Friday, March 9, 2012

Strat-O-Matic Memories: The Baseball Years

Statistics are the food of love. Baseball is nourished by numbers, and all of us who have followed the game with intensity have found ourselves transformed into walking memory banks, humming with games won, games lost, batting averages and earned-run averages, games started and games saved, "magic numbers," final standings, lifetime marks, Series, seasons, decades, epochs. -- Roger Angell
In March of 1970, a month shy of my eleventh birthday, a delivery from the UPS truck changed my life. It was my first edition of Strat-O-Matic baseball, a board game that forever altered the way I viewed and enjoyed baseball. Long before Moneyball, years before Fantasy Baseball and Rotisserie Leagues, Strat-O-Matic filled the time and imaginings of teenage boys throughout the United States. Founded in 1961 by Hal Richman, a middle-class kid from Long Island who parlayed a $5,000 loan from his father to create what would become, and has remained, the single greatest baseball board game ever invented, Strat-O-Matic has been played by baseball fans of all stripes for the last half century, from young boys to grown men, from major league ballplayers and sports announcers, to doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

Richman was a self-proclaimed mediocre athlete who grew up with a love of sports and a penchant for math, a combination that would serve him well in developing a flagship baseball game based on the real life performances of all of the major league players in a given season. There is no sport as statistics-driven as baseball, and no game as statistically rich, and exceedingly realistic, as Strat-O-Matic baseball. And yet, for all its realism, Strat-O-Matic possesses what Richman refers to as play value for fun, allowing its participants to enter an alternate universe, to become the manager, statistician, and play-by-play announcer all in one. With Strat-O-Matic, I managed the St. Louis Cardinals for eight seasons, temporarily forced into retirement to attend college. For 162 games a year (and more if my team made the post-season), I started each game with an imaginary playing of the National Anthem, followed by the cheers of the crowd and the roar of “Play ball!” The games were real, but not too real, as I could bench an underperforming star without risking a bruised ego or having to deal with his pesky agent.

Before I get ahead of myself, however, some explanation may be in order for the un-initiated. Each season, Strat-O-Matic comes out with a new edition of player cards – one for each player on all of the major league teams. Each card contains the player’s name and shows the highlights of his previous seasons statistics – batting average, runs scored, doubles, triples, home runs, walks and strikeouts for hitters; wins, losses, earned run average, innings pitched, hits allowed, walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed for pitchers. The beauty of the game is in its simplicity and realism, as each player performs reasonably close to their previous season’s performance; though as in life, some players will exceed expectations and others will disappoint.

The game is played with three dice – one red and two white die – which when rolled together determine the outcome of each at-bat. The red die determines whether to look on the batter’s card or the pitcher’s card, as columns 1, 2, and 3 refer to the hitter’s card, columns 4, 5, and 6 to the pitcher’s card. The total of the two white die determine where (from 2-12) to look within the column (nowadays there is a far more advanced computer version which essentially does the dice roll for you). So, if you roll a 1-7 (red die one, white die seven), you look to the hitter’s card in column 1, number 7 for the outcome of the at bat. If you roll a 4-6 (red die four, white die six), you refer to the pitcher’s card at column four, number six. The game plays quickly and easily, with a nine-inning game played in about 20-25 minutes. Each card contains its own personality, as a singles hitter like Matty Alou or Pete Rose might have a row of singles mixed in with a few walks scattered in other columns, while a power hitter like Willie Stargell, may have HOME RUN at 1-4, 1-5, and 1-6, followed by doubles and singles in the 1 column and a series of walks in the 3 column. A good pitcher’s card, however, like Tom Seaver’s 1969 card, could shut down a good offense with rows of outs in the 4, 5, and 6 columns.

The simplicity and personality of the player cards captured my imagination, but the ability to manage the team, choose the lineups for each game, decide who would leadoff and hit cleanup and which pitcher would start that day’s game, is what hooked me. I decided when to platoon a position player; when to steal, hit-and-run, bunt, and play the infield in; when to pinch hit for the pitcher, make a late inning defensive replacement, and intentionally walk an opposing batter.

Each player is rated individually for such things as base stealing ability, base running (i.e., the ability to go from first to third or second to home on a single, or first to home on a double), fielding, and bunting ability. Within a few years of my first edition, the game developed a more advanced version with lefty-righty breakdowns, outfielder’s and catcher’s throwing arms, pitcher’s endurance, and several other highly-refined statistical differentiations, including each fielder’s range and error rates (accounting for the fact that some players cover a lot of ground while also making a lot of errors, while other players may have less range but cleanly field everything they can reach), and hit-and-run ability.

