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What’s in a name? With apologies to Shakespeare: plenty.
Would we be talking about Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, if she hadn’t changed her name to Lorde? Would 4.4 million pounds of Slimeheads have been imported into the U.S. in a single year, if someone hadn’t thought to rename the fish Orange Roughy? Would every slacker, hipster and college student be tossing around Whirlo-Ways, Flyin-Saucers and Pluto Platters, if the California-based Wham-O company, in 1957, hadn’t decided to re-christen their newly acquired toy with a new, catchy name?
Frisbee was the word that begat an empire.
“I thought the name was a horror. Terrible,” said Utah-born Walter Frederick “Fred” Morrison, Frisbee’s inventor, in a 2007 newspaper interview (he died in 2010).
Originally, it was “Frisbie” — the name of a Connecticut pie company. Some nameless students, in Yale’s dim prehistory, had discovered that the Frisbie pie tins were weirdly aerodynamic and had begun tossing them to and fro on campus, yelling “Frisbie!” as they let the disc fly. They continued to do so, even when Morrison’s plastic “Flyin-Saucer,” sold to Wham-O on Jan. 23, 1957, came on the market as a commercial substitute. When Wham-O co-founder Richard Knerr heard those spirited shouts of “Frisbie!” on northeastern campuses, he decided to re-brand his new plaything — and a marketing sensation was born.
“It’s a lot of fun for kids, especially college kids,” says John Horan, publisher of the Pennsylvania-based newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence. “You get to run around. Everybody gets to score.”
In fact, Morrison’s toy began with pretty much the same discovery those Yale students made. In 1937, Morrison and his wife-to-be Lu were tossing a cake pan around on a beach. When a passer-by offered them 25 cents for the five-cent plate, Morrison realized he was on to something. He continued to perfect his “flying discs” over the next two decades, manufacturing them independently starting in 1948 and hawking them under various names at county fairs.
The timing of his sale to Wham-O — this is the company that also had a huge hit in the 1950s with the Hula Hoop — was especially lucky.
As the conventional 1950s morphed into the flower-powery 1960s, Frisbee proved to be the perfect pastime for the Age of Aquarius. It wasn’t “aggressive” like football or baseball. It was gentle, communal, cooperative. Even dogs could do it. “Is it any wonder,” asked Jane and Michael Stern in their “Encyclopedia of Pop Culture,” “that Frisbees became a national fad during the Summer of Love (1967) when so many young Americans went looking for alternate kinds of fun?”
“It’s very relaxed,” Horan says. “The idea that you’re out there to have a good time and make friends with people comes through with this sport more than most. What kind of made it popular is, you had a lot of high school jocks who were probably not good enough to play college athletics, but wanted something to do. You have fairly athletic kids who want to get some exercise and have some fun. That’s what Frisbee is about: fun.”
Americans, of course, find a way to make everything competitive, and Frisbee is no exception. By 1968 there had been a Frisbee tournament at the Hollywood Bowl. Soon after there were “professional”-model Frisbees, and Frisbee games like “Disc Golf” and “Double Disc Court.” “Ultimate Frisbee,” a team sport developed in 1968 by some high school students in Maplewood, has become a national sensation: There are reportedly more than 5 million players in the U.S. There has been talk, more recently, of making Ultimate Frisbee an Olympic sport.
Something like 300 million Frisbees (the name is trademarked; anything not by Wham-O goes by the generic name of “flying disc”) have been sold since Wham-O first began marketing their plastic saucers. Which might lead you to believe that inventor Morrison was reconciled to the new trade name. And you’d be right. By 1982, he told Forbes magazine that he had made $2 million in royalties.
“I wouldn’t change the name of it for the world,” he said.