Throwback Thursday: Boyhood summers spent managing big league baseball teams

Box cover for RGI's Gil Hodges' Pennant Fever

Box cover for RGI’s Gil Hodges’ Pennant Fever (photo: DY)

Late in my grade school years, I discovered a world of baseball board games that simulated the National Pastime through sophisticated play charts and statistical ratings of real-life major league baseball players. Dice or spinners typically served as activators for game play.

Most tabletop board games could be played solitaire or head-to-head. Devoted gamers could replay an entire season of a favorite team, or even a full-blown league. You could also play short schedules of your favorite teams, or draft players to stock your own teams and play a league schedule that way.

Every spring, pre-season baseball magazines such as Street & Smith‘s were chock full of tantalizing ads for these games, such as those pictured below. The sales pitch was simple and effective: It would appeal to a sports fan’s fantasies of managing a big league baseball team and of imagining themselves up at the plate or on the mound as their favorite players.

Some of these (mostly small) companies sold their games directly by mail. Others offered a “free” player performance card and brochure that described the game in greater detail, with ordering information included.

Instructions, game charts & cards, and player performance rosters for Pennant Fever

Instructions, game charts & cards, dice, and player performance rosters for Pennant Fever (photo: DY)

During the late 1960s and through the early 1980s, a lot of kids and young men discovered these games and drooled over the ads in the baseball magazines. We’d either order the games directly or send away for the descriptive brochures, and then we would wait in great anticipation for the mail delivery.

Even though, as these photos show, the games themselves were full of numbers, charts, and symbols, we weren’t disappointed. We were not expecting the equivalent of today’s video sports games, where players and their movements are rendered so realistically on the digital playing field. The charts, cards, and dice activated our mind’s eyes, so that we could recreate player performances on the tabletop and imagine the action on the field. More than a few of us would narrate the games like sports announcers, either in our heads or out loud.

Gil Hodges’ Pennant Fever, sold by Research Games, Inc., in New Jersey, was my first exposure to a serious baseball board game. Its statistical game engine wasn’t as sophisticated or as precise as some of the other baseball simulations on the market at the time, but its play descriptions fueled our imaginations.

For example, if you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see on the right a pitching card that says “Throw him blazing FAST BALLS.” Use of that card was specially limited to strikeout pitchers such as Juan Marichal and Sam McDowell. You’ll also see a pink CONNECTS chart, which was used when a dice roll resulted in the possibility of an extra base hit, especially a home run.

Pennant Fever had the added bonus of being among the less expensive offerings, and — unlike most of these games — it could be purchased at retail store outlets.

Game book & binder, player performance roster, and newsletter for Extra Innings

Game book & binder, player performance roster, and newsletter for Extra Innings (photo: DY)

I also sent away for a neat little game, Extra Innings, that had an attractive price tag ($9.95), the novelty of a game contained in a three-ring binder, and an extensive basic package that included player performance ratings for the most recent season as well as all-time great teams and Hall of Famers.

The designer of the game, Jack Kavanaugh, was a retired ad man and a thinking man’s game designer. His Extra Innings Newsletter, a copy of which is pictured above, contained some of the most thoughtful commentary about the challenges of statistically reproducing baseball in a tabletop simulation game that I’ve ever read. Kavanaugh is no longer with us, but his game still has a devoted following today.

Magazine ad for Negamco baseball

Magazine ad for Negamco baseball game (photo: DY)

I played a lot of Negamco’s Major League Baseball. This game, as you can see below, was activated by a spinner, which would create a few extra seconds of suspense for each play sequence. It wasn’t the most realistic game around, but it was easy to play and had a somewhat addictive quality to it. I recall summer nights when I’d stay up late to play just one more game.

If you want to read a great boyhood remembrance about playing Negamco baseball, check out Mayer Schiller’s “Killer Goryl” in the Elysian Fields Quarterly. And in 2011, Michael Weinreb wrote a similarly evocative long form piece for Grantland about playing another popular offering, Statis-Pro baseball, as an adolescent: “Statis-Pro Baseball: An Instruction Manual

Negamco baseball charts, spinner, lineup card, and scoresheet

Negamco baseball charts, spinner, lineup card, and scoresheet (photo: DY)

When it came to baseball board games, however, the big kids on the block were Strat-O-Matic (SOM) and APBA. Both games had been around for some time: APBA debuted in the early 1950s (and it was based on an earlier game that appeared in the 1930s!), and SOM appeared in the early 1960s. As the ads below indicate, you sent away for a brochure and game samples first, then made the decision to buy.

