Too many shattered windows. So Mullany and his friend turned to a plastic golf ball. That wasn't the answer, though, as Mullany's arm constantly ached from trying to throw curves and sliders with the golf ball. Mullany's father, a former semipro pitcher, knew that throwing curves could be detrimental to his son's arm, so he set out to create a ball that could curve practically on its own. The solution was a ball with eight oblong cutouts. The Mullanys had no idea why it worked, only that it did. Strikeouts, also known as wiffs, became commonplace with the new ball--hence the name Wiffle ball.
When I first experienced the Wiffle, it had only been around for 23 or 24 years. I was about 5 or 6. It was way back in the late '70s, but I remember it like it was yesterday. There it sat, all white and shiny and plastic, glistening in the bright summer sunshine. The warm wind whistled through its holes as it sat proudly in the middle of our backyard, perched on a green tuft of freshly mowed grass.
I skipped out to the pitcher's mound and scooped it up from the earth. I placed it in my hand just the way my big brothers had shown me. The top side--the side with all the holes--was facing right, covered by my index and middle fingers. The bottom side--the solid side--was facing left. My thumb was wrapped tightly around its midsection.
I stared 20 feet in front of me, and there was Orioles center fielder Al Bumbry standing at home plate, staring right back at me. Really it was just my brother Sandy standing next to a Hula-Hoop lying in the grass, but for our purposes he was Al Bumbry and the hoop was home plate. Just like the welcome mat from the back patio was first base and our big brother Kenny's two favorite Frisbees were second and third base. As far as we were concerned, though, it was Memorial Stadium.
And I was Jim Palmer. I must have been, the way that thing flew out of my right hand. It sailed toward Sandy at eye level on the outside corner, and then plummeted down to his knees while darting over to the inside corner. I didn't do anything special with the ball. How could I? I was only 6. Nope, it was just the inherent magic of that crazy Swiss cheese ball. It did all the work for you. It was designed that way.
All we did was dream--day in and day out, year in and year out. We were Bumbry, Disco Dan Ford, and Kenny Singleton. Eddie Murray, Gary Roenicke, and John Lowenstein. Doug DeCinces, Richie Dauer, and Rick Dempsey. Left-handed, right-handed, weird stances, and all. If it weren't for Wiffle ball, Sandy and I never would have learned how to switch-hit.
Sandy died of cancer about two months ago. For his eulogy, I talked about how I was going miss the marathon Wiffle ball games in the backyard. Of all my Sandy memories, the Wiffle ball games are easily the most vivid. Lord knows, we must have played more than a thousand games out there in the backyard. I can still see myself running from second Frisbee to third Frisbee, trying to stretch a Dan Ford double into a Dan Ford triple, only to have Sandy throw me out with a BB from the left-field corner that hit me in the calf. That was one of our weird rules. If you threw the ball at the runner and you hit him, he was out. Just like in Greek dodge ball.
We put extra demands on our Wiffle ball, but it never complained. We pushed it to the breaking point time and time again, and sometimes further. A nick here, a crack there. But we'd tape it up and pretend it was good as new. We had no choice, seeing as how it was such a big part of our childhood. Of everybody's childhood, really. You see, before there was baseball, there was Wiffle ball. Can't wait to play again. It's been way too long.
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