2007-07-06 / Sports

Frisbee celebrates 50th anniversary

Sport's popularity continues to grow worldwide
By Stephen Dorman sdorman@theacorn.com

IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers JUST WINGIN' IT- Athena Sales, a 7-year-old from Thousand Oaks, tosses a Frisbee at the basket during a game of disc golf at the Conejo Valley YMCA while executive director Tim O'Connor waits his turn. The YMCA has a nine-hole course, but players must be accompanied by a club member. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers JUST WINGIN' IT- Athena Sales, a 7-year-old from Thousand Oaks, tosses a Frisbee at the basket during a game of disc golf at the Conejo Valley YMCA while executive director Tim O'Connor waits his turn. The YMCA has a nine-hole course, but players must be accompanied by a club member. Oh, how the years seem to fly by.

Frisbee, the round, plastic disc that found its way into the American culture like Joseph McCarthy and rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, turned 50 years old this summer.

From the tip of Tijuana to the shores of Singapore, at least 200 million Frisbees were purchased, tossed, caught and/or devoured by dogs during portions of the past half-dozen decades.

These days, throwing a Frisbee well can mean a big pay day. There are professional leagues for sports such as Ultimate Frisbee, Freestyle Frisbee, Guts and Frisbee golf. At various tournaments worldwide, cash prizes can reach $100,000.

But big business is only a small part of the sport's allure, says David Waisblum, Frisbee brand manager for Wham-O Inc., the product's longtime manufacturer that was purchased by Mattel in 1994.

Walter Frederick Morrison circa 1957 Walter Frederick Morrison circa 1957 Frisbee's success "is the result of people just getting a passion for play, for recruiting people, for bringing people in to share the lowcost, recreational and physical aspects of the sport," said Waisblum, a competitive disc golfer for the past 20 years, the last five of which he's spent in the professional ranks.

"It's so much more captivating than going out and throwing a ball," he said. "So many different things go into a Frisbee throw- the wind, the elevation, the snap, the spin, the technique, the release. All of these things affect how a disc flies, but once you let it go, you have no control over it."

Mary Bellis, an inventor and writer for the website www.about.com, reports the roots of the sports were established in Bridgeport, Conn., during the early 1870s, when the Frisbe Baking Company was selling pies to college students throughout New England.

IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers JOB  WELL DONE- Monica Anderson,  9,  of  Thousand Oaks works on her short game during a round of disc golf. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers JOB WELL DONE- Monica Anderson, 9, of Thousand Oaks works on her short game during a round of disc golf. Bellis writes: "Hungry college students soon discovered that the empty pie tins could be tossed and caught, providing endless hours of game and sport."

As hungry and wise as the Ivy League elite may have been, none had the foresight to develop the game any further, perhaps even make a profit from it. Many years later, out on the West Coast, that task was undertaken by inventor Walter Frederick Morrison.

Morrison, now 87 and living in Monroe, Utah, was a bomber pilot during the second World War. He was once shot down and held as a prisoner of war at Germany's Stalag XIII.

Although he'd been tossing popcorn-tin lids with friends since the late 1930s, it wasn't until 1948, while working in San Luis Obispo, that Morrison and his partner, Warren Franscioni, produced the initial plastic disc, the Flyin' Saucer.

Morrison tinkered with the design for several more years, and in 1957, with a deeper and thicker rim, the Flyin' Saucer became the Pluto Platter.

Golden oldie Golden oldie Morrison partnered with Wham-O that year and applied for a patent on the brand name Frisbee, which had been placed on the packaging of the Pluto Platter. Frisbee received a registered trademark in 1959.

According to Waisblum, the mold for the Pluto Platter changed in 1964.

"They kind of took a toy novelty disc that was made in '57 and changed it to being sporty by adding flight rings and an Olympic logo on the center to give it professional appeal," Waisblum said. "Ultimate, Frisbee golf and Freestyle, all of those games came as a result of the change to the original Pluto Platter disc."

In 1968, students from Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., began playing the first known games of Ultimate Frisbee, a sport which closely resembles flag football.

A few local high schools in the Conejo Valley have Ultimate Frisbee clubs. The sport, however, is not sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation. Ultimate Frisbee is also prevalent in college athletics.

Disc golf was founded in 1975 by Ed Headrick, founder of the Disc Golf Association. Headrick helped build the first-ever disc golf course at Oak Grove Park in Pasadena.

There are now thousands of disc golf courses nationwide, including a course at the Conejo Valley YMCA in Thousand Oaks. The nine-hole outdoor course in T.O. averages 127 feet per hole, which is relatively small by today's standards. Still, local companies such as Amgen like to send groups out for teambuilding exercises, and the kids also enjoy playing from time to time, said Conejo Valley YMCA executive director Tim O'Connor.

"It's not hardcore. We don't have a ton of people that use the course," O'Connor said. "It doesn't take too long to get through, but there are definitely a few cactus hazards out there. We also put a basketball court through one fairway, and that changes things a bit."

Day use at the YMCA course is $5 for guests. Guests must be accompanied by a YMCA member.

For disc golfers looking to challenge themselves a little more, Lake Casitas in Ojai offers an 18hole professional-style course that covers five acres of rolling hills.

"You can throw under trees, between trees and over water," said Rob Weinerth, a park service officer at Lake Casitas.

"We have people who come from all over the world, especially California. They come in, play once and buy an annual pass the next day. The feedback we're getting is just amazing."

The course in Ojai has been open since June 2005. It's free to play on, but an $8 day-pass fee is required to enter the grounds. With assistance from the Ventura Disc Golf Club, the Ventura City Corporate Games were held at the venue in May, Weinerth said.

As for the Frisbee itself, the anniversary celebration continues.

Last weekend, the United States Guts Players Association held its 50th ITF Championships in Hancock, Mich.

Guts is similar to dodgeball, with two teams standing 14 meters apart trying to hit each other with Frisbees, without the discs being caught by the opposition. There are several other high-profile Ultimate and disc golf tournaments on the horizon for later this year.

For consumers, Wham-O is marketing several 50th Anniversary Collectors Discs, including the re-release of the Pluto Platter.

Waisblum believes it's only a matter of time before Ultimate or disc golf- perhaps even both- makes it to the grandest stage in the world of sports.

"The Olympics are definitely on the horizon because you have to have a certain amount of countries playing and a certain amount of people playing," he said. "Ultimate and Frisbee golf are taking the steps necessary to become Olympic activities. It's only a matter of time."

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