All through middle school and high school, I painstakingly kept the box scores and accumulated the season’s statistics for each 162-game season of the Cardinals. I played the same schedule the real-life Cards played, though when I checked the box scores each morning in the local paper to see how the real Cardinals did the night before, I did so in part to anticipate how “my players” would do in next year’s Strat-O-Matic season.

I still have all of my hand-kept statistics of my Strat-O-Matic seasons in the 1970’s. In looking them over recently, I was reminded that, in my first season, the Cardinals went 104-58, led by the spectacular pitching of Bob Gibson (25-5, 2.05) and Steve Carlton (21-10, 2.12) and the hitting of Joe Torre (22 HR, 102 RBI, .302), Lou Brock (.291, 107 R, 69 SB) and Curt Flood (.311, 40 doubles, 25 SB). Despite this quite impressive performance, we lost the first round of the playoffs in five games to the Cincinnati Reds, losing the fifth and final game in 16 innings by a score of 7-6, when Johnny Bench knocked in Lee May for the winning run. In looking over the box score from that game, I am forced to re-live the agonizingly painful frustration I felt as we lost in the bottom of the 16th, despite having taken a 6-5 lead in the top of that inning. Though my recollection fails me, I would not be surprised if some dice were thrown and profanities uttered, a not uncommon occurrence in Strat-O-Matic households.

It is probably fair to say that I was obsessed with Strat-O-Matic and with baseball during that time in my life, an obsession I would occasionally revisit in later years, when Strat-O-Matic developed a computerized version of the game, maintaining all of its traditional charm while keeping any statistic imaginable at your beck and call. I remember countless days sitting in class or study hall writing out my next game’s lineup, analyzing my season’s statistics, examining the upcoming schedule in anticipation of the opposing pitchers and the availability of my bullpen. I assiduously calculated the player’s stats, usually updating my stat sheet every three games or so, pencil and eraser in hand, without the aid of a calculator. To this day, I am convinced that Strat-O-Matic is why I am good with numbers. I can still calculate batting averages (hits divided by at-bats) and earned run averages (earned runs multiplied by nine, divided by innings pitched) in my head. I am not sure of what use it is to anyone, but it is a point of pride nonetheless.

Playing Strat-O-Matic baseball also made me a smarter, more informed fan. For several years straight, I knew each team’s best starting pitchers, their power hitters and base stealers, their exceptional fielders, good bunters, and which catchers were tough to steal against. And long before Billy Beane and Moneyball, I learned the value of the walk; as the “manager” of a speedy, base stealing, non-home run hitting team like the Cardinals of the 1970’s, I particularly valued a hitter’s card with a lot of walks mixed in with hits, which leads to a high on-base percentage and opens up additional run opportunities. Indeed, Billy Beane himself, and several other big league general managers, honed their analytical skills playing Strat-O-Matic.

In subtle ways, Strat-O-Matic was a teacher of life lessons; some teams were better than others, some players more valuable than others. Injuries occurred and you might have to make due for 15 games without your .363 hitter, as happened to me in 1972 when Joe Torre rolled a 1-12 (lineout (ss) – injured) and I pulled a 20 out of the split-deck pile, which was a 15-game injury. It was a bad day, but I had to deal with it. In some ways it made me more connected to the real-life team, because they were always dealing with injuries and other setbacks. I thought, If they can handle it, then so can I. In Strat-O-Matic, as in baseball, one must make the most of the talents and limitations of the players you are provided and hope that a little luck will come your way – not much different than the 1973 Mets or the 2011 Cardinals.

Strat-O-Matic required me to manage a full season with players who were as good or bad as the players in real life. And the results were stunningly accurate. In my first season, Julian Javier, the Cardinals’ second baseman, who hit .282 with 28 doubles, 2 triples, and 10 home runs in the 1969 season, hit .282 with 28 doubles, 1 triple, and 11 home runs in my Strat-O-Matic season. Lou Brock’s Strat-O-Matic batting average of .291 in over 600 at bats was only seven points lower than his real life average of .298.

