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A Brief History of Wiffle Ball

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Wiffle Ball season is once again upon us. Before you pick up your first white plastic ball and yellow plastic bat of the summer, we thought we'd fill you in on a few points about the proud game's history and science.

Where did Wiffle Ball originate?

In 1953, David N. Mullany was watching his 12-year-old son and some friends playing a baseball-like game with a perforated plastic golf ball and a broomstick in their Fairfield, CT, backyard. The boys were trying to sneak pitches past each other by throwing curveballs and sliders, but to no avail.

Mullany, who had been a semipro hurler himself, knew all too well what thousands of Little Leaguers have had to painfully learn: nothing shreds a tender adolescent arm quite as effectively as throwing breaking balls. Mullany set about trying to save the boys' shoulders and elbows by creating a ball that would curve and bend on its own.

His original medium was an unexpected one: a hard plastic ball that served as packaging for Coty perfume. After having the boys experiment with various designs, Mullany hit on the Wiffle Ball we now know and love.

What's with the name?

Like a lot of baseball fans, Mullany's son and his friends referred to strikeouts as "whiffs." Since the new invention made knee-buckling curveballs a breeze to throw, pitchers started racking up the punchouts. Mullany named the product the Wiffle Ball to honor its strikeout-friendly breaks.

Why no "h" if the ball is named after whiffs?

The Mullanys allegedly nixed the "h" to save money if they ever had to buy a sign for their fledgling enterprise.

How did the Mullanys advertise their product?

For years the Mullany family marketed their Wiffle wares using pictures of star big leaguers like Ted Williams and Pete Rose on the packaging. So did the Splendid Splinter and Charlie Hustle like to play with the darting plastic ball on their days off? Not necessarily. The Mullanys later explained in interviews that doing actual photo shoots with the players would have been too pricey, so they just negotiated with players' agents and then used any old photograph. The good news: this means you might have stood a chance against Whitey Ford in Wiffle Ball.

What makes it break and spin?

It's a pretty simple concept even if you're not a physicist. The side of the ball without the holes cut into it obviously has greater surface area than the other half. Thanks to this difference in surface area, a larger amount of atmospheric pressure acts on the hole-free side, which makes the pitch curve towards the holes.

What about scuffs?

Throwing a pristine Wiffle Ball is easy. Getting the desired break on one that's been out in the yard for a while is more of a challenge. All bets are off regarding the aforementioned physics once the ball gets knicked, cut, and otherwise scuffed after taking a few solid whacks off the trusty yellow bat. In fact, if a ball is scuffed or cut in just the right way, all of the physics of the curves and breaks can be reversed; the pitch will actually curve away from the holes.

As you might guess, competitive players who are looking for an edge go to great lengths to "damage" their balls in just the right way to make their pitches really dance. They'll scuff the ball with sandpaper, stomp on it, even heat it up in a microwave to subtly change its surface. According to a 2002 article in The Atlantic, competitive players are allowed to do anything short of changing the molecular structure of a ball's plastic to achieve the desired effect.

Wait, competitive Wiffle Ball?

Yup. Since the mid-1990s, adult Wiffle Ball leagues have been popping up around the country, and some of them are pretty serious. They even meet in annual competitions like the Wiffle Up! Three on Three World Tour, which pays out thousands of dollars to the winning teams.

How does competitive Wiffle Ball work?

This came as a bit of a surprise to us since we're used to playing Wiffle Ball like normal baseball with lighter equipment. However, some tournaments use altered rules that remove baserunning from the equation. Instead, a batted ball is assigned a value—single, double, etc.—based on where it lands on the field of play. Some number of "outfielders" try to catch the balls on the fly, and the ones that drop for hits advance whatever "runners" were already on base.

Other tournaments work more like traditional baseball and allow steals, bunts, and other strategic maneuvering.

Are these guys toting the classic yellow plastic bat?

Not quite. They're using equipment that you can't just pick up for a few bucks in the toy aisle of any drugstore. Instead, they come to the plate armed with bats made from aluminum, carbon fiber, fiberglass, or super-hardened plastic. You can pick one up if you want to dominate the game at your next company picnic, but grabbing that glory won't be cheap. Moonshot Bats' top-of-the-line SpectraCarb Enforcer goes for around $200.

