The world’s greatest board game celebrated its 50th anniversary on Saturday.
I’m speaking, of course, about Strat-O-Matic baseball.
Every February, Strat-O-Matic hosts an Opening Day party to celebrate the issuance of a new season of player cards. Saturday’s celebration moved to Community Church in New York City and drew a crowd of over 600 Strat-O-Matic fanatics.
The attendance stunned company founder Hal Richman. “It really says that you’ve done something in life that was really worthwhile,” Richman told Spencer Fordin of MLB.com. “You’ve brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people. To have some of these people come from all over the country is a wonderful thing.
“I feel very honored. I’m humbled by it. It’s just something I never thought would happen. Who would think, when you begin something, that you’d be at it 50 years? The success is because of their loyalty and their interest as much as myself creating it.”
For the uninitiated, Strat-O-Matic is played with dice, player cards, and charts. Since the odds of various dice rolls can be mathematically calculated, it’s possible to produce a card where the odds are that a .300 hitter will actually hit .300.
Half the time a die will refer you to a pitcher’s card, and the other half to a hitter’s card. But each card is really two cards in one, because each pitcher and hitter is rated for his success — or failure — against right-handers and left-handers. Strat-O-Matic even factors in the point at which a pitcher begins to tire.
Strat-O-Matic doesn’t stop there. Each player is rated for his fielding ability. Outfielders’ and catchers’ throwing arms are rated as well. Pitchers’ ability to hold runners on base is rated, as well as players’ running, stealing, bunting, and hit and run ability.
And if that isn’t enough, each game is affected by the ballpark in which it is played, and the current weather conditions.
The result is a game that is as close to real baseball, and all of its limitless possibilities, as it could possibly be. Minus the constant spitting.
Former major league player and current ESPN analyst Doug Glanville attended Saturday’s gala. “Even as a Little League player, I understood a lot more about the tactical side of the game, because my brother introduced me to Strat-O-Matic,” Glanville told Joe Lemire of SI.com.
Glanville even had a Strat-O-Matic experience during a real ballgame. “When I was playing in Philadelphia, Gregg Jeffries was our left fielder,” Glanville told Fordin. “Let’s just say he wasn’t the best left fielder. He was a converted infielder, plus he had a bad ankle that he was playing on.
“A gentleman came to the Phillies-Toronto series and I heard, ‘You’re a five, Jeffries! You’re a five!’
In Strat-O-Matic, the best fielders garner a rating of one. The worst are rated five. If you have a one-run lead late in the game, you’d better not leave any “fives” in your outfield! As well Glanville knew.
“I was laughing in center field. They invented the rating five just for him!”
How realistic is Strat-O-Matic? In his 1986 Baseball Abstract, Bill James noted that the game should be used as a teaching tool for new managers, much like pilots use flight simulators.
In his 2002 book The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, Alan Schwarz discovered that fully half of 50 decision-making baseball executives surveyed had played Strat-O-Matic during their formative years.
Daniel Okrent, the founder of rotisserie baseball, began by playing Strat-O-Matic. “If there hadn’t been Strat-O-Matic,” Okrent told Lemire, “I still think I would have come up with rotisserie, but unquestionably it helped.”
Trip Hawkins went even further, telling Lemire, “The real reason that I founded Electronic Arts was because I wanted to make computerized versions of games like Strat-O-Matic.”
Most important, for thousands of baseball fans, Strat-O-Matic offered the opportunity to play the game, write out the lineup cards, call the shots, and be in charge of creating your own game. Not to mention having a blast.
I speak from first-hand experience. I purchased my first set of player cards in 1966, based on the 1965 season. Yes, Sandy Koufax was nearly unhittable. And his Dodgers barely hit. But Maury Wills could steal at will.
Since then, I’ve played literally thousands of games, and replayed entire seasons. I even keep a box score in my desk drawer, from May 15, 1995, at 6:25 pm. After 30 years of playing, I finally had my first perfect game, Joel Horlen of the '67 White Sox beating the '67 Twins. Yes, the excitement did build over the final innings, just as you’d expect. Totally realistic.
And that proves what Hal Richman observed on Saturday. He told Stuart Miller of the New York Times, “Strat-O-Matic isn’t a religious experience for these people. But it does have tremendous meaning in their lives.”