The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.
Play Stuff Blog
On November 9, 2017, Wiffle Ball took its place of honor in the National Toy Hall of Fame, joining 64 other classic toys and games. Introduced in 1953, the Wiffle Ball represents the optimism of the postwar era and the romanticism of life in the suburbs. Part of the Wiffle Ball’s charm is that it remains relatively unchanged since its introduction. The orange, black, and white Wiffle Ball box today features nearly the same typeface and instructions on how to throw the ball as it did originally; on occasion the box depicted a celebrity such as Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, or Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney. The game rules and dimensions for the field of play prove simple enough for players to make it their own. And play with a Wiffle Ball grants the pitcher with the magic of illusion thanks to its founder’s perseverance.
It all began in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1952 when David Nelson Mullany watched his 12-year-old son and a friend play a pick-up game with a perforated plastic golf ball and a broomstick. Based on the kids’ creative adaptation of baseball, Mullany decided that postwar American suburbia did not have “enough room for two teams, enough space for a field,” and neighborhood baseball games led to “too many broken windows.” Mullany batted around a few ideas and he began to cut holes in ball-shaped plastic containers he commandeered from a nearby cosmetics manufacturer, with his son stepping up to the plate to test the designs. As a retired semi-pro baseball pitcher, Mullany also wanted a design that made it easier for his son to throw curve balls. Through trial and error, the Mullanys determined that a ball with eight oblong slots cut into one hemisphere worked best at grabbing the air and diverting the ball’s trajectory. The pitcher could easily throw a curve, a slider, or a knuckle ball. Players used a thin purpose-built bat, which further advantaged the pitcher by handicapping the batter. Their version of the revised game produced a good number of strike-outs, called “whiffs” in the Mullany’s neighborhood.
Having focus grouped his product, Mullany introduced a whole new ball game when he began to sell the balls for 49 cents each from the back of a station wagon and at a local diner. When Mullany supplied local stores with the ball in 1953, he removed the “h” and trademarked the name “Wiffle.” Mullany’s design slowed the pick-up game and shrunk its field. Minimizing the effects of size and skill, his goofy orb evened the contest and had a big impact on neighborhood play. Mullany broaden his reach in 1954 when he hired a marketing agent based in New York. Wiffle Balls hit the market on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan and the company struck a deal with Woolworth stores. The Wiffle Ball proved sufficiently successful that, in the following decades, the company has only produced one major marketing campaign—in the 1960s, New York Yankee Whitey Ford endorsed the Wiffle Ball in a short film about how to throw the ball. The Wiffle Ball Corporation soon set-up shop in a small, two-story brick factory in Shelton, Connecticut, and managed to cultivate the all-American pastime with its product. The Wiffle Ball Corporation insists that, when it comes to their signature product, they do not “know exactly why it works—it just does.” For more than 60 years, generations of kids have started their baseball careers swinging at a Wiffle Ball, demonstrating precisely the type of longevity and iconic status that has earned it entry into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
In the spring, guests attending The Strong’s Museum Secrets events got a behind-the-scenes look at The Strong’s conservation labs and learned about some of the strategies and techniques used to keep collections preserved.
GIFT SHOP. Those two words might strike fear into the hearts of museum-going parents, but for children who have been bribed into good behavior, it is a beacon. Don’t disappear, don’t have a tantrum, don’t break anything—you may be rewarded with something from the museum’s gift shop. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where we had a treasure trove of museums to frequent.
Museums have long memorialized genius. While art museums preserve great paintings and sculptures, history museums collect and preserve a wide-ranging record of the ways individuals, groups, and companies have shaped our society.
In November 2015, I came from my home in Turin, Italy, to spend a month at The Strong museum working on my research project, “The Meaning of Toys: Creating and Conveying Knowledge through Playful Artifacts.” I was honored to be granted a Strong Research Fellowship that financed the first half of my stay.
In my previous blog titled I’d Like to Thank All the Little People, I described the profound impact that Fisher-Price’s Play Family had on my preschool years in the early 1970s.
Recently, debates about women and video games have been making the rounds. The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Colbert Report, for instance, have drawn attention to what it can be like for women in gaming communities.
The Strong not only collects playthings, but also acquires significant material related to the invention, manufacture, and use of those playthings. One of the museum’s treasures is the collection of games, game prototypes, and archives from noted American game inventor and historian, Sid Sackson. Sackson (1920–2002) is revered among inventors, collectors, and serious players for his lifelong dedication to games and the gaming world.
Anyone interested in the evolution of video games can learn a great deal by simply examining the history of the six newest inductees into The Strong’s World Video Game Hall of Fame: The Oregon Trail, Space Invaders, The Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Sims, and Grand Theft Auto III.
It’s game night and my friends are gathered in my dining room. Four of them are face-down in a plateful of whipped cream, with their hands tied behind their backs, desperately trying to find snack-size candy bars hidden underneath. The rest of the group are laughing raucously, cheering their partners on. The goal of the first group to find and eat all five hidden snack-size candy bars is well on its way, and it looks like it’s coming down between my friend, James, and my wife, Kaytlyn.
I have a confession to make. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I’m hoping readers will understand. I’m 34 years old, and just recently, I attended my first rock concert. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering my profession, this concert consisted of a hard rock opera based on the 1980s video game series Mega Man.