Since 1920, the good Catholics of Annunciation parish have gathered their Jesus-loving tribe around the ritual of the communion wafer, but another form of worship has taken root every September for the last nine years in the form of another little white orb, the wiffle ball.
Honest to God, Little League star Mo’ne Davis’s wiffle ball duel with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show” last Friday night was hardly the weekend’s most entertaining wiffle ball moment. That came Sunday morning on a vacant lot off West 54th Street, as the violent goliaths of the NFL cranked up for another season in competition-crazy America, as two full-house masses gave praise a few feet away inside Annunciation church, and as the ninth annual Annunciation Wiffle Ball Tournament got underway.
Yep, wiffle ball.
“The first year we had an orange snow fence with a metal post and eight teams. Nine years later, we have a real outfield fence, 72 teams, 500 players, a kids’ tournament, a women’s tournament, and a men’s tournament. Anybody from 4 to 70 can play. I did it for the kids, but the adults love it as much as the kids do,” said tourney founder and Annunciation director of development Tom Konz during a break in Sunday’s action, which looked something like Norman Rockwell doing “Northern Exposure.”
“I loved playing wiffle ball growing up in Remsen, a tiny little town in Iowa outside of Sioux City,” said Konz, an Annunciation dad and longtime area baseball coach. “We played wiffle ball every day, and the nice thing about wiffle ball is you can play with five guys, you don’t have to have to have a full nine-man team. The whole concept for me was, if someone would have done this for me when I was a kid, I would’ve been in heaven.”
Wiffle ball was invented in 1953 when former Connecticut semipro pitcher David N. Mullany invented a hard plastic ball with eight oblong slots cut in the top for his son and his stickball-playing buddies. The kids named it for their slang for strike-outs — “whiffs” — and from there the thing caught on: For the wiffle ball’s 50th birthday, the New York Times wrote, “What started out as an idea in a backyard in this Connecticut suburb has since drifted into the popular imagination and now ranks with the Hula-Hoop and Barbie as quintessentially American toys.”
Since the late ’70s, adult wiffle ball teams, leagues, and tournaments have taken hold across the country — few more wackily so than with the Annunciation version, which has inspired such team names as Wiff I Was Your Girlfriend, Wiffle While You Work, Nun Shall Pass, Miracle Wiff, We Got The Runs, Scared Hitless, Scratch and Whiff, CCS Fighting Nuns, Yard Work, High ‘n’ Tight, Girls and Geezers, Wifflebelles, and One Great Big Happy Team.
“Bragging rights are at stake, as well as a picture with the traveling trophy,” go the rules, clearly stated on the tournament’s web site and read before each game, lest anyone get too cutthroat. “No fastballs are allowed. Junk can be served on a platter. Sliding is allowed, bunting is not, and no infield fly rule either. Trees are always out of play resulting in a dead ball. There is a home run fence, scoreboard and lights for when the sun goes down. Balls, bats and volunteer umpires are provided. Sportsmanship is always the top priority! Absolutely no arguing balls, strikes, or any umpire calls.”
At a registration fee of $200 per team, good money is raised for the church, but everyone involved says the lasting value is in the quirky community fostered by the tournament (Twitter feed: @AnnunciationWif), which continues this weekend and next, during the parish’s popular SeptemberFest celebration.
“This is the biggest wiffle ball tournament in the state, if not the country,” said Konz. “Sports Illustrated is talking about doing a story. We’ve had more top ten plays than ESPN has ever had, [countless] hamstring injuries, and naming the teams and making the uniforms is half the fun. And you wouldn’t believe how competitive the men’s games are.”
Notre Dame has Touchdown Jesus. Can Annunciation’s Wiffle Ball Jesus be far behind?
To be sure, the holy wars currently happening all across the globe would do well to note that considerably fewer beheadings happen in the name of the almighty at ye olde wiffle ball tournament, and the world at large could take an inspirational cue from something so old-fashioned, simple, and sweet.
Here, hoots and hollers harmonize with church bells. Games are played in the shadow of the church’s massive steeple and crucifix off left field, and a no-frills scoreboard in center. Hamburgers, hot dogs, candy, and liquid refreshments give the proceedings a backyard barbecue feel, and the port-a-potties, meticulously manicured field, and a whiff of summer’s last gasp in the air make for an altogether heartfelt and hilarious fall classic.
So much so that it’s easy to imagine that the carved-in-stone greeting above the church’s entryway may someday, Lord willing, be amended to read, “This Is The House Of God And The Gate Of Heaven And Home Of The World-Famous Church Of The Holy Wiffle Ball.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]