STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And no doubt some people spend part of this Labor Day slapping a hollow, plastic bowl around the yard. It is not the most physical of all sports. But there is, at least, no chance of breaking a window if you knock the Wiffle ball off course. NPR's Chris Arnold reports on where the game began.
CHRIS ARNOLD: Over the years, the Wiffle ball has wound its way into the fabric of America. You might not even like baseball very much. But chances are you've taken a swing at that white, plastic ball with the oval slots around one side. These days, there are Wiffle ball leagues and clubs and lots of Wiffle ball home videos on the Internet.
(Soundbite of video)
(Soundbite of bat hitting ball)
Unidentified Man #1: Get out of here.
Unidentified Man #2: There you go.
Unidentified Man #3: Whoo!
Unidentified Man #4: Yeah!
Unidentified Woman: Way to go, Ted.
ARNOLD: There is something about the Wiffle ball that's kind of irresistible. Just about every toy store - and even many hardware stores -in America sell Wiffle balls. Probably one reason they're so popular is that they're pretty cheap.
Unidentified Man #5: OK. One Wiffle ball and bat, 4.56.
(Soundbite of cash register)
Unidentified Man #5: All right. That's all I need.
Unidentified Man #6: Thanks a lot.
ARNOLD: Now, many people might figure a cheap, plastic toy like a Wiffle ball - these days, that has to be made someplace like China.
But they're not made in China?
Mr. DAVID MULLANY: No. Every Wiffle ball ever made came from here in Connecticut, and we plan on keeping it that way.
ARNOLD: That's David Mullany, whose grandfather invented the Wiffle ball back in 1953. And in keeping with the Labor Day spirit, he says the balls are still made by American workers. As you can read on the side of every orange and black Wiffle ball box, they're made in Shelton, Connecticut.
Mr. MULLANY: What I'll do is show you, you know, basically how the halves get made. So everything starts out as little, plastic pellets.
ARNOLD: We went to the Wiffle ball world headquarters in Shelton, which it turns out is a pretty small, brick building by the side of the highway. David's brother Steven says sometimes, families driving by on vacation see the old Wiffle ball sign on the building, and they get all excited and pull off the road.
Mr. STEVEN MULLANY: You know, and the guy slams his brakes on and comes around and he's like, this is it - you know?
ARNOLD: The Wiffle ball factory.
Mr. S. MULLANY: Yeah, and they expect - you know, is this the world headquarters? And they expect to see this big building, and this is it, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
ARNOLD: Sometimes, the brothers will show them around. At the heart of the small operation here is a single machine that presses the two plastic halves together to make the finished Wiffle balls. The machine looks kind of like one of those glass-sided popcorn makers that you see in movie theaters or some pubs. But it's popping out Wiffle balls instead of popcorn.
So this right here is where the Wiffle balls are born, basically - I guess.
Mr. S. MULLANY: Yeah, yeah. You know, once those two halves are made, you really need to get them put together. And so this is where that happens.
(Soundbite of machinery)
ARNOLD: There is a video of this at NPR.org. Every eight seconds, just four balls at a time fall out of the bottom of the machine. But chugging away here in this little, brick building, that's eventually enough to fill big crates full of Wiffle balls that are shipped to thousands of toy stores around the country. But why isn't this being done cheaper in China? David Mullany says he's just not interested in that.
Mr. D. MULLANY: We're very happy producing our products here. No reason we can't make a top-quality product here at an affordable price and stay in business.
ARNOLD: Part of the answer also seems to be that making Wiffle balls has become pretty automated. Melting down the raw plastic involves two computer-controlled machines, and the factory only employs about 15 people. On top of that, they try to keep costs down as much as they can.
Mr. D. MULLANY: Our defect rate and our scrap rates are ridiculously low.
ARNOLD: As far as how the Mullanys' grandfather invented the Wiffle ball, the story is that in the early 1950s, he was an out-of-work semi-pro baseball pitcher, and he set about trying to make a ball that kids could throw curve balls with. He started selling his first plastic balls at a local diner. The owner put a few out by the register.
Mr. D. MULLANY: Put them on the counter and see what happens, and he went back, you know, a few days later and they were gone.
ARNOLD: And the rest is Wiffle ball history. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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