The World of Wiffle | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

The World of Wiffle

The men of the WCWBL take their plastic bats and balls pretty seriously.

by

comment

Game two of the World Series, and the Red Sox were at bat. Jim Galvan dug in, warmed up with a few right-handed swings, waited for the pitch. Galvan was a veteran player and the league home run leader, and his team had won the first game of the series.

White Sox pitcher Cesar Hernandez rocked back, ready to throw. The bases were loaded, the count was 2-2, and he needed an out. He came up with a fastball. The pitch started low, below Galvan's knees, but swept abruptly upward, rising almost parabolically over his head.

It smacked into a rain gutter, bounced off the aluminum siding, then hit the asphalt with a hollow plastic clap.

"Hey! Watch the siding, please," said Galvan, and kicked the ball back to Hernandez.

Galvan, 30, is the archivist, custodian, and patriarch of the 25-year-old Windy City Wiffle Ball League, an association of friends scattered across the south suburbs and northeast Indiana who compete seriously in a game that most people regard as a surrogate version of baseball for friendless children. Hernandez, 29, has been playing since 1981, the year Galvan started keeping records. Membership fluctuates annually, depending on the availability of the participants: the WCWBL began the 2002 season with eight teams, ended with seven, and have five confirmed so far for 2003.

Standard rules of baseball scoring apply, but the games are quick, seven-inning contests played by one-man teams. Batters are allowed only two outs and a maximum of four walks per inning, and both the bases and runners are imagined. A ground ball fielded cleanly by the pitcher is an out, and, in a force situation, a clean pickup by the pitcher followed by a strike to home results in a double play.

Hernandez's next pitch, a waist-high floater, looked fat most of the way, then dropped sharply in front of the batter. Galvan, a free swinger, took a large cut and missed. Inning over, three Red Sox stranded. Galvan huffed, then walked into the two-car garage, where he bent over a spiral notebook to record the stats.

WCWBL members are rec-league softball players and former prep baseball players; they're also serious adults, with jobs and wives and kids. Each member assumes the identity of a major-league team and together they attempt to complete a 30-game schedule. They play Wiffle ball in driveways and front yards every weekend throughout the summer and fall--and when their lives get in the way, they play into winter, which is how game two of the World Series came to take place on a clear morning in December.

Most players switch teams every so often, but Jim's older brother John has played as the Chicago Cubs since 1977. "Something's wrong with him," said Jim.

But in their parallel Wiffle universe, the Cubs won a World Series in 1999.

WCWBL players give affectionate names to their home fields, too. Hernandez's White Sox play at Holy Grounds, named for a church in south suburban Steger. "We had an hour delay for a funeral one time," he said. "Unknown corpse."

Galvan's Red Sox hosted game two not far from there, at Payton Park--named for the family's black Lab. "Payton usually retrieves foul balls," said Kara Galvan, Jim's wife. "But it's too cold today." Payton Park is the wide, sloping driveway that leads to the Galvans' garage. The field of play radiates outward from a freestanding backstop placed at the entrance of the garage: a ball hit into the street is a single, into the opposing parkway is a double, over the sidewalk and into the neighbors' front yard is a home run.

"Cesar once hit a ball 129 feet, all the way to the light near that house," Galvan said between innings, pointing across the street. "We keep records of everything. Walks, hits, errors, strikeouts. When we were kids, I used to write the games up in a notebook, draw pictures--but we didn't really keep official stats. That changed a few years ago."

There are leagues and associations like the WCWBL across the country, each differing in rules and roster limits, and there are variants called "yard-ball" or "perforated plastic baseball." Dozens of tournaments nationwide attract hundreds of teams. There's a New Jersey Wiffle Ball Association, a North Texas Wiffle Ball League, and a Southern Cal Wiffleball Association. Wiffle-size replicas of Boston's Fenway Park, complete with Green Monster, have been erected in Wayland, Massachusetts, Hanover, Massachusetts, and Jerico, Vermont.

When players from Galvan's league band together to compete in tournaments, as they did on four occasions this summer, they call themselves the Windy City Thunder. The Thunder has won a two-on-two Wiffle tournament in Sycamore, Illinois, and a five-on-five tournament in Crown Point, Indiana, and plans to host a tournament of its own in Sauk Village next year.

