Of the Game
David Leiwant stood in the Columbia High School parking lot watching the younger players throw, chase, and catch the disc under the bright white lights and the cover of a summer night. “If you squint your eyes, it’s almost like 25 years ago,” said the 42-year-old Leiwant, a 1973 alumnus of Columbia, located in Maplewood, N.J. “Just a rag-tag bunch of guys running around with a Frisbee.”
Leiwant was a 13-year-old seventh-grader in 1968, a tumultuous year for America and the world. Martin Luther King, Jr., and then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, a war raged in Vietnam and the country was coming to grips with the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. But, in one corner of the country, in Maplewood, things were changing for the better. That year, staff members of the school’s newspaper, The Colombian, and its Student Council developed an entirely new sport as a gag and an activity for their high school nights. Led by Joel Silver — the willful, if somewhat arrogant, member of the Council and the newspaper — the students adapted the rules of Frisbee Football and ultimately invented the fast-moving team sport we know today. The sport of Ultimate.
“Joel Silver said it was the ‘ultimate sports experience,’” Leiwant said. “He said, ‘Someday people all over the world will be playing this game,’ and we all said, ‘Yeah, Joel, right.’”
Thirty years after Silver’s prophetic words, Ultimate is played in 42 countries, with programs in Sweden, Norway, and Japan receiving government funding. It is estimated that at least 100,000 people play the sport worldwide, about half in the United States. Ultimate will be a medal sport in the 2001 World Games in Japan.
Silver, who is now the head of Hollywood’s Silver Pictures and was unavailable for comment because he was working on the filming of Lethal Weapon 4, had played Frisbee Football at a camp in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts in the summer of 1967. When he returned home to Maplewood, he continued to throw with his friends, including Bernard “Buzzy” Hellring, the editor of The Colombian, and Jonny Hines, the newspaper’s sports editor. Although Frisbee was not quite as big a fad as the hula hoop in the 1950s and ’60s, discs were beginning to seep into the American consciousness.
“I started throwing a Frisbee in 1961 with my two sisters,” said Ed Summers, who graduated Columbia High in 1972. “It was a big fad. We threw mostly backhands. The other big throw was the overhand wrist flip.”
Of Flying Discs: The Frisbie Pie Company
In 1871, in the wake of the Civil War, William Russell Frisbie moved from Bransford, Connecticut, where his father, Russell, had operated a successful grist mill, to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Hired to manage a new bakery, a branch of the Olds Baking Company of New Haven, he soon bought it outright and named it the Frisbie Pie Company (363 Kossuth Street). W.R. died in 1903 and his son, Joseph P., manned the ovens until his death in 1940. Under his direction the small company grew from six to two hundred and fifty routes, and shops were opened in Hartford, Connecticut; Poughkeepsie, New York; and Providence, Rhode Island. His widow, Marian Rose Frisbie, and long-time plant manager, Joseph J. Vaughn, baked on until August 1958 and reached a zenith production of 80,000 pies per day in 1956.
In this otherwise simple baking operation we find the origin of the earliest Frisbee! Now the company offered a variety of bakery goodies, including pies and cookies, and therein resides the roots of the controversy. For there are two crusty schools concerning Frisbee’s origins: the Pie-Tin School and the Cookie- Tin School, each camp holding devoutly to its own argument.
The Pie-Tin School. The pie-tin people claim Yale students bought Frisbie’s pies (undoubtedly a treat in themselves) and tossed the prototype all over Eli’s campus. These early throwers would exclaim “Frisbie” to signal the catcher. And well they might, for a tin Frisbee is something else again to catch.
The Cookie-Tin School. Now the cookie tin people agree on these details save one: they insist that the true, original prototype was the cookie-tin lid that held in the goodness of Frisbie’s sugar cookies.
Walter Frederick Morrison
Walter Frederick Morrison, the son of the inventor of the automotile sealed-beam headlight, returned home after World War II, finishing his European campaign as a prisoner in the now famous Stalag 13. He worked for a while as a carpenter, but like his father, he had an inventive mind. The time was 1948; flying saucers from outer space were beginning to capture people’s imagination. Why not turn the concern into a craze? As a Utah youth, he scaled pie tins, paint-can lids, and the like. He remembered those pleasurable moments and his mind turned to perfecting the pie tin into a commercial product. First, he welded a steel ring inside the rim to improve the plate’s stability, but without success. In a surge of serendipity, he adopted the child of the times–plastic. Plastic was the ideal stuff for Frisbee, It seems impossible to imagine anything better. And, perhaps, Frisbee is plastic’s finest form.
Initially, Morrison used a butyl stearate blend. He recalls: “It worked fine as long as the sun was up, but then the thing got brittle, and if you didn’t catch it, it would break into a million pieces!”
The original Morrison’s Flyin’ Saucer was his accurate vane model, named for the six topside curved spoilers (vanes). They were designed to improve lift by facilitating the Bernoulli principle, which they didn’t. Curiously, the spoilers were on backwards; that is, they would theoretically work only for a counterclockwise spin.