Is Competitive Wiffle Ball the Next Big Travel Phenomenon?
18 Sep, 2019By: Michael Popke
It might be a game you haven’t played since you were a rambunctious six-year-old in the backyard with a plastic yellow bat and large white ball, but Wiffle ball has become serious business for a segment of the U.S. sports-participation population. And event owners and destinations need to be ready.
Just ask players on the Blue Kamikazes from Albany, N.Y., a member team of the American Wiffle Ball Association of America (AWAA) that earlier this summer emerged from an 18-team field in Morenci, Mich., as champions of the National Wiffle League Association Tournament (NWLA).
“We’re really good friends playing a children’s game as adults,” team member Jim Cole told The Times Union of Albany. “We wouldn’t play if we weren’t having fun. A lot of good friends I’ve met have been through this. Without Wiffle ball, I wouldn’t have met them. It’s pretty much a big brotherhood.”
Michigan wasn’t the only state hosting a high-profile Wiffle ball tournament this summer. The 40th annual World Wiffle Ball Championship (WWBC) was held in the Chicago suburb of Midlothian, Ill., In late July and is believed to be the oldest in the country.
It is “just one of hundreds that dot the summer calendar nationwide,” according to TheRinger.com, a sports and pop culture website that compared Wiffle ball to other less traditional sports that are finding new players and audiences, such as ultimate disc. “Long a sport that lived primarily in kids’ backyards, Wiffle ball over the past decade has boomed for adults, too: as a nostalgic reminder of youth, as a conduit for intense competition, and as a spectator sport all in one.
The website notes that while the majority of WWBC teams were from Illinois or Indiana, a total of12 total states were represented in the 2019 tournament field of 60 teams.
Every Wiffle ball tournament and organization apparently has its own rules. For example, while AWAA regulations allow four balls and three strikes per batter, and one stolen base per game, there are no called strikes and no balls in the WWBC, and stealing bases is not allowed. Most Wiffle ball teams, across the board, field three to five players.
Of course, some Wiffle ball groups take themselves more seriously than others. The Golden Stick Wiffle Ball League is “an ultra-competitive collection of the game’s top players, men who swing $200 carbon-fiber bats and spend hours carefully carving patterns into the plastic balls to make them behave like the laws of physics are drunk,” according to the Boston Globe.
In late summer, 30 teams from around the country competed in the league’s national championships in Hamilton, Mass. — the state the Globe credits with berthing competitive Wiffle ball:
Invented in the 1950s, Wiffle ball was designed as a way to play “baseball” in a small space without breaking everything. It was developed by David Mullany, a Connecticut dad who saw his son and some friends trying, and failing, to play in his backyard using a small plastic golf ball. Mullany created a baseball-size plastic ball, into which he cut eight oblong holes on one half, allowing it to do what the plastic golf ball would not: curve easily.
By the 1960s, the low-cost Wiffle ball and its slender yellow bat — the set still costs only about four bucks today — were a national hit. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the competitive game took off in earnest, when a man in Hanover [Mass.] named Rick Ferroli built a Wiffle ball field that looked like a miniature Fenway Park in his mother’s backyard, complete with a 15-foot plywood Green Monster.
So many people wanted to play on his mini Fenway that he began hosting tournaments that he dubbed the “national championships.” Working from Ferroli’s basic rules — the most notable being there are no baserunners, with the distance of the hit determining whether it’s a single, double, triple, or home run — those national championships have continued on in various evolutions to today.
“The longer you do it, the more competitive you become,” Kyle VonScheusingen, another member of the NWLA champion Blue Kamikazes, told The Times Union. “You’re willing to travel across the country to prove how good you are at Wiffle ball. A lot of people don’t believe that you can throw 90 mph or throw with as much action on the ball. I would tell anybody who is skeptical of it to watch a game to see that it’s legitimate competition.”