Coming soon: world Pluto Platter championships

Twenty-five years ago who would have predicted that a silly plastic disk called the Pluto Platter would lead to a multimillion-dollar business and annual world championships?

Few, very few, people.

And they were right - for a decade.

The Pluto Platter, not a big seller, metamorphosed into the Flying Saucer, then the Sailing Satellite. Finally in 1961 it was dubbed Frisbee by its maker, the Wham-O Manufacturing Company of San Gabriel, Calif., also known for the ubiquitous Hula-Hoop.

Several more years passed before sales soared, but now the simple toy is as much a part of summer as barbecues in the park.

This year the Wham-O-sponsored world championships in Frisbee throwing will be held in Irvine, Calif., July 13-18.

Frisbee throwers are judged by their combined scores in six events - freestyle, discathon, distance, golf, double disk court, and self-caught flight.

Freestyle is the type of Frisbee most playground flingers fall into naturally.

''It's the tricks and fancy stuff that you see all the time,'' says Bruce Farr, president of the Sacramento State University Frisbee Club, which organized one of the regional tournaments which were qualifying competitions for the world championships. ''It's scored on things like originality, excitement, and choreography.''

The discathon, a new event, can best be described as an obstacle course run by throwing a Frisbee around the obstacles.

The distance event is what its name implies - winners are determined by who heaves the disk the farthest.

Frisbee golf can be played with either poles or baskets as the equivalent of golf holes. The contestants vie to put the disk in a basket, or hit a pole in the fewest number of throws over an 18-basket or -pole course.

Double disk court is played by partners standing within a prescribed rectangle. Two Frisbees are flipped back and forth. Points are scored by putting the disks out of reach of the opponents - but still in the court - or by placing both in the same box simultaneously.

Two competitions make up the self-caught-flight event. The first is the maximum-time-aloft contest, in which the time the Frisbee remains airborne is measured. The second is the throw-and-catch, in which the contestant who races the farthest before grabbing his disk wins.

Although the Frisbee's official history begins in 1957, its origins go back even further.

''It's anybody's guess how long people have been throwing things,'' Wham-O spokesman Goldy Norton says. ''Either balls, or disks, or whatever.''

According to one version of Frisbee's beginnings, the game started in the 1890s in Bridgeport, Conn., where employees of a bakery played catch with pie tins.

Another bit of Frisbee folklore says the sport was started by college students tossing lids of Mother Frisbie cookie jars.

But in the mid-1950s a ''lot of things happened at the same time,'' Mr. Norton says. A man named Walter Morrison devised a game in which he pitched a pie tin along an 'invisible string.' '' He soon decided a plastic disk would be a safer object to toss.

''He tried to sell it without much success,'' Norton says. Wham-O, which was a sporting goods firm at the time but was interested in the toy market, heard of it and negotiated with Mr. Morrison. In 1957, Wham-O attempted to sell the disk as the Pluto Platter.

The plastic disk was on its fourth name in 1967 when it started to ''go all of a sudden,'' and it has been gaining in popularity ever since, Norton says. Wham-O has now sold more than 100 million Frisbees and their predecessors, he says.

Industry analysts estimate Wham-O reaps about 80 percent of the plastic disk market, with the rest split among 30 other manufacturers. The total market is thought to be worth between $7 million and $15 million. Plastic disks sell in the $4-to-$10 range.

Although the world championships indicate the sophisticated status Frisbee throwing has attained, the game's greatest virtue is its simplicity.

''You can play it anywhere,'' one aficionado said. ''All you need is two people, or just yourself. It's fascinating all the things you can do with it.''

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