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Numbering the Days

Memories of Strat-O-Matic baseball

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By ALAN DAVISON and JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Of course, baseball offers more than 216 possibilities for any particular at-bat. What about a pulled hamstring, while the runner tries to stretch a single into a double? What about a balk, a hit-and-run, or a fielder’s choice? A pop-up hitting a pigeon in midair, for that matter? Besides, 216 possibilities equal chances only around 0.46 percent each—and baseball’s record-keeping allows much finer statistical divisions than that. So Strat-O-Matic added various ways to complicate the game: entries that would be outs against good fielders but hits against bad ones. Charts to look up the result of certain special situations. A few lines that would read something like TRIPLE 1–4, DOUBLE 5–20, with the result determined by a deck of small cards numbered 1 to 20, shuffled before the game.

All in all, the setup was ingenious. It felt right, somehow, that basic 50-50 chance of the white die directing you to results based either on the batter’s skill or the pitcher’s. At its best, Strat-O-Matic offered a kind of small aesthetic perfection, walking the narrow line between accuracy and ease of play. The history of baseball board games is littered with homemade box sets, shipped from the garages of Strat-O-Matic players who thought they could re-create baseball even more accurately if only they invented a board game that used, say, 12 dice and 66 look-up charts! And so they could, but the result was always dull and too complicated to be worth the effort.

The making of Glen’s card at the end of every summer required unlocking Strat-O-Matic’s secrets—and learning more math in the process than school ever taught. But once he’d calculated the frequency of each type of hit, the frequency of each type of out, there he was, card in hand, ready to slot himself into the outfield for the Red Sox and discover whether moving Yastrzemski to first base earlier in the Series would have made the difference. 

Or maybe he could have helped the Pirates derail the Reds in the National League championship. He could play anywhere—play, for that matter, in any era for which Strat-O-Matic sold historical sets. The 1924 Washington Senators, for instance: Now there was a great team, a fun team, but they had a hole in the outfield that the likes of Nemo Leibold, Wid Matthews, and Showboat Fisher couldn’t fill. Glen could, however: His card from the year he was 13 would provide exactly the extra-base power the Senators needed to help Joe Judge and young Goose Goslin back up the pitching of Walter Johnson.

And what about Bing Miller, a weak link on Lefty Grove’s 1931 Philadelphia Athletics? Glen could swap him out with another of his own cards—the one from the year he was 12, for instance—and try to push the A’s past the Cardinals. Or he could see if, with his help, the 1945 Cubs could slip by the Tigers and break the Chicago team’s curse. He could play alongside Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Bat with Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons. Join Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson. He could travel in time and play on any field of dreams.

Or he could stand back and let the original players fight it out—lacing up their cleats to run and throw and hit, coming to life again in a way the past so rarely does for children. And that, in the end, may be the best thing Strat-O-Matic achieved. It brought the past into the present for its young players and kept that past alive.

That’s not to discount the ways the game introduced its young fanatics to probabilities, the easy first entry into statistics that comes from calculating dice rolls. We learned very quickly why the number 7 turns up once in every six throws of a pair of dice, 9 once in every nine throws, and 11 once in every eighteen. One of the striking things about The Numbers Game, Alan Schwarz’s wonderful 2004 history of baseball record-keeping, is how many of the past two generations of baseball’s mad number-crunchers got their start playing Strat-O-Matic and being drawn into its mathematics. Fantasy baseball was thought up by Strat-O-Matic player Daniel Okrent, and Electronic Arts’s popular baseball video game was invented by his fellow fan Trip Hawkins. All those innovative statistics baseball has gained over the past fifty years, from On Base Percentage to Wins Above Replacement—they sprang from seeds planted that winter day in 1961 when Strat-O-Matic first appeared.

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