Teen John Cronin turns a Wiffle ball tourney into a charity powerhouse

John Cronin's first ALS charity Wiffle ball tournament began in his parents' West St. Paul backyard.

John Cronin's first ALS charity Wiffle ball tournament began in his parents' West St. Paul backyard. John Cronin

John Cronin has been playing Wiffle ball pretty much since he could walk. Growing up in West St. Paul meant a parade of backyard games on hot summer days and the plink of plastic hitting the bat.

The ball’s hollow shell and holes give it an asymmetric air flow, resulting in pro pitches for amateur players. Not to mention a kinder, gentler missile. For every 400 feet a baseball flies, a Wiffle ball covers only 100. Perfect for your parents’ backyard.

“You’re not going to break any windows,” Cronin says.

For the past 20 years, baseball’s little brother has reasserted its own identity. Now that he’s 19 and graduated from Henry Sibley High School, Cronin plays in a Wiffle ball league. The games are short, fast-paced, and action-packed -- all areas where real baseball can fall short. Anyone can pick it up without much practice.

It’s probably the reason why Wiffle ball changed his life.

Cronin was an incoming freshman when he learned his sister-in-law’s uncle, Michael Brandt, was living with ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It kills off neurons one by one, causing muscles to twitch, lose control, and waste away. Eventually, the brain loses control of the body altogether. There’s no cure, and no way to halt its progression. Sufferers usually only live two to five years after diagnosis.

Cronin had never met Brandt. He was an Eden Prairie native cum senior executive for a private equity firm in Los Angeles. He was also dedicated to finding a cure for his disease, raising over $250,000 in two years for ALS research, and read Lou Gehrig’s famous speech at three Twins games.

Even if Cronin didn’t know Brandt, he knew how his diagnosis was affecting his brother and sister-and-law. He wanted to do something to help, but didn’t have the resources to commandeer a Twins game or spearhead a fundraising campaign. He did, however, have his parents’ backyard.

In 2013, Cronin held his first charity Wiffle ball tournament. There were four teams, all friends and family, chipping in $20 a team. It was an unseasonably cold and rainy July day. The distance between home plate and the fence was about 60 feet. Everyone had a blast. Between player fees and extra donations, they raised $700 for the ALS Association.

That was also the only time Cronin ever met Brandt. He died a short while later.

“He told me he was proud of me,” Cronin says. “And to keep doing it year after year.”

That’s how Cronin became the director of an annual Wiffle ball tournament. In 2014, it took place at Shed Field and hosted six teams. Cronin’s goal was $1,000. He raised $1,400. By the next year, there were 12 teams and a hot dog lunch provided by Mike’s Butcher Shop. He raised $1,900.

Other baseball organizations like the Blizzard Foundation and West St. Paul Youth Baseball caught word and contributed players. The total jumped to $2,010 in 2016, and $3,000 in 2017.

This year’s tournament will be in Harmon Park on Aug. 4. It’s projected to exceed its record of 33 teams.

It’s no longer the small-time affair it used to be. A food truck and concessions stand will provide ballpark fare. Anyone who doesn’t want to be in the tournament can still participate in the home run derby held nearby.

The teams include fathers and sons, gaggles of 12-year-olds, high-school baseball teams, older folks. Cronin’s old math teacher at Henry Sibley, Steve Lufkin, has been coming every year since 2015, when Cronin found out Lufkin also had ALS and mustered up the courage to invite him.

Cronin wants to someday see 100 teams and generate $1 million. After doubling participation almost every tournament, it is something he has not only come to hope for, but to expect.

The beauty and allure of Wiffle ball is that it’s still, in its plastic heart, a backyard game. The only thing that has changed is the size of the yard.