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For everyone who’s spent afternoons wrestling slobber-laden Frisbees from a Golden Retriever, tried to get an Airedale to chase a flying object or gone through a closetful of unrecognizably mangled plastic discs, it’s time to salute an American icon. This year, Frisbee—the pastime of dogs and the sport of college students everywhere—celebrates 50 years. Well, actually, people have been throwing disc-shaped objects around for millennia, back to the ancient Greeks. But it took a man, a company and the American sense of commercialism to bring a flying disc to the masses.
Plenty of urban myths address the origins of the Frisbee. You hear about Yale students tossing pie tins made by the Frisbie Baking Co. around campus in the early part of last century. But, when it gets down to it, it was a man named Walter Frederick Morrison (Fred to those in the Frisbee world) who realized that the large popcorn-tin lid that he was throwing back and forth at a Thanksgiving Day family picnic back in 1937 could be something special.
Special enough to begin manufacturing “Flyin’ Cake Pans” that he and his wife, Lucile Eleanor Nay, offered for 25 cents on Santa Monica Beach. And when those cake pans started selling, Morrison and his wife took it a step further and produced the first plastic disc in the ’40s, which they took to county fairs to demonstrate the fun of flight. And people ate it up. “We started demonstrating our plastic discs at the county fairs, and we just killed them; everyone wanted one and we couldn’t make them fast enough,” says the now 87-year-old Morrison.
Capitalizing on the popular culture’s fascination with UFOs, he decided to reinvent his crowd-pleasing disc. “There were flying saucers being reported everywhere at that time, and we just took advantage of what the media was reporting,” said Morrison, who latched on to the craze, molded his flying disc in the shape of a UFO and named it the “Pluto Platter.” In 1955, it was something on which kids would spend their full week’s allowance of 75 cents at the local five-and-dime.
And then, Wham-O. Literally. Along came the Wham-O company, which invited Morrison to its plant to discuss joining forces. Morrison agreed, and Wham-O began manufacturing the flying disc on January 23, 1957. It turned out, however, that in the marketplace, people were calling the flying object the Frisbee (influenced by those pie tins made by the Frisbie Baking Company); just a few months later, Wham-O renamed and trademarked its product the Frisbee.
As popular as Frisbee quickly became and has been over the years, the product (Morrison finds it aggravating to hear the Frisbee called a toy; “Do you call a baseball a toy?” he asks) may not have caught on in the way it has with dog lovers without the antics of Alex Stein and his Whippet, Ashley.
It was August 1974 and the Dodgers were playing the Reds at Dodger Stadium. At the bottom of the eighth inning, 19-year-old Alex grabbed his dog—and his moment. He hopped the field fence and took center stage in front of the packed stands (and TV cameras, which were broadcasting the game to the nation). It just took a few Frisbee throws at speeds of 35 mph, with Ashley leaping nine feet into the air to catch the disc, before the ball game was stopped and Joe Garagiola, the stadium announcer, began calling the Frisbee-throwing action.
The police soon escorted Alex off the field, but not before the crowd cheered its approval. Alex would soon be invited to perform with Ashley at national events (they performed at the pre-game show of Super Bowl XI) and Ashley Whippet became famous (he even performed for Amy Carter at the White House). Alex went on to help organize the annual Frisbee Dog World Championship, which Ashley won the first three years.
When it comes to dogs and flying discs, Fred Morrison likes to promote the phrase “dogs jump for joy as Frisbees reach the completion of their flight.” Fred’s dog was a German Shepherd, and, when asked about his dog-playing days, he recalled: “We’d throw our discs, and he’d catch ’em and try and throw ’em back. And every time he’d flip his head, the Frisbee would get caught up on his fang. He was never a successful Frisbee flipper.”
In the 50 years since he invented the Frisbee, Morrison has kept busy. He wrote a book recently, Flat Flip Flies Straight! True Origins of the Frisbee, with co-writer Phil Kennedy (who, by the way, has a collection of some 1,200 flying discs). But, he says, at 87, “my flipping days are just about over.” You’d think he might be a bit of a local celeb in the town in central Utah where he now lives, but he says he’s not. “They think I’m a multimillionaire, which I’m not. Though the Frisbees provided me with a comfortable life.” Reminiscing over the history of his Pluto Platter, he says, “What’s evolved is just amazing. I just sit back in wonderment.”
Happy 50th birthday, Frisbee! And congratulations, Fred.
Photograph of Ashley Whippet courtesy of Tom Wehril.
Photograph of Fred Morrison courtesy of Wham-O.