Fat Bats and Invisible Runners

Picture from Fixtures Close Up.

They were a sign of spring, popping up like tulips or daffodils out of their white pots, inviting every kid to grab one. The setting might have been different for each of us–a supermarket, a stationary store, a 7-Eleven–but we all saw the same skinny yellow stem with a red, white, and blue cardboard flower that read “Wiffle.”

I have no idea how many sets I owned as a kid but Wiffle ball had a constant presence my childhood, and was something that everyone wound up playing at some point or another. Very often, I’d be bored on a Saturday afternoon, get chased out of the house by my mom, and at some point, would rummage through my garage for the bat and ball with whichever friend happened to be around. Eventually, we’d get a game going with friends, neighbors, or even people we barely knew in whatever yard or empty street was available. Every game started the same way: we would plot out where the bases were using fence posts and bushes as bases and trees as foul poles, divide into teams, and play.

I never gave much thought to where Wiffle ball came from, and figured that it evolved from the games of stickball on the streets of Brooklyn that my parents’ generation played until they moved out to the suburbs in the 1950s, trading shadow of Ebbets Field to the shadow of a maple tree on the street of the same name. But it is a decidedly suburban game, created in the summer of 1953 in a Fairfield, Connecticut backyard. Two kids really wanted to play baseball, but the constraints—not enough people, not enough space, too much property damage—and made it impossible to get a good game going, so out of that, a new game was created. According to an account by David J. and Stephen A. Mullany on Wiffle ball’s official website, their father and his friend approached their grandfather—who himself played semi-pro ball—and:

He picked up some ball-shaped plastic parts from a nearby factory, cut various designs into them and sent Dad out to test them. They both agreed that the ball with eight oblong perforations worked best. That’s how the WIFFLE perforated plastic ball was invented. To this day, we don’t know exactly why it works… it just does!!

The ball they designed was easy to make curve and harder to hit, with lots of strikeouts. In our Dad’s neighborhood, a strike-out was called a “wiff”, which led to our brand name and federally registered trademark “WIFFLE”.

They also came up with a formal set of rules that designated distances for singles, doubles, triples and home runs, something I didn’t know about until recently because I don’t remember seeing any instructions with that sparsely packaged ball and bat. Plus, since there was no Internet, we just followed the rules of baseball when we played, putting as many people on the field as we could, and creating invisible runners when necessary.

Ah, the invisible runner, the universal placeholder for a small-sized team of kids, and the source of 99.9% of Wiffle ball arguments. I can’t count the number of times I hit the ball, rounded first, stepped safely on second and declared that another run had scored because I had invisible runners on second and third, only to have that disputed. Thankfully, most of those arguments were over quickly, but every so often I had to hear a sniveling “It’s not!” from That One Kid.

I don’t know how he always ended up in our group, but no matter the backyard or pickup game, That One Kid went 110%, pitching like he was Roger Clemens and swinging like he was Babe Ruth, although his only discernable skill was trash talking like the bear-drenched Yankees fan he was fated to become. I grew up hating this kid because it always seemed like he was out to make me feel terrible. Every remark he made had a snide tone of superiority, especially because of his athletic prowess or knowledge of the game. Plus, he didn’t seem to realize that we were playing for the fun of it. Wiffle ball allowed us to practice curve balls, sliders, and knuckleballs. Plus, if I really thought that we were playing the seventh game of the World Series, would I thrown so many eephus pitches (which we called “folly floaters”)?*

And by the way, since the ball was designed for better pitching, that made the game freaking hard. A good curve ball and an incredibly thin bat meant that we spent more time swinging and missing (with the occasional foul tip) instead of smacking the ball across the lawn. So when we got tired of sucking at the plate we would switch to “home run derby” mode, busting out the “illegal weapon”, which was a giant red fat bat left over from a preschool-aged baseball/softball set that had been in my garage next to the big wheels that were nearly destroyed and collecting dust. We’d ditch the rules and strand the invisible runners, designate a home run marker, and say “First to twenty wins.”

Well, that or whomever was winning when the ball got eaten by the huge tree in my parents’ yard. In those moments, I could step up to the plate and greet the underhanded pitch the way I wish I had been able to face the hardballs on the actual baseball diamond, hitting moon shot after moon shot and celebrating while my friends retrieved the ball from our neighbors’ lawn, not wanting it to end, even when it was getting dark and my parents were calling me in for dinner.

*Deep down, I knew that he wasn’t worth my aggravation, but the Little League years were hard for me and largely contributed to my insecurities in sports. In fact, years later, I would spend a lot of time in intramural and rec league softball hearing the voice of that one kid in my head as I tried desperately not to embarrass myself.