Magazine ads for Strat-O-Matic and APBA baseball games

Magazine ads for Strat-O-Matic and APBA baseball games (photo: DY)

The brochures were incredibly descriptive, and for a young baseball fan conjured up images of managing a favorite team and players to the World Series, replete with box scores and statistical sheets marking the season’s progress. If you want a sense of how the marketing and advertising for these games captured our imaginations, go to the APBA Baseball Archives and click around.

APBA and SOM were also among the most expensive offerings — somewhere in the $15-20 range for full editions if memory serves me right. Their game parts were first rate, and each player was represented by his own performance card. (Most of the less expensive games featured team roster sheets with the relevant player data rather than individual cards.)

Here are cards from a reissue of APBA’s 1968 season:

 apba.cubs

And here are cards from a commemorative reprint of SOM’s very first edition:

som.founders

These are the Good Old Days

APBA and SOM were both beyond my meager allowance back in the day, but as you can see from the photos, I’ve become a collector and occasional player of both games today. And as I collect vintage seasons, I keep telling myself that when I retire in X number of years, I’ll play them all the time!

Which brings up another point: Bouts of nostalgia aside, for anyone who wishes to play some type of baseball simulation game, these are the good old days, because diverse and fun options abound.

There’s still a steady interest in and demand for tabletop baseball simulations, stoked primarily by guys 40 and older. To capture the flavor of current offerings and interests, check out the Delphi Table Top Sports forum.

Another great site is Tabletop-sports.com, which hosts an active forum and links Downey Games, a popular sports game company offering well over a dozen game titles. The One For Five blog and magazine also provide lots of support for the hobby.

The APBA and Strat-O-Matic game companies are still offering their famous baseball games, now in charts & dice, computer, and online versions. Previous seasons are readily available from the companies and via a rich resale market through online forums such as the Delphi site and e-Bay.

They are joined by many other small companies offering a multitude of tabletop and computer baseball simulations. Replay, History Maker, and Ball Park (once favored by famed baseball statistician Bill James) are among the popular offerings.

I recently supported a Kickstarter campaign for Pine Tar Baseball, a new offering that appears to be carving a niche by recreating 19th century baseball seasons.

Computer baseball simulations are often remarkably deep and sophisticated in their game play. The Out of the Park computer baseball game, and its boiled down tablet/smartphone version, for example, allow players not only to replay past seasons and create fictitious leagues, but also to play the role of owner and general manager. (I’m partial to OOTP because it’s one of the few baseball sims available for the Mac as well as for Windows.)

Of course, the major video game platforms offer baseball sims that put a premium on hand-eye coordination, with some stunning graphics and features to boot.

And if you’re like me, you’ll also want to manage a fantasy baseball team or two.

The Draw of Baseball on a Tabletop

Especially for guys who grew up rooting for their favorite teams and players and who tracked baseball stats in the daily paper, these baseball simulations retain a special draw. They provide us with a connection to a beloved boyhood sport in a way that allows us to participate and play in a league of our own, and to relive the exploits of diamond heroes of days past.

As I’ve mentioned before here, my friend Ken Heard, a professional journalist, writes a marvelous blog — Love, Life and APBA Baseball — detailing his devotion to the APBA baseball game and how replaying past historic seasons has been a form of entertainment, engagement, and sometimes refuge over the years. Two summers ago I wrote an extended piece about Ken’s blog for my own professional blog.

Last year, I wrote a post about writer Jack Kerouac’s homebrewed tabletop baseball game, replete with fictitious players and news accounts of their on the field exploits. Kerouac kept up his fictional baseball league for years.

And Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) is considered a minor classic and one of the best books about the dramatic pull of baseball. It’s a novel about a man who invents his own cards & dice baseball game and becomes lost in the life of his fictitious baseball league.

So yes, there is something about baseball and the imagination that keeps us attracted to these simulations of the National Pastime. Even if they become obsessions, we could do a lot worse.

10 responses

  1. We really enjoyed this article – not only because it’s ‘right up our alley’, but also because the literary style is precise, beautiful, and accurate without getting lost in historical reference. We recently did a lot of research on this topic delving into the history of many of the games Mr. Yamada mentions above. It’s surprising when one learns that there have been more than 1,500 (yes, that’s one thousand, five hundred) baseball tabletop and board games invented and marketed since 1867 – back before “base ball” was “baseball.”

    But to aficionados of tabletop baseball, as we indeed are, there is never a time when the imagination of recreating a historical moment or simulating the position of a manager in a modern league fails to excite us. And this is why this article hits so close to home and, we are sure, to anyone else who loves tabletop baseball and is reading this post. Because reliving moments in baseball’s rich past and having the ability to change certain outcomes (while doing it) is a fantasy that’s very hard to beat. And this, we feel, is the wellspring from whence the inspiration for this post originates.

    We really enjoyed the mention of Jack Kavanaugh (Extra Innings) and the character reference to J. Henry Waugh as Mr. Coover’s writings have been a point of discussion during many of the meetings regarding the development of our own tabletop baseball game. It’s true that tabletop baseball can be an obsession that’s very hard to quell.

    We look forward to many more articles like this and we are bookmarking this blog so that, even if we aren’t notified, we’ll know to stop back in on occasion when we take yet another tabletop baseball road trip via the web.

    Great work and thanks again, Mr. Yamada. We can’t wait to read the next one.

    1. Jody, thanks for your kind words on this piece. While you’ll have to sift through future posts on old movies, bad food, and whatnot before I get to my next sports game post, I’ll hope it’ll be interesting enough to stay around. Also, I look forward to following the development of your intriguing new baseball game project (http://www.rollsaga.com), which appears to be adding a very interesting visual component along with the stat geek stuff! Best, David

  2. Great post David! My first baseball game was Gil Hodges Pennant Fever. One of the other very few baseball games for Apple Mac is DYNASTY League Baseball Online which is also the only multi-player game. Well worth trying out the free trial at: http://www.dynastyleaguebaseball.com/Main.aspx

    1. Mike, thanks for the note and the info about Dynasty online. I know that you’ve been one of the long-time major figures in creating game options for this hobby, so thanks for those many contributions as well!

  3. I enjoyed this article as well David. Baseball is one of the most unique games due to no running clock. That and the fact it is played in summer lends to its relaxing yet tense nature.

    Thanks also for supporting Pine Tar Baseball on Kickstarter and the mention in this article. Future offerings will include the 1897 season and then one in the 1970’s. Hope you enjoy the game and I am always open to feedback on it.

    1. James, thank you for your comment, and best of luck with Pine Tar Baseball. Especially with the 19th c. seasons, it’s shaping into a unique addition to the gaming roster!

  4. I enjoyed this article very much. I first played Cadaco All-Star baseball as a youngster, until stumbling upon the Strat-o-matic baseball ad pictured in your article. Naievely thinking I would be getting free tickets to Yankees games I send away for the game and did not know what I had received when it came. After a day of experimenting I found the 1964 set to be very entertaining and have been a Strat-o-matic fan for 50 years. The game is on computer now but I still have my 1964 cards. And I probably have read Robert Coover’s fictional book at least a dozen times over the years. Great article!

    1. Mitchell, those ads sure did light our imaginations. I’m sorry you didn’t get free Yankees tix, but at least you were introduced to a lifelong hobby, which is just as good, I’d say!

  5. David, Thank you for the wonderful blog. I couldn’t agree more–“these” are the good old days. So many quality baseball board games to enjoy, presently. Our first baseball board game was Bamco’s “Be a Manager.” I still have our original NL version, where my brother reconfigured the cards to his liking (Clemente needed another Triple, Drysdale another strikeout, etc.). Our second was “Gil Hodges Pennant Fever.” Like you, however, I migrated to APBA and Strat-O-Matic, primarily because these two had the courtesy of updating the seasons each year! Looking forward to your next blog. –tc

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