CONNECTICUT Company scores homer with Wiffle Ball



The Wiffle Ball celebrates five decades of backyard ballgames.
HARTFORD COURANT
SHELTON, Conn. -- The year was 1954.
In New York, Yogi Berra was having an MVP season. In Boston, Ted Williams was belting 'em into the bleachers. And in Norwalk, another legend was in the making.
David N. Mullany founded a company to mass-produce his new invention. It was a hollow plastic baseball carved with eight slots and holes that let 10-year-olds throw curveballs that even Yankee ace Whitey Ford would envy.
The ball danced and swerved so well in backyard games that many who swung at it hit nothing but air, making a "whiff" sound.
Fifty years later, walk into the headquarters of The Wiffle Ball Inc. in Shelton, and it's as if Yogi, Ted and Whitey were still in their prime. A member of the Mullany clan is sitting behind one of the worn metal desks, taking an order over the phone, jotting it down on a pad and totaling prices on a desktop adding machine.
The Mullany at the desk is the founder's son. Thirteen years old when the company started, David A. Mullany -- his middle initial is different from his father's -- is 63 now. In May, he stepped aside as president and passed the title to his son, David J. Mullany, 39.
Kept its design
In 50 years, the middle initial of the president is one of the few things that has changed. In an age of video games and 100-channel cable TV, the ball maintains its original design and remains a backyard staple.
"No matter what else a kid gets in his or her toy box, there is a space for the Wiffle Ball," said Chris Byrne, president of Byrne Communication Inc., a New York-based toy consultant firm. "It's inexpensive. It's recession-proof. It's something kids and parents play with."
The company still has only about 15 permanent employees, including the new president's brother, Stephen Mullany, 37, the vice president.
Their grandfather, David N., played baseball at the University of Connecticut and in industrial leagues in Bridgeport. Down on his luck, he tried selling car polish, but the business failed in 1953. He kept its demise a secret from his family, pretending to go to work each day. One evening that summer, his son was in the yard, struggling to throw a curveball.
Father and son took plastic balls used in packaging and experimented by cutting holes in them. They eventually decided that the eight-slot ball worked best.
Then and now
David N. started selling the balls at a local diner, hired a marketer and reached an agreement with Woolworth stores to sell the balls. The company incorporated the next year.
Fifty years later, the Mullany brothers are in the office in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. On this day, they, too, are answering phones, jotting down orders and checking on inventory and production.
Out in the back of the brick building, the process of turning plastic pellets into balls is automated now. But the ball's design hasn't changed. And the company remains a family operation with no intention of going public.
The Wiffle baseball retails for about $1.25 to $1.50. Over the years, the company has added to its line a Wiffle softball, Wiffle golf balls, a plastic ball with no holes and a flying ring called the Scaler.
Revenue and production numbers remain closely held secrets.
The company isn't trying to develop any major new products or expand overseas. The Wiffle, family members say, still sells itself.
Why it's survived
Despite the competition for kids' time, the Mullanys say, Wiffle has survived because baby-boomer parents are still buying it for their children. A Wiffle Ball -- even when hit solidly with a plastic bat -- doesn't travel anywhere near as far as a real baseball, so games can be contained in the back yard, and with just a few players.
Over the years, several companies have tried to purchase the business. Offers still come in at least twice a month, the family says. But the Mullanys say they've never had good reason to sell.
"One has to do something, and I was happy working with my father, and I'm very happy working with my sons," David A. said. "We have had many offers, but I've seen good products gobbled up by bigger companies, and then the products fade into oblivion. There is nothing wrong with being a small company."
Especially one that keeps its eye on the ball.

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