Numbering the Days
Memories of Strat-O-Matic baseball
The board game may even have helped change the physical game it tried to model, although evidence for any direct influence is sketchy at best. Mickey Mantle is supposed to have complained in a radio interview that his Strat-O-Matic card had nothing but “homers and strikeouts,” but no one has a transcript of the interview, and anyway his card couldn’t hold a candle to the quintessential Strat-O-Matic arrangement of homers and strikeouts generated by Dave Kingman in 1973.
In his 2005 book Strat-O-Matic Fanatics: The Unlikely Success Story of a Game That Became an American Passion, the journalist Glenn Guzzo enthusiastically pours out everything he could discover about the game’s impact, and yet it all proves sadly slight and circumstantial. Some Hollywood types—Tim Robbins, for instance, and Spike Lee—have said they loved Strat-O-Matic (and the game appears in Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn). The broadcaster Bob Costas occasionally mentions that he used to play, as do other sportswriters when indulging in nostalgic recollections of their baseball-loving childhoods. In the Major Leagues, Lenny Dykstra and Keith Hernández would pull out the cards and dice on long road trips. Avid Strat-O-Matic player Doug Glanville roars with laughter as he tells the story of fans jeering his Phillies teammate Gregg Jefferies with “You’re a 5, Jefferies, you’re a 5” (the worst Strat-O-Matic rating for a fielder).
More credible evidence of the game’s impact comes in the form of occasional bits of praise from baseball executives. In 2002, when he was named to head up the Red Sox—28 years old, the youngest general manager in baseball history—Theo Epstein was often derided in the Boston press for treating the team’s players like “a set of Strat-O-Matic cards,” keeping or dealing them to other teams based on their statistics. (Those complaints quickly disappeared when, in 2004, the Red Sox won their first World Series in eighty-six years.) Glenn Hoffman, the coach who briefly managed the Dodgers in 1998, reports having played Strat-O-Matic, as do others in the crop of game-changing general -managers who relied on the power of modern statistics, from Oakland’s Billy Beane (the hero of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball) to the Orioles’ baseball blueblood, Andy MacPhail.
Even so, there’s no suggestion that baseball’s executives actually played Strat-O-Matic while running their teams, much less that they used it to make real-life decisions. Despite its enthusiasts’ claims, Strat-O-Matic’s influence on Major League diamonds is indirect, at best, flowing through the interest in statistical analysis that the board game awakened.
But awaken that interest the game did—and something more as well. Deep in the psyche of boys lies a hunger for order and a world that makes sense, an intelligible universe of rankings and meaning. Deep in the psyche of girls too, maybe, although girls were alien creatures, at best, and we didn’t know any who played Strat-O-Matic when we were young. Besides, the inner lives of adolescent males hold other things—monsters and nightmares—that need to be starved even while the blessèd rage for order is fed on numbers. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of boys? But some of it, surely, wasted away from inattention during the hours spent deciding the best way to set the batting lineup of the 1961 Tigers.
The tumbling dice did reveal plenty of randomness, a disorder that populated the game with strange outliers and statistical freaks. Given enough chances, Casey Stengel’s comically inept 1962 Mets would win—must win—a game against the Murderers’ Row of Babe Ruth’s 1927 Yankees. With a different roll of the dice, the fan Steve Bartman stays home with the flu and Moisés Alou makes that outfield catch in 2003, letting the Cubs escape with a victory. Managed with a clearer eye (as Theo Epstein understood), the Red Sox could have won—in Strat-O-Matic did win—a World Series well before 2004.
And yet, in the end, over a long-enough set of games, the play would work out pretty much as you would expect from the players’ statistics and the teams’ strengths. The Cincinnati Reds were a powerhouse in the mid-1970s, and only the most inept play was going to hurt them much. The -Seattle Mariners were very lucky to win 116 games in 2001, in exactly the way you knew they were while watching them. Over thousands of dice rolls, Mantle’s 1960 Yankees would usually beat Mazeroski’s Pirates, Hank Aaron would typically hit around 44 home runs in a season, and Dennis Eckersley would almost never hang a 1988 slider to Kirk Gibson. The world Strat-O-Matic created was an orderly one, and meaningful—and it gave life to the cold statistics of current players, first learned from bubblegum cards.
Maybe that combination of stern order and wild exception is what made Strat-O-Matic so fun, so fitting, to play. Curious to think of all the game did. It introduced its young players to decision-making and gauging the odds, laying the groundwork for later, more portentous decisions. It occupied hours that might otherwise have been filled with things less playful and innocuous. It brought previous generations back in view, re-creating the past and valorizing the lives of old players, the giant race before the flood. Unlike the video games that began to spread like poison ivy in the 1990s, it spurred the imagination and encouraged exactly the fascinations of boys that prove socially productive—even while it displaced the fascinations that, in any culture, make young men a threat to social order.