And yet, as statistically-accurate as the game is, it also allows for the possibility that, in any given season, a player will over-perform or under-perform. In 1971, for example, in my second Strat-O-Matic season (playing with the 1970-based player cards), I placed a little known spot starter named Chuck Taylor in my starting rotation. Taylor had started only seven games in the regular season, finishing 6-7 with a 3.12 ERA. Under my guidance and wise counsel, however, Taylor would be a 20-game winner, finishing the season with 261 innings pitched and a record of 20-7 with a 2.00 ERA, greatly outperforming his real-life stats. Naturally, I interpreted this to mean that I was a particularly good judge of talent, as I could tell from Taylor’s player card that he was a highly underrated pitcher. Despite a team ERA of 3.11 (Gibson had another great year at 22-8, 2.06), we finished 89-73 that year, failing to make the playoffs, in part due to an inability to score runs. Joe Torre led the entire team in home runs with 14. Lou Brock once again proved the realism of Strat-O-Matic, batting .305 with 32 doubles, 5 triples, and 12 home runs in 630 at bats, compared to his actual numbers of .304 with 29 doubles, 5 triples, and 13 home runs in 664 at bats. Don’t you just love this stuff!

Over the years I have found that Strat-O-Matic has a way of connecting people. Even today, when I get together with my best friends from high school, or my brother, another long-time Strat-O-Matic player, the conversation will at some point revert to recollections of our Strat-O-Matic days. Whenever I meet another present or past Strat player, an instant bond occurs. Several attorney friends of mine have confessed to playing Strat-O-Matic as a kid (the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania happens to be a former Strat player), and many famous people in the world of baseball are self-confessed Strat-O-Matic fanatics. Jon Miller and Bob Costas, two of the best baseball broadcasters of my generation, were avid Strat-O-Matic players growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s. “From my first roll of the dice [in 1963],” Miller told Glenn Guzzo in Strat-O-Matic Fanatics: The Unlikely Success Story of a Game that Became an American Passion (Acta Sports, 2005), “I was hooked on Strat-O-Matic. I was crazed.” As a kid, Miller did the play-by-play of all of his games, mimicking Vin Scully, Russ Hodges, and Jack Thompson. “A career has to start someplace,” he noted.

Keith Hernandez, who won an MVP award as the first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1979, and who is considered among the best defensive first basemen to ever play in the National League, was religiously devoted to Strat-O-Matic as a kid. When he was invited to his first spring training in 1974, upon arrival in Florida, he discovered that his Strat-O-Matic cards and game board were missing. Upset, he called his Dad, who simply laughed and said that he had taken it out of his luggage. “Just focus on what you have to do,” he advised. Hernandez, who now broadcasts games for the New York Mets, frequently makes Strat-O-Matic references on Mets broadcasts and insists that his knowledge of the game was forever enhanced by playing Strat-O-Matic baseball.

Many other Major League players also grew up playing Strat-O-Matic, and many make it a point to check out what their player cards look like each year. Ken Singleton, who accumulated over 2,000 hits in a very distinguished career with the Baltimore Orioles, once told Newsweek, “You know you’ve really made it as a ballplayer when you see a Strat-O-Matic card of yourself.” Former Phillies center fielder Doug Glanville, a University of Pennsylvania engineering graduate who now writes a column for The New York Times, once argued with Hal Richman about his defensive rating on his Strat-O-Matic card (he was consistently rated as a “2” defensively in center field which, while good, was not the “1” rating he naturally believed he deserved).

As a teenage boy growing up in central New Jersey, Strat-O-Matic, like baseball, was in my blood. Four decades later, as I think back on my Strat-O-Matic days, I am reminded of the innocence of youth, of the need to believe in something larger than oneself. To imagine, to dream that one day there would be a Strat-O-Matic card for me; to enter an imaginary universe that simulated reality, yet was connected to the real life game; and that allowed me to enter a world that most young boys can only dream of, a big league dugout in which I called the shots, judged the talent, had input into the outcome, and accepted responsibility for the results, win or lose. This, to me, is the beauty and power of Strat-O-Matic and why it will forever find a place in my heart.


  1. As a matter of fact, in 1981, during the first MLB strike during the season, Boston Red Sox broadcasters Ken Coleman and Jon Miller played Stratomatic then broadcast the play by play. True story.

  2. Fact Check: Keith Hernandez won the MVP award in 1979, as he stated on a Seinfeld episode. Also, he had been the starting first baseman for a few years before that so 1979 was not his first year in spring training.

  3. Thank you "Anonymous" for the fact check on Keith Hernandez. Corrections noted.