"They played in a 63-team tournament in Mishawaka this summer with teams from California and the east coast. There was even a team from Spain," said Kara. That would be the annual World Whiffleball Championships, staged each summer for the past 23 years in Mishawaka, Indiana. (They misspell Wiffle intentionally, to avoid trademark infringement issues with Connecticut-based manufacturer The Wiffle Ball, Inc.) Mishawaka-style Wiffle means four-man teams playing a slow-pitch game with real base runners. Players are called out either when tagged or struck by a thrown ball. Tournament organizers maintain a Web site, whiffleball.org, that displays a regularly updated list called "Super 20 Whiffleball teams on the Planet Earth." As of mid-August, about half the list was based along the I-80 industrial corridor of eastern Indiana, in Whiting, Elkhart, South Bend, and Mishawaka.

"We only played three games, then were out of Mishawaka," Jim admitted. "It was pretty serious competition."

"This is our tournament bat," Hernandez said, holding a scuffed, lightweight yellow bat with cloth tape around the handle. "It's an old-style Wiffle bat. Thicker and harder than the new ones, and the hole [at the end of the barrel] is smaller than the bats they sell today."

"You're using the tournament bat out here?" Jim groused.

The familiar white Wiffle ball, hollow plastic with eight oblong holes around one hemisphere, was invented in 1952 by David Nelson Mullany of Fairfield, Connecticut, for his 12-year-old son, who had neither the space for baseball nor the arm to throw curveballs. When tossed lightly the perforated ball did inexplicable things--curving eight or ten feet in any direction--controllable only by those who studied its mechanics. The Mullanys formed The Wiffle Ball, Inc., in Shelton, Connecticut, the next year and began marketing their product.

The ball has changed little in 50 years--it now comes in baseball and softball sizes--but the bats have gone through many incarnations, not all yellow and not all plastic. Wooden Wiffle bats were manufactured until 1972, and a two-piece plastic prototype was manufactured in 1958 but never offered to the public. The classic thin plastic bat was introduced in 1959, but its weight and grip have been altered over time. A plastic shortage in 1975 necessitated a one-year change from yellow to black. A junior bat is marketed to spindly youths who can't hoist the standard model. An aluminum bat appeared in 1999, and the Moonshot, a graphite composite model, followed not long after.

WCWBL rules allow only plastic bats--excluding the notorious fat-barreled red bat--and the league uses the standard ball. In moments of crisis, however, they make allowances. For instance: Galvan fractured the last available Wiffle ball with a sharp grounder against the cold driveway in the fifth inning of game two, so he and Hernandez patched it up with duct tape. The heavier ball picked up velocity and dulled breaking pitches, but the score remained 2-1 Galvan at the top of the sixth.

Hernandez took a walk, sending an imaginary runner to first. Then Galvan lobbed a flat, slow pitch into his wheelhouse and he swatted it: there was the sharp smack of plastic on plastic and the gray ball sailed high, deep, and well over Hillcrest Lane, falling in the short grass of the neighbors' front yard. Home run. Hernandez led 3-2. The next pitch was pure plastic heat, aimed right at Hernandez's ear.

Kara needed to run errands, meaning Galvan would have to attend to their two-year-old son, Grant. Hernandez needed to get home for his son's first birthday party. Still, at the start of the seventh, Galvan was working the count, attempting to coax a cheap base runner out of him. He got the walk, but then drove a fastball into the black asphalt--an easy pickup for Hernandez, who smoked a throw home for the game-ending double play. Game over, series tied 1-1.

After the game, Galvan sat at his dining room table with the archives of the WCWBL spread before him. A frayed orange folder contained a record of the first decade of the league--game recaps and caricatures drawn in felt-tip marker, with cutout images from baseball cards glued above the excited handwritten narrative. Recent years, 2000-2002, are kept in a white three-ring binder. The written history is replaced by numerical authority: precise season statistics, all-time records, things sequenced and ordered. Galvan's game transcends the flimsy mass-produced bat and ball--it exchanges the cheap, transitory power of Wiffle ball for history, structure, and permanence. You can't just take your ball and go home when there's a schedule to play and you've named your driveway.

"We're slowly getting everything on-line," he said. Hernandez's sister-in-law Missy Schleng is the Web master of windycitywiffle.com. "I'd like to scan the old stuff in, if I can find the time." Grant bounced on his knee, and the dog chewed on the ball at his feet.

"Oh, c'mon, Payton," said Galvan. "We need to buy more balls before game three."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

Add a comment