The Frisbee, that eminently sailable plastic disk, is moving across the sometimes-thin line that separates toys from sporting goods, leaving behind the Yo-Yo, the Pogo stick and the Bongo Board. It used to be that Frisbee was, as its package says, "America's favorite game of catch," about as competitive as two kids on a teeter-totter. That was before Guts Frisbee was invented, however, before the college kids discovered it and before the Julius T. Nachazel Memorial Trophy was introduced.
Thirteen years ago the Wham-O Manufacturing Company of San Gabriel, Calif.—the outfit guilty of distracting us with Hula Hoops and Super Balls—brought out the first Frisbee. Wham-O purchased the rights from a Los Angeles building inspector named Fred Morrison, who in turn had been inspired by the airworthy pie tins of the Frisbie bakery in Bridgeport, Conn. (which went out of business in March of 1958). He changed the spelling to avoid legal problems.
The thing figured to be a fad toy that would glide well for a year or two and then be grounded, the leftovers to be sold as dog-food dishes. Yet today it is bigger than ever and Morrison, the Father of Frisbee, is doing nicely on his royalties—more than $500,000 to date.
The name Frisbee is, of course, a registered trademark and Wham-O alertly tries to keep it capitalized (like Coke and Ping-Pong) so it won't become a generic term (like cola or table tennis). Frisbee also has a patent, No. 3,359,678, but that hasn't kept much but the "new rib design" (similar to the ridges and grooves in a phonograph record) from being copied.
As in the garment industry, any hot item in the toy and novelty business will have its imitations, called "knockoffs" in the trade. Someone strolling at the seashore this summer is liable to be dodging not only Frisbees in nine different colors and various sizes, but such knockoffs as Identified Flying Objects, Flying Saucers (at least two companies use that name), Flingers and Saucer Tossers, the latter in hot pink, lemon yellow or lime green.
"People of all ages love it," said one knockoffer. "It's a staple in our line, a great summer item."
Wham-O won't reveal any sales figures for Frisbees except to say more of them have been sold in the last two years than in the previous 10. The Cosum Corporation in Minneapolis claims yearly sales of 300,000 to 500,000 Flying Saucers, and a spokesman for Continental Promotions, Inc., also in Minneapolis, says his company already has sold two million Saucer Tossers in 1970.
But it is the Frisbee—Pro Model, Mini, Regular, Moonlighter ("for sailing under the stars") and Master—that has the big share of the market, plus its own official historian, its own international association and its own game, Guts Frisbee, the highlight of the annual International Frisbee Tournament.
The tournament is usually staged at Eagle Harbor, on a Michigan peninsula that juts into Lake Superior, and most of the teams come from nearby towns: Laurium, Hancock, Copper Harbor, Houghton and Calumet. It is copper country, but there isn't much mining going on and the area is depressed economically. The place needs a little fun to perk things up, like a weekend of beer, bratwurst and Frisbee. The 1970 tournament was staged recently on a high school football field in Calumet and drew the local Frisbee fanatics, plus platoons of eager participants from as far away as Massachusetts and California.
One who came on a return visit with his three sons was Frisbee's official historian. Dr. Stancil Johnson, a longhaired, prematurely gray psychiatrist from Sacramento. He not only is at work on a scholarly book about Frisbee, but he is acknowledged to have the most wicked forehand throw in the game, hard to control and even harder to catch (most players throw backhand). Dr. Johnson became a Frisbee freak when he was doing his residency in Iowa. "There's something naturally beautiful the first time you see a Frisbee fly," he says.
Also on hand was the spokesman for the sport, Wham-O Publicist Goldy Norton, known in the copper country as The Golden Finger of Frisbee. He used to write a radio show for Sportscaster Vince Scully before this more important sport captured his attention. Goldy brought with him to Calumet approximately 1,000 Pro Models, all red-orange and all from mold 10. Some connoisseurs, who actually check the little raised number on the concave side of a Frisbee before they buy one in a store, grumbled that 10 was not a vintage mold but agreed that, after all, everyone would be flinging under the same handicap. Nobody tried to sneak in a Saucer Tosser.
A Saturday event was strictly preliminary to Sunday's bouts of Guts Frisbee. There was the inaugural game of Frisbee football, introduced by a group of young men from Boston calling themselves the Nat Love Nine. They made up the game, and it is actually more like soccer than football. No tackling. They explained the rules to a group of local yokels called the Keweenaw Liberation Front Swedetown Sweathogs and then proceeded to lose.
Doug Hovey of Royal Oak, Mich. won the accuracy contest, throwing a Frisbee through a tire from about 15 yards, which is more difficult than it sounds. Bob May of Berkeley, Calif. won the distance finals Sunday morning with a fling of about 85 yards, way past his closest rivals.
Then May, Dr. Johnson, Airline Pilot Paul Richardson of Marengo, Ill., Labor Investigator George Anderson of Gary, Ind. and Attorney Hugh Anderson of Lansing, Mich. teamed up as the Foul Five to give a lesson in Guts Frisbee that Calumet will long remember.
In Guts, two teams of five men stand behind lines 15 yards apart and take turns throwing a Frisbee at each other. The throwing team gets a point if the receivers don't catch the Frisbee before it hits the ground. The receivers get a point if the throw is too low, too high or too wide. It must be caught cleanly in one hand. There is much bobbling and often the third or fourth man to touch the Frisbee makes the catch. First team to reach 21 points wins. A team must win by two points.
Those are the basics, but there are subtleties, such as placing the weakest men on the ends and catching the strange-spinning shots of a left-handed thrower.
The Foul Five, which had the hardest thrower in May, the best catcher in Pilot Richardson and the crazy forehand throws of Doc Johnson, beat Agnew's Army, the Losers, the Humbly Magnificent Champions of the Universe and the Swedetown Sweathogs before reaching the finals against the Highland Ave. Aces of Wilmette, Ill.
It was late Sunday afternoon, the heat had let up somewhat, the popcorn machine was empty and quiet and the Michigan State Police had long since ordered the beer stand shut down for reasons unexplained. Even the little children who had been throwing and chasing their Mini-Frisbees around the field all day gathered to watch the championship match.
The Aces, who had shown up with four men and been forced to take on publicist Goldy as a fifth, won the first game, but the Foul veterans settled down and won the second 21-15 and the third 21-17. Bob May's throws, which were caught only two or three times the entire day, went through the Aces like a flying knife.
Then the Foul Five received, as is traditional for the champ, the Julius T. Nachazel Memorial Trophy, named for an old Michigan Tech professor and made of a coffee-can lid and tin cans. It is Frisbee's highest honor.