Baby boomers saw quite a few fads come and go in their formative years, and many of those fads involved toys. One toy that turned into a fad in the mid-60s was the Super Ball. Like the hula hoop fad of the late 1950s, the Super Ball was brought to boomers courtesy of the Wham-O company.
The Super Ball was invented by New Jersey chemist Norman Stingley, who worked for the Bettis Rubber Company. In 1964 Stingley discovered that an extremely elastic material called Zectron, when compressed at high pressure, had unique bouncing properties that enabled a ball made of the substance capable of bouncing six times higher than a regular rubber ball. His employer, Bettis Rubber, didn’t see much revenue potential in his discovery, in no small part because the material was unstable; it had the tendency to break apart when bounce-activated. Stingley asked for and received permission to shop his invention around to other companies.
When Stingley brought a ball to Wham-O, the company realized that his invention would make a great toy. The company took on the invention, and went to work to stabilize the material to develop a more durable version. That same year Wham-O introduced the Super Ball for 98 cents.
Wham-O marketed the ball as being able to bounce almost shoulder height when dropped at arm’s length. An average adult, so the marketing story told, could throw a ball that could bounce as high as three stories. Demonstrations on TV commercials intrigued young boomers, and a fad was born. By the end of 1965, Wham-O had sold more than six million Super Balls. In the late sixties Wham-O made both smaller and larger versions of the ball.
Around 1970, boomer kids’ infatuation with the product began to wane quickly, and it all but disappeared from the pop culture scene. A little over a decade later, the ball was being sold again in respectable numbers for the toy industry. Wham-O still markets the product today.
Like all fads, there’s always a “first adopter” in every neighborhood or social circle. Once one person demonstrates the “wow factor” of the fad product, others catch the fever and want to possess one of their own… and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on. In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, there was one such first adopter, a boy who lived halfway up the block.
In this case, Mister Boomer’s neighbor hadn’t purchased a Super Ball himself, but had one “on loan” from a school chum. It was late spring of 1965, and summer was just around the corner when he gathered neighborhood boys in the middle of the street, while curious girls stood on nearby sidewalks. First he tossed the ball straight down, and the onlookers oo-ooh-ed and ah-ah-ed as it bounced ten feet in the air. Catching it as it returned, he wound up and threw the ball to the cement with all his might. The Super Ball pinged off the roadway with a sound reminiscent of a ball hitting a tennis racket and started its upward trajectory. The group watched, mouths agape, as it rose and rose until they had to squint to see it against the clear blue sky. In what seemed like minutes, the ball finally reached its apex and began its descent, then hit the road 100 feet further down the block. All the boys began running after it as it bounced again — this time about fifteen feet high — then again and again until it ultimately bounced off the road onto a grassy area between the curb and sidewalk, where it slowed and stopped.
For the next hour, the boys remained in the middle of the street and took turns tossing the ball straight down in a contest to see who could bounce it the highest. It was a time when boys and girls of all ages hung out together as one bunch, though none of the girls took a turn at the toss. Practically every house held multiple children and brothers and sisters all came together in play groups. They varied in age from early school-age to pre-teens like Mister B, and on to teenagers. Naturally, the teenagers won the contest.
That week, two or three boys from the block bought Super Balls of their own. Mister B recalls playing catch with one of the boys. The Super Ball allowed them to stand much further apart than if they were tossing a baseball back and forth. With the Super Ball, the object became trying to get the ball to the other catcher with one bounce. It became quite a test of skill in learning to control the ball’s bounce sufficiently to deliver it to the catcher rather than sending it soaring over his head.
Within a few weeks, the ball wasn’t seen in the street any more as regular summer games took its place.
Are memories of the Super Ball bouncing back to you, boomers?