It’s not difficult to realize, in retrospect, that Strat-O-Matic was a time-filler, a device for having fun that also taught a little about baseball. Along the way, however, it also proved a doorway to the inner game of baseball and, through baseball, to the game of life. A small but useful tool of civilization. Hard to say, really, what more you could ask of a board game.
The Reds’ Don Gullett toes the rubber in the bottom of the first, and the Red Sox’s Dwight Evans steps into the batter’s box—3 on the white die, 9 on the red dice, for a single. Denny Doyle lays down a bunt, but Evans is out at second, and Carl Yastrzemski strides to the plate—white die 2, red dice 9, for a walk. Carlton Fisk digs in. White 4, red 10, a strikeout. Fred Lynn’s turn—white 5, red 5, and Gullet’s pitching card shows Lynn sending a slow roller to Joe Morgan at second. Three outs and the inning’s over.
We played a lot of board games when we were young: Monopoly and Life and Battleship and silly contests we’d invent ourselves involving Yahtzee dice and football scores. A lot of card games, as well. Mostly gin rummy, but then there was that summer the collective mind of the neighborhood kids decided we needed to learn bridge, and—in memory, at least—July and August were consumed in rounds of bidding. We had pickup basketball games in the driveway, and books devoured in a gulp, and bicycles ridden to friends’ houses. Whiffle Ball when we couldn’t field enough players for a real game, and kick-the-can as an excuse to hide alongside the girls, and afternoons to rock away in a sleepy hammock.
Baseball, as well, down at the local park with the rusted backstop and dirt bases worn in the grass, home base defined with a paper plate. The puddle of water in the batter’s box from the morning sprinklers, and the taste of salt on your lip as you trotted out to centerfield. Foul balls that deflected off the trees and into the street, chased down before they disappeared through the grill in the gutter. The angry family, when a long fly ball landed on the blanket they’d spread for a picnic. Playing one last inning, even though it had grown too dark to see, until the third-baseman’s parents sent his little sister down to call her brother home, and the game ended in a tie.
And then at night you could hear the crickets through the open window. Moths fluttering at the screen, the evening’s descending cool after the afternoon heat. Glen would sit at his desk and mark down how he’d done in the baseball game that day—how we’d all done. The summers were long, like an extra-inning game, with endless hours to fill. Sundial days, they all seem now, looking back. Days lived in the cycle of the sun unmeasured by clocks, and we seemed to have time enough for anything—time enough to have time, if that makes any sense. Time enough, anyway, to play entire seasons of Strat-O-Matic and soak in their lessons.
The dice clicking on the inside lid of the game’s cardboard box offered, in their way, an escape into order from the middle school chaos of hormones and emotional brutality. A 10- or 11-year-old boy could run around outside only so much. And when the few television channels had been exhausted, Strat-O-Matic was there to fit in with the established summer ritual: Get up when the sun warms your room, open a box of cereal, read the box scores in the newspaper. Without a Major League team nearby, and not all that many professional games on the radio, Strat-O-Matic connected us to the players and their statistics—giving life to the shadowy profiles of past and present greats and the myths that surrounded them.
George Foster, top of the second inning for Cincinnati—6 on the white die, 5 on the red dice, and Tiant’s pitching card gives Foster a single to center. Dave Concepción slips off the batting donut and steps to the plate. White 1, red 4: HOME RUN 1, DOUBLE 2–20, the line on the card reads. The split deck comes up a lucky 1, and Concepción rounds the bases with a home run. The Reds lead 2–0.
It was out on Long Island in 1948, in the town of Great Neck, that Hal Richman sat down and rolled a set of dice 5,000 times, recording every outcome—just to make sure he had calculated the odds correctly. He was only 11 years old, which perhaps explains why he didn’t trust his math, but once the dice confirmed his calculations, he designed a baseball board game to take advantage of his newfound probabilities. He adjusted the game after trying it out with his friends at summer camp, adjusted it again after playing it with his fellow math students at Bucknell University, and finally in 1961 he thought he was ready to have some copies printed and start selling the game.
Disaster was pretty much the result. The game still seemed unpolished in design, and the two-color printing, the best Richman could afford, was sloppy and off-register. Even the small-text advertisement he purchased in Sports Illustrated cost more than he could really pay for. The game made no inroads into the market of baseball board games dominated by APBA (which had begun production in 1951) and Cadaco’s All-Star Baseball (a 1941 game with the advantage of being distributed through toy stores). Add to all that the fact that the name—Strat-O-Matic, an odd attempt to work a hint of the word statistics into the 1950s buzzwords stratosphere and automatic—felt dated even by the early 1960s. If its creator couldn’t see how amateurish and hokey the hyphens around that capital O seemed, potential buyers could. The game barely sold in the dozens and left the recent college grad $2,500 in debt.