What's competitive whiffing look like?

Here's a look at video from one competitive league. The movement on some of these pitches is insane even by Wiffle standards:

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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Pop Culture
Evel Knievel, Insurance Salesman
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To his coworkers at the Combined Insurance Company of America in Chicago, he was just Bob. A few months shy of his 24th birthday and newly married, Bob was ambitious, charming, and sincere—all qualities company president W. Clement Stone valued in his salesmen. To push high-volume, short-term disability insurance, customers needed to trust their words. Bob Knievel could look a man in the eyes and tell him that $3 worth of insurance was money well spent, and they'd believe him.

Years later, when Bob adopted the Evel Knievel persona and made breaking his bones a spectator sport, his former colleagues would stare at their televisions in amazement. There went Bob, clearing 10 or 14 or 20 cars on a motorcycle. There lies Bob, a heap of fractured limbs that needed to be scraped off the pavement like chewing gum.

In the span of just a few short years, the best insurance salesman in his assigned district had become the most famous daredevil in the world.

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Born in Butte, Montana, in 1938, Robert Knievel stole his first motorcycle at the age of 13. Prone to delinquency and petty crime, he failed to get a high school diploma and instead entered the U.S. Army Reserves. By the time he was 19 years old, he was out of uniform and starting up a semi-pro hockey team, drawing crowds at local arenas and even playing Olympic hopefuls from the Czech Republic. (Knievel’s team lost 22-3.)

By 1960, any discernible skills beyond mediocre athleticism and amoral behavior weren’t quite ready to reveal themselves. Knievel struck upon the idea of becoming a merchant policeman in Butte, which was a fancy term for being a private security specialist. Knievel would approach businesses and promise he’d act as a kind of sentry, checking their locations for suspicious activity and thwarting any robbery or vandalism attempts.

What Knievel wouldn’t admit until much later was that he was frequently the perpetrator of that activity, breaking windows and robbing the registers of businesses that didn’t sign up for his services. It was his version of property insurance.

A few things conspired to redirect Knievel’s ambitions. He married Linda Bork in 1959, and the couple started a family. He also grew concerned that Butte authorities were close to catching up with his security monitoring scam. In the summer of 1962, Knievel decided to go straight and become a salesman for Combined Insurance.

The company’s district manager in Montana dispatched Knievel to Chicago, where he underwent a two-week training course in sales tactics endorsed by president W. Clement Stone. Stone had co-authored a book, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, and considered it his business gospel. The lessons were at the level of fortune cookies and free of cynicism (“Big doors swing on little hinges,” “Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will”) but Knievel never once rolled his eyes. He absorbed the strategies and hit the road back in his home state, prepared to sell the $3 policies and collect his 60 cents per signature.

Earning an honest living at that rate would require volume. So Knievel traveled to working-class towns and paid bars to allow him to set up an “office” in a booth, where he could catch the steady stream of farmers coming in for a drink. He stopped workers at a train repair station during lunch breaks, and preached the virtues of the payments Combined would offer in the event the insured had an accident. Sometimes he’d pass up the $3 and do barter trades, like when a rancher once offered to give him a lame horse.

If Knievel had a crowning moment in his gone-straight, suit-and-tie life, it was when he set a district record for the most policies sold in a single week. He had talked his way into a state mental hospital in Warm Springs, Montana, and sold coverage to the staff—and if company legend is to be believed, to many of the hospital's patients as well. Knievel logged 271 sign-ups that week.

For this, Knievel got an award and recognition; he was feted by company executives as an example of the can-do spirit their president endorsed. While he enjoyed the attention, what Bob really wanted was to occupy the office of the vice president. When Combined refused to promote him, he quit. Without advancement in sight, making a living out of a suitcase ceased to be appealing. Knievel wanted to do something else.

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After leaving Combined, Knievel returned to his rudderless lifestyle. He found work at a motorcycle shop in Wyoming and thought a good way to drum up business would be to hop on a bike and try to jump over a pit infested with rattlesnakes.

