Entering the World of Strat-O-Matic Baseball

I first learned of Strat-O-Matic while reading a comic book. Somewhere inside the pages of “Superman” was a full page ad inviting me to play “big league baseball” with a board game that incorporated all of the elements of real baseball, including pitching, hitting, fielding, running and managing. All of that sounded nice enough, but the real grabber was the idea that, unlike other sports related board games, Strat-O-Matic simulated baseball by utilizing all of the teams of Major League Baseball, with virtually every big leaguer being represented. All of this seemed too good to be true, and so, for the moment, I passed on the opportunity.

Had there been an internet 50 years ago, I would have read that Strat-O-Matic was the brainchild of Hal Richmond, a Bucknell mathematics student who developed an early version of the game in 1961, and after taking out ads in various comic books and magazines, began selling it out of his basement through mail orders. Plagued by low sales, Richmond, in 1963, revised his game, adding the names of real MLB personal to all of the dozens of Strat-O-Matic player and pitcher cards. Each card contained outcomes (singles, doubles, strikeouts, pop-ups) that would vary depending upon the player it represented, thus a Willie Mays Strat-O Matic card would, over time, produce more offense than, let’s say Hal Lanier. The way it worked was simple…A batter’s card had three columns,1,2,and 3, while a pitcher’s card contained columns 4,5 and 6. Each column had 11 baseball outcomes. Three dice would be rolled, a red die determining which column would be used, the other two die, added together, would specify the result of the at bat. Although the luck of the roll would decide each outcome, the mathematics Richmond employed in developing the game cards made the games come alive for the participants, who, by deciding line-ups, batting orders, and pitching changes, as well as decisions on when to steal, bunt or hit and run, would truly get the feel of managing a baseball team.

Once Strat-O-Matic tweaked its game to mimic actual MLB games, it slowly began to attract a steady cult following. After the 1963 player cards were introduced, the Strat-O-Matic company was compelled to furnish a brand new set of cards each season, updated, of course, to reflect each team’s current lineup, as well as individual player production levels. Over the years, several MLB players and other sports celebrities have revealed their devotion to Strat-O-Matic. Millbrae’s own Keith Hernandez was a fan of the board game, and reportedly could not wait to see his 1979 card, after winning that year’s National League MVP award with a .344 batting average.

Despite never acquiring a Strat-O-Matic game of my own, it was my good fortune to learn that several of my new high school friends were active proponents of the game. John Arnolfo owned the 1965 version of the game, and invited me to observe a series of games played between him and another classmate, Tom Toschi. Although John and Tom had several good teams to choose from, including the 1965 World Champion Dodgers and the second place S.F. Giants lead by National League MVP Willie Mays, they somehow developed a fascination with the ’65 Kansas City Athletics, and played them night after night against different opponents, no doubt feeling that their managerial skill could improve the A’s actual 59-103 record. John was nice enough to loan me his game, and I quickly became hooked on it, although I stopped short of becoming a Kansas City Athletic fan. Soon, I discovered that others in my immediate circle of buddies were actively involved in Strat-O-Matic…Bill Nunan, living five houses down from John, was regularly making use of his 1963 player-pitcher cards, while Jeff and Steve Banchero were reliving the 1964 season, although their brother versus brother contests had more in common with Civil War battles. With so many guys within a close knit group being infatuated with the same game, it was almost inevitable that we would start our own league, with each of us assigned a specific team. Thus was born the great Millbrae Meadows Stat-O-Matic League of 1968.

As the league begin to take form, several decisions had to be made, including the number of teams, a schedule, which teams and which MLB year would be used, and of course, importantly, team assignments. Fortunately (or at least we thought) most of those issues would not have to be argued, as Bill Nunan had already made himself commissioner. No one objected when he expanded the league to eight teams, which meant our good friends Larry Garcia and Bud Harrington would be joining Bill, John, Tom, Jeff, Steve and myself as franchise owner-managers. Bill then decided that our league would be comprised of 1963 MLB teams, which was also fine with us, as we were a nostalgic bunch, and the past was already beginning to look pretty good to us. But it was the matching us with our teams that saw our league’s first major controversy.

Bill had suggested a blind drawing to determine team assignments, a drawing, we assumed would take place with all participants present. It was a surprise to the rest of the league when Bill announced, on the eve of our opening day, that he, Jeff and Steve had gone ahead and conducted the drawing themselves, and the teams were set. When the results of the “drawing” were revealed, some smelled a rat. Jeff had drawn the Giants, complete with