Richman’s response was to double down. In 1963, he redesigned the game into the form it still has, borrowed $5,000 from his father (on condition that if he didn’t succeed this time, he would join his father’s insurance firm), and bought a better advertisement in the cheaper pages of the Sporting News. Fifty years later, the game is still going: Total sales over the years, the cautious Richman reluctantly admits, are in the millions. (In 2011, Strat-O-Matic issued a special anniversary edition, reprinting that first version of the game. It flopped, too.)
Always run on a low advertising budget, Strat-O-Matic spread mostly by word of mouth and whatever boys it could lure with text-heavy magazine ads. Its greatest exposure came when NBC’s Today Show—in protest over the postponement of the All-Star Game because of the 1981 players’ strike—broadcast a Strat-O-Matic game played with cards for all-stars from the previous year. (Strat-O-Matic fan Bryant Gumbel reportedly came up with the idea, and he acted as the play-by-play announcer, calling the game in breathless segments through the course of the show.)
In subsequent years, Richman and his eight Great Neck employees settled into a small but reasonably profitable niche in the game market, ahead of such competitors as APBA, Statis, and the set of baseball games distributed by Avalon Hill. Their research into the Negro Leagues produced a successful set of player cards, and although their attempts to move into the computer-game markets have not been particularly well received, the historical card sets the company has produced since the 1970s—classic teams from the 1927 Yankees to the 1954 Giants, the 1906 Cubs to the 1957 Braves; notorious teams from the 1919 Black Sox to the 1962 Mets, for that matter—have always sold well.
The rise of fantasy baseball and other group games, together with the easy calculations that computers allow (sharply shifting the old line that Strat-O-Matic walked between accuracy and ease of play), are mortal threats to the board game, and too much of its current play seems to be fueled by baby-boomer nostalgia. Still, the company survives, much as its 75-year-old founder does. And every year a few hundred diehard fans show up at the company’s offices in Great Neck on the last Friday in January—the day, by fifty-year-old tradition, the new season’s cards go on sale.
Bottom of the sixth, the Reds 2 and the Red Sox 0. Rico Petrocelli steps in. White 3, red 7: a walk. Rick Burleson follows—white 3, red 5: a single, with Petrocelli moved along to second. Gullet stares down Cecil Cooper. White 5, red 8: a pop-out to first base. Tiant spits tobacco and waddles to the plate. White 4, red 5: TRIPLE 1–4, DOUBLE 5–20, the corresponding entry reads, and the card from the split deck is a 6. A double for the Red Sox’s pitcher, and Petrocelli scores. Burleson tries for home. His running speed is listed as 1 to 12, and the next split card is a 7. Burleson crosses the plate, tying the game 2 to 2.
We tend to over-interpret and overvalue the things that fascinated us when we were children: the books, the toys, the music, the games. Because memory makes them shine so brightly, we imagine they still possess their own, interior light.
They don’t, more often than not. Oh, Roger Kahn’s account of the 1950s Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, really is a marvelous book, worth rereading, but that pet chicken in The Kid Who Batted 1.000 can only make you cringe, if you’re foolish enough to take a look at the book again in adulthood. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.—a tragicomic novel about a man who invents a dice baseball game much like Strat-O-Matic, only to find himself drawn into life inside the game—was a great adolescent read, but even at the time you could feel it dissipating the innocence of game play, the postmodern metanarrative of the story a kind of guilty pleasure. Too great an awareness of what we do weakens our ability to do it; the boy who rises to consciousness of the fact that he’s being taught a lesson gradually ceases to learn that lesson.
And somewhere along the line, what seems to slip away is time—the time to have time for losing yourself in such things as baseball seasons played out with dice rolls. The world intrudes, the boy grows, and the games prove less enthralling. Still, the lessons of Strat-O-Matic were real and vital, in their day. A realization of the interplay of order and randomness, for instance. A grasp of the sheer reality of the past, the truth that others lived before us. The civilizing of boys by appealing to their impulses to forget themselves in the mathematics of the world and the inner secrets of a game like baseball.
Score tied 2–2, bottom of the ninth, 2 out, no one on base. Don Gullet still stares from the mound as Jim Rice, his wrist heavily taped, emerges from the dugout to pinch-hit for Cooper. Maybe he can give the team one good swing. White 1, red 7—a home run, and the Red Sox take the Series opener 3–2.
Late at night in those long summers, Glen would sit—each of us would sit—alone on the floor of a darkened room with a single light focused down on the finished game. Even afterward, in bed, the numbers and images swirled in our minds. And the only real questions were how the Series would come out, and whether there was time for one more Strat-O-Matic game before tiredness overtook us and carried us down to sleep.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and the author most recently of The Christmas Plains (forthcoming in October from Image/Random House).
Alan Davison is professor of Spanish at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and the author of a daily webcomic at blog.blurtso.com.