It was.

That then gave him the idea to jump greater distances, which eventually led to him convincing the operators of Caesars Palace that he could make the 150-foot jump over the fountains near the front entrance of their Las Vegas resort and casino. He didn’t make it, but footage of the 1967 wipeout was absolutely mesmerizing: Airborne one minute and tumbling on the ground the next, Knievel looked like a crash test dummy. Convalescing in the hospital with multiple broken bones, Knievel’s popularity soared. He became one of the most famous men in America in the 1970s, rivaled only by Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali.

Matt Tonning, one of Knievel’s former coworkers at Combined, was one of the millions of people who saw the footage. He was alarmed, but not because of the gruesome outcome. Over the years, Knievel had phoned Tonning to catch up and buy policies—10 in all, which was nine more than a salesperson was technically allowed to sell to any one person. Tonning liked Knievel so much that he usually just entered another salesman’s name to complete the transaction. The policies could not be canceled and covered any accident.

At no point did Knievel ever list his current occupation: daredevil.

Tonning was fired. When Knievel heard of his friend’s dismissal, he agreed to drop claims on nine of the policies.

If there were any hard feelings, Knievel never voiced them. He would later credit the unflinching optimism of Stone and his book as one of the key reasons he became a professional cheater of death. Staring up at the ramps that would launch him into the air, those sales lessons led him to believe he could make it—even when past experience proved otherwise.

Additional Sources: Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel.

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20 People You Didn't Know Were Southpaws
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Pernell Whitaker
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The "southpaw advantage" is more than just a boxing superstition. Fighting with a dominant left hand has helped some of the sport’s fiercest competitors rise to the top of their class. Here are 20 boxers who assumed the southpaw stance.

1. PERNELL WHITAKER

Pernell Whitaker launched his career at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when he defeated Cuban fighter Luis Ortiz (a fellow southpaw) to take home the gold. As a professional he claimed the world champion title in four weight classes: lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight, and light middleweight. Popular boxing magazine The Ring declared him the best boxer in the world pound-for-pound for a period in the 1990s.

2. MANNY PACQUIAO

Manny Pacquiao in the boxing ring.
Sunil Grover, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the best boxers of the 21st century also may be the most famous southpaw of all time. The Filipino athlete has racked up numerous distinctions over his career: He’s the first and only eight-division world champion, the first boxer to earn the lineal title across four weight divisions, and the first to win 10 world championships in eight classes. After achieving all that, he took a break from boxing to become a senator in the Philippines.

3. MARVIN JOHNSON

Marvin Johnson made a name for himself at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where he won a bronze medal boxing for the U.S. team. After returning to the States, he broke into the professional circuit and gained a 43-6 record during his 15-year career. He told his local Indianapolis news station in a 2008 interview, "Not trying to sound boastful, but I would describe myself as one of the best in the ring during my time."

4. TIGER FLOWERS

Portrait of Tiger Flowers.
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Theodore "Tiger" Flowers entered the professional boxing ring at a time when the sport was still segregated in America. He broke racial barriers in 1926 when he became the first black man to earn the world middleweight title. Flowers is also credited for helping make integrated audiences a more common sight at boxing matches.

5. RAFAEL LIMÓN

Born in Mexico in 1954, Rafael Limón won world titles in the super featherweight division. His performance in the ring earned him the volatile nickname “Bazooka.”

6. ADA VÉLEZ

Boxer Ada Velez in the ring.
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Ada Vélez became the first Puerto Rican boxer to secure a women's world boxing title in 2001. In this case, it wasn’t her southpaw that gave her the winning advantage—the champion she unseated, Kathy Williams, is also a leftie.

7. LEW TENDLER

He may have never won a world title, but that didn’t stop Lew Tendler from becoming a boxing legend. The athlete ascended to prominence in the 1920s, a golden age for boxing in the United States. Today he’s immortalized in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

8. YOUNG CORBETT III

Two boxers in the ring.

Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born Ralph Giordano in Italy, Young Corbett III was most famous for holding the world welterweight title for a short stint in 1933. Of the 151 professional matches he fought in the 1930s and '40s, he came out victorious in 123.

9. CARMEN BASILIO

Portrait of Carmen Basilio.
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Italian-American athlete Carmen Basilio is best known for his matches against boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson. He won the first of the storied fights in 1957. He was challenged to a rematch in 1958, and the second time, Robinson came out on top. After relinquishing his middleweight champion title to the victor, Basilio boxed only occasionally before retiring for good.

10. MARVELOUS MARVIN HAGLER

In 1987, Marvelous Marvin Hagler (his legal name) was the most formidable name in boxing. The American boxer was riding high on a seven-year reign as middleweight world champion, one of the longest streaks the class has ever seen. After defending his title 12 consecutive times, he made headlines for a different reason: losing to Sugar Ray Leonard in one of the most anticipated fights of the decade.

11. JACK PETERSEN

Boxers pose for photo in the ring.
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Jack Peterson was 18 years old when he reached the finals of the Welsh Amateur Boxing Association in the late 1920s. He returned the next year to win two titles (he also claimed a title from the British Amateur Boxing Association that same year). After going professional, Jack Petersen earned his place in history as the first Welshman to be crowned British heavyweight champion.

12. OSCAR DE LA HOYA

Portrait of Oscar De La Hoya in the boxing ring.
Alexis Cuarezma / Stringer / Getty Images

Mexican-American boxer Oscar De La Hoya represented the U.S. at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when he was still a teenager. Earning gold in the featherweight division was just the start of his decorated career. From there he earned world titles in six different weight classes and became the top-earning pay-per-view athlete of his day.

13. CHRIS BYRD

Boxer Chris Byrd hits Andrew Golota.
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There was a second southpaw competing for the U.S. at the Barcelona Olympics. During the 1992 games Chris Byrd took home the silver medal in the middleweight division. In the years to follow he rose to the ranks of two-time heavyweight world champion.

14. HECTOR CAMACHO

Hector
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Hector "Macho" Camacho’s quick punches and fancy footwork helped him bag world titles across multiple weight classes in the 1980s and early '90s. He was known for his flashy brand of showmanship: Some of the outfits he wore in the ring included a Roman gladiator costume and a monogrammed fur robe.

15. HOLLY HOLM

Holly Holm celebrates victory over Ronda Rousey.
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As a boxer, Holly Holm has earned and defended world champion titles many times over. She’s also known for being one of the few fighters to defeat superstar Ronda Rousey in the mixed martial arts ring.

16. GUILLERMO RIGONDEAUX

Guillermo Rigondeaux throws a right to the face of Drian Francisco during their junior featherweight bout.
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Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux is the current holder of the super bantamweight world title. He's also the owner of two Olympic gold medals—one he received in 2000 and the other in 2004.

17. SERGIO MARTINEZ

Sergio Martinez in boxing gear.
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From 2010 to 2014, Argentine boxer Sergio Martinez dominated as champion in the lineal middleweight division. He officially retired one year after losing the honor to Miguel Cotto.

18. REGGIE JOHNSON

James Toney throws a punch at Reggie Johnson during a fight.
Ken Levine / Getty Images

One of only eight men to win a world light heavyweight title after earning a title in middleweight, Reggie Johnson was one of boxing’s brightest stars in the late 1990s. He lost his light heavyweight title to Roy Jones Jr. in 1999, but even his rival had nothing but respect for the native Texan. Jones spoke of him to The Ring: “You won’t find a better person than Reggie Johnson in boxing.”

19. VICENTE SALDIVAR

Vicente "Southpaw" Saldivar is famous for more than his left-sided fighting stance. The Mexico City native competed in the 1960 Olympics, held world featherweight titles, and fought before massive crowds. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999.

20. ERISLANDY LARA

Erislandy Lara in the boxing ring.
Rob Foldy / Stringer / Getty Images

The junior middleweight world title currently belongs to Erislandy Lara. He adopted the nickname "The American Dream" after defecting from Cuba, and in early 2017 the boxer became an American citizen.

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