September 01, 1986 12:00 PM

The ball sails high over the fence, bounces once and comes to a stop at your feet. You hear a child’s voice pleading, “Please, can we have our ball back?” Just as you pick it up, you sense that something is wrong—terribly wrong. You look down at the thing you are holding. A little yellow eye is staring back at you, sharpened teeth are bared, a brain is visible. You have just entered the gruesome world of Ralph Shaffer.

What you are holding is a Madball, latest creation of Those Characters From Cleveland, a whacked-out subsidiary of the otherwise staid American Greetings company. Shaffer, 46, is the senior vice-president and creative boss at Those Characters, the people who gave us the cuddly Popples, Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears and now are unleashing Madballs—an estimated 10 million by year’s end—on the children of the world. There’s Slobulus, described as “a gruesome drooler with one eye dangling for gross fun,” Horn Head, “a one-horned Cyclops with a ring through his nose,” and six others.

The first Madballs on the market ($3.99 each) have bounced to No. 4 on the toy best-seller list, and eight more characters are due this month. Shaffer thinks kids just love offbeat things like Madballs and that the market is just now catching up with their tastes. “Kids,” he says, “don’t see them as ugly.”

An art school dropout, Shaffer joined American Greetings in 1964, starting out drawing roses on greeting cards, then bunny rabbits. It was his drawings of rabbits hung in effigy that eventually led to his assignment in the toy think tank. Now, “that’s kind of my niche in life,” says Shaffer, a father of three (ages 8 to 22). “I can’t see myself doing anything else.” Neither, no doubt, can his employers, who probably plan by next year to use Shaffer’s Madball characters on pajamas, T-shirts, comic books, shoes, hats, bike accessories and bedding.

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