In the Beginning

Lisa McLaughlin Schneider – co-owner and  breeder of Ashley Whippet

By Ron Coffey ( permission from Lisa Schneider)

In the 1970s, a new sport caught the fancy of Americans. Requiring a combination of athleticism and grace, this sport was not for the faint of heart. It involved running at speeds up to 35 miles per hour and catching an object ten feet in the air. The greatest athlete who ever played this game has Greenfield connections!

At the age of six months, this young athlete was already attracting crowds on the Ohio State University campus. He became the creator, and the most accomplished practitioner, of his chosen sport. He was the Professor Naismith, the Babe Ruth and the Michael Jordan of his sport all rolled into one.

He did not have a long life, but he lived it to the fullest. He performed at the Super Bowl, at the White House, on television, and was featured in a movie. Upon his death, he received a glowing tribute in the pages of Sports Illustrated.

You have probably seen him on TV, or at least seen the many imitators he inspired. If you aren’t familiar with his name, let me explain.

His name was Ashley Whippet. And he was just that, a whippet, a kind of greyhound-like, wiry dog that the McLaughlin family kept as pets in the 1960s and early ’70s. Doug and Betty McLaughlin lived in a big three-story home on S. Washington Street with their daughters, Tara and Lisa, and sons Mike and Tony. The family business was Orlando’s, a clothing store on S. Washington Street.

As a young adult during that time period, I spent many an evening there, visiting with this friendly family, watching football games on TV, and occasionally petting the whippets that lived there.

Alex Stein, an Ohio State student from Cleveland Heights, befriended Mike McLaughlin. When he met Mike’s family, Alex began dating Mike’s sister Lisa. On Oct. 2 1971, Lisa’s pet gave birth to a litter of pups, and she gave one of them to Alex. She named the dog Ashley because of his cigar-ash color and also in honor of Ashley Wilkes, one of the characters in Gone With the Wind. Ashley’s coloration would later change to black and white, and the dog would go on to change Alex’s life. 

In the early 1970s Frisbees were popular objects on college campuses and wherever young people gathered. No doubt other Frisbee fanatics taught their dogs to catch the whirling discs, but no other dog possessed the artistry, grace and sense of drama that Ashley was to display.

Alex, a sophomore at Ohio State University, introduced Ashley to Frisbees as a puppy by using them as dishes for Ashley’s food and water. Ashley must have been born to play Frisbees, because by the age of six months he was entertaining hundreds of people on the OSU Oval with his acrobatic catches. “He was a ham and a half in front of a crowd,” said Stein. “He’d jump up and twist and contort his body on a catch because he knew that’s what people liked.”

As Alex began to realize the gifts that Ashley possessed, he decided to pack up and move to Hollywood. Alex began contacting agents, telling them about his dog that could run 35 mph, leap high into the air and catch Frisbees. He did not get the response he expected. One scout at a famous agency hung up. Others said they didn’t handle animals. Calls were not returned, and Stein realized he needed to find another way to get some attention for Ashley.

Upon hearing that the Los Angeles Dodgers would be hosting the Cincinnati Reds on NBC Monday Night Baseball, Stein suddenly got an idea.

On August 5, 1974, just before the Dodgers came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, Stein and Ashley Whippet dashed over the wall separating the fans from the players and raced into centerfield. Alex would throw the Frisbee, and Ashley displayed his ability to make twisting, leaping catches, closing his jaws on the Frisbee at just the right moment to bring cheers from the crowd. NBC trained its cameras on Ashley for several minutes as he raced under throws as long as 90 yards and hauled them in like a canine Lynn Swann.

When Stein and Ashley came off the field there was confusion and bad news. Stein was arrested for trespassing and subsequently had to pay a $250 fine. Even worse, in the commotion Stein was separated from Ashley and feared he would never see his dog again. Luckily, the news began to get better. After three days, a Long Beach youngster who had taken Ashley home read an article in the paper about the incident and returned the animal to Stein. Another call came in from the Los Angeles Rams’ halftime coordinator, who eventually signed Alex and Ashley to perform at two games that fall.

Ashley’s star began to rise, and he was invited to appear at the World Frisbee Championships (then for humans only), as well as on the Tonight Show and as a guest of Merv Griffin. As Alex and Ashley spread the gospel according to Frisbee, countless dog owners began training their pets to emulate Ashley.

Inspired by Ashley’s performances, the World Frisbee Championships inaugurated formal Catch & Fetch competition in 1975. The object of Catch & Fetch is to complete as many throws as possible in a two-minute span. The throws must cover at least 15 yards, and extra points are awarded if the dog has all four paws off the ground during a catch. Ashley not only had sure jaws and ample hang time, but also possessed the discipline to return swiftly after each throw, allowing his master the opportunity to make more throws. Other dogs rivalled Ashley in athletic talent but lacked the requisite discipline to rise to the top.

Ashley reigned as world champion from 1975-77, appeared on Wide World of Sports, and was featured in an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Floating Free, filmed during the 1977 nationals. He got to rub noses with the rich and famous, playing with Amy Carter’s dog Grits on the White House lawn. There were appearances on Monday Night Football and at halftime of Super Bowl XII.

By 1980 Ashley was no longer competing, but he still toured the country and was capable of seemingly impossible feats. One occurred at the Rose Bowl, when he ran the entire length of the football field and made a great catch of a Frisbee just before it was about to hit the ground. “Call me crazy, but I swear that Ashley took a bow, acknowledging the well-deserved tribute from the huge crowd in the stadium,” wrote Irv Lander in his biography of the dog, appropriately entitled Ashley Whippet.

Ashley served as spokesdog for the Gaines dog food company and spent time with his family of 60 sons and daughters and 12 granddogs. One of the daughters, Lady Ashley, went on the road promoting Gaines products.

Recognized as the creator of his sport, Ashley lived to see the national Catch & Fetch series officially renamed the Ashley Whippet Invitational in 1982. By the time of his death in 1985, the event attracted more than 15,000 dogs.

Loved by everyone, and universally acknowledged as the greatest Frisbee-catcher ever, Ashley Whippet lives on today in books and on web sites.

I fired up my trusty computer and typed “Ashley Whippet” to see what came up. I located several web sites devoted to Frisbee disc catching, and found others devoted to the great champion Ashley Whippet, including animations of Ashley in action during his prime as well as information about the Ashley Whippet biography.

I had hoped Alex would confirm that Ashley Whippet was born in Greenfield because the McLaughlins lived in Greenfield at the time, but Alex said Ashley was actually born in Oxford, Ohio, where Michael McLaughlin was a student in 1971. Still, there’s a local connection with the McLaughlin family. Alex sent me a copy of Irv Lander’s official Ashley Whippet biography which was most helpful in the writing of this piece.

There are some wonderful dogs out there in the world of Frisbee catching, using techniques developed by Alex Stein. However, there was only one Ashley Whippet, and he remains the standard against which all others are measured. The legend of this star athlete will continue to inspire others for years to come.