Monday, March 23, 2009

Baseball Place No. 25: Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory; and Alternative Place No. 35A: Wiffle Ball Factory

Credit Pete Browning’s slump for the birth of the Louisville Slugger.

Browning was star of the 1884 Louisville Eclipse, and one day young Bud Hillerich brought him something the apprentice carved up in his father’s wood shop.

Browning started slugging, word spread about the bat and a legend was born.

Josh Pahigian tells that story as he describes spot No. 35 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory sounds like a neat place, with its 120-foot steel bat leaning against the building, and near exhibits inside about great hitters and their lumber.

Alas, this location, too, eludes me. But I can offer a spot just as important to baseball fans everywhere, but much more humble.

Of course, I refer to:

Alternative Place No. 35A: Wiffle Ball factory, Shelton, Conn.

Here’s one of my favorite tales from the archive.

For the unaware, Wiffle balls are plastic baseballs with eight oblong holes on one side that allow even a Little Leaguer to break off curve balls like Bert Blyleven.

You already know from places No. 14, Doubleday Field, and No. 20A, Wrigleyville Wiffle Ball Spot, that the white plastic ball is an object of great affection, and even inspired deep, deep thoughts.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was on one of my first days as a real, full-time reporter when I saw a small factory on Bridgeport Ave. in Shelton, Conn. with the Wiffle Ball sign in front.

The epicenter of all things Wiffle was right there, down the street from the suburban bureau I was calling home.

And the factory existed in relative secrecy, too. I could never understand why signs at the city limits didn’t read, "Welcome to Shelton, home of the Wiffle Ball."

That area of Connecticut is home to Sikorsky helicopters — in Stratford — and Bic pens and razors and even Subway sandwich shops — both in Milford — all of which have a higher profile, and all of which pale in importance to the Wiffle ball.

The plastic spheres were an essential part of my youth. There aren’t too many places to do more than play catch with a real baseball in suburban New York.

But we could take full hacks at a Wiffle ball anywhere in our small yards without fear of injury to person or property. We played Wiffle Ball everywhere.

And the make contingent of the Valley Bureau took our Wiffle Ball seriously. We even mounted a poster for a community production of "Romeo and Juliet" on a back wall just low enough to serve as a strike zone.
Since I covered Shelton planning and zoning, I immediately started plotting for any excuse to write about the factory. I eventually came up with something flimsy, placed the call and secured my invitation.

I was greeted by David Mullany, grandson of the inventor, who gave me a quick tour of the machines that pump white plastic into molds. The yellow bats and cardboard packaging were made somewhere else and shipped to Shelton.

I then dropped the burning question: What makes the balls curve?

And I couldn’t believe the answer: "We have no idea."

It was time for the creation story. Every culture has one.David told me how his father, also named David, and his brother would play baseball with plastic practice golf balls and broomsticks in their backyard.

The boys were trying to break off deuces all day, and the grandfather — he, too, was named David — was once a semi-pro pitcher and worried the boys would hurt their young arms.

So he bought a bunch of the plastic golf balls, sat down at the kitchen table with a steak knife and started cutting patterns into the balls.

For some reason, and the family doesn’t know why, the version with the eight ovals on one side easily curved. Hold a ball so the ovals are on the right, ball curves right. Ovals on the left and you can guess what happens.

The company made a baseball-sized Wiffle ball, and if you look hard you can find softball and mini-sized balls, too.

Then it was time for some inside information. Our office games were important, especially when the weather warmed up and we took our competition to the driveway across the street. I needed a strikeout pitch, and I had an audience with a master.

At that point, he bestowed upon me a private lesson on the Wiffle knuckler. And gentle reader, I pass this knowledge on to you.

Hold the ball so the ovals face your palm instead of right or left. Place two of your fingertips at the base of the holes, and push off with those fingers as you release the ball. The ball should float in without spinning, and the batter will either be mesmerized by the beauty of the whole thing or flail hopelessly when he realizes too late that no curve is coming.

My co-workers got a little out of hand when our lunch-hour games started stretching well into the afternoon, and then when we started challenging the Stratford Bureau.I think about the story of the Wiffle Ball when I ponder some of life’s big mysteries.

The Mullany family built their business on a product without knowing how it worked, but accepted that it just did and always would. Blind faith.

And we can’t explain why some things happen. They just do.

We must remember that God is in control, not us. Accept that curves in life are coming for reasons we can’t — or aren’t meant to — understand.And once in a while, expect a knuckleball.

I shared this story with students in my journalism class. I wanted to show them an example of the interesting people we get to meet as reporters, but also about placing our trust in the creator whose timing and methods we don’t always understand.

I gave each of them a Wiffle Ball, too, as a reminder.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

Some pretty designs alright. Doing the painting yourselves is more fun but a good place for ideas for more design is this site of, that I use to help with my wall decorations.
You can browse for a painting like this The tree, by 20th century Czech artist, Frantisek Kupka, for example, , that can be ordered on line and delivered to you.