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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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:
And here are cards from a commemorative reprint of SOM’s very first edition:
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.
Those who want to play a game of simulated football today are likely to fire up Madden Football on their video game systems or check the status of their fantasy football teams. But before these brands of fake football became all the rage, gridiron fans who wanted to coach their very own teams could opt from a rich variety of board and electronic football games.
For a grand stroll through these offerings, check out Steve Anderson’s Retro Football Games (2014), an illustrated look at vintage tabletop football games from the last century. It’s a beautifully done book, featuring hundreds of games, ranging from very simple recreations of the sport, to complex statistical simulations that incorporate actual player performances and play calling options. Interspersed with the photographs and brief descriptions are short sections on football trivia and collectibles.
The Whitman Play Football game from the 1930s is an example of a simpler version of tabletop football. It’s activated by a spinner, with the play results obtained from the game board.
If you were a young fan in the 60s or 70s, it’s very possible that you played some brand of electric football. A vibrating field and quarterback figures who could “throw” a tiny felt football were the supposed keys to the plastic players executing their plays, but for many of us the results included mainly wrong-way runs and errant passes.
Eventually tabletop football became more complex and sophisticated, with game systems that used real player performances translated into player cards and roster sheets with statistical ratings that would be taken into account when determining play results. No longer did you have to imagine your star player overwhelming the opposition based on generic result charts like the Whitman game. Instead, games like APBA Football would allow you to pick your lineups and plot game strategies.
Steve’s book arrives just as the current football season is in full swing. Especially for those who grew up during this era, it’s nostalgic eye candy and a fun read. For more information and ordering details, go to his website, here.
For more fun
Tabletop football is not dead — far from it! In fact, buoyed by consistent demand from a lot of guys around my age, many of these games continue to be offered, with new offerings popping up all the time. There’s also an active after-market on e-Bay and sites dedicated to tabletop sports games, such as this popular site on Delphi. In addition, the second issue of a new tabletop sports zine, One for Five, features a cover package including descriptions of currently available football games.
All photos (including the blurry ones): DY, 2014
After spending good chunks of my 30s playing video games, I’ve kinda shrugged my shoulders at them since then. But the other day I walked by the Microsoft Store in Boston, replete with a demo of the latest Xbox system on a widescreen TV, and I couldn’t believe how good the whole thing looked.
Two kids were playing the EA Sports FIFA 14 soccer game, and the graphics were jaw dropping…sharp, authentic, and from a distance looking like a World Cup match. And the player movements, at least in the hands of these skilled game players, were incredibly realistic, again almost like watching a televised soccer match.
Back in the day…
Oh my, we’ve come a long way, baby, from the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo systems that ate up many hours of my 30s!
Not to put down those classic game systems, which were the dominant platforms before the arrival of the Sony PlayStation. Both were powerful machines for their day, and developers squeezed every bit of computing power out of them to produce games that looked great and played deep.
It was on the Genesis, especially, that EA Sports carved out its dominant market share with titles like Madden Football and NBA Live, and I looked forward to every new release. But you didn’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy these gaming systems. Fantasy, adventure, arcade, strategy, and shoot-em-up titles also were in rich supply.
And then there was the original Nintendo Game Boy. Its graphics were primitive even by 1990s standards, but its portability and vast game library made it a hit.
The Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy systems also broke through to an older, mostly male market. The Game Boy was a favorite of male travelers, and on occasion articles about air travel trends noted how often flight attendants would encounter passengers too engrossed in their video games to notice the beverage cart going by.
I’m sure the graphics and game play of FIFA 14 are only the tip of the iceberg of today’s video game world. Presumably the library of games available today is even more appealing than back in the 90s, when I would frequent game stores.
As blown away as I was by this demonstration at the Microsoft Store, however, I didn’t find myself weighing a video game system purchase — at least not beyond a minute or two. Right now, video gaming wouldn’t fit into my already busy schedule. To really enjoy these games, it helps to be somewhat devoted to them. After all, the best video games have lots of depth to them, and the occasional player misses out on their richness.
But maybe someday, as other commitments and activities lighten, I’ll look over the popular gaming systems and rediscover the hobby. By then, Madden Football probably will come with virtual refreshments, so I can spare myself the real calories as I’m leading my Chicago Bears to their next (virtual) Super Bowl championship.
You may be familiar with Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) as the author of novels (e.g., On the Road) and poetry that established him as an iconic figure of the Beat Generation. But did you also know that he was a big sports fan who blended a love of baseball and a rich imagination to create a homebrewed tabletop baseball game? The game featured a league of fictitious teams and ballplayers that he played for years, well into his adulthood.
With baseball season moving into full swing, I’m delighted to highlight Isaac Gewirtz’s Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats (2009), a colorful 100-page book about Kerouac’s fantasy sports world, including plenty of photos of Kerouac’s own baseball game and the voluminous league records he maintained. The book is published by the New York Public Library (Gewirtz is a curator there), and it’s listed in the NYPL’s online catalog.
Through his game, Kerouac created his own fictitious world of baseball, proceeding from season to season. During the earlier years of his baseball league, he named his teams after car brands:
Kerouac added journalistic touches to his baseball league. Here’s a write-up of early-season league action, including the nascent standings and a game summary:
Kerouac’s game slightly preceded the arrival of dozens of commercially marketed baseball board games, such as APBA and Strat-O-Matic, in which players recreate the performances of real-life major leaguers via game engines that blend assorted charts, player performance cards or roster, and activators such as dice or spinners. Computer and videogame platforms have now brought baseball simulations into the digital age. (For those who want to check out the contemporary tabletop sports simulation scene, the Tabletop Sports game forum on Delphi is a good starting place.)
Perhaps newspaper reporter and APBA baseball fan Kenneth Heard is following in Kerouac’s footsteps with his terrific personal blog, Love, Life and APBA Baseball, in which he mixes game and league summaries with personal stories and observations about life.
Kerouac’s fictitious tabletop baseball world also preceded Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), the tale of a man who invents his own cards & dice baseball game and becomes lost in the life of his fictitious baseball league. It’s considered a minor classic and one of the best books about the dramatic pull of baseball.
I’ve been playing tabletop sports games since I was in grade school. Last year I played the 1969 Chicago Cubs schedule on the iPad version of Out of the Park baseball. I was attempting to reverse the fortunes of a favorite team that, in real life, slumped badly at season’s end and lost the division title to the New York Mets, the eventual World Series champs. (I’m afraid that my management of the digital Cubs resulted in a much worse record!)
But I digress! You see, it comes easily for those of us who, like Kerouac, enjoy recreating a favorite sport with the mind’s eye. Even if we lack his gift for writing novels, we can build a world of legendary sports accomplishments on our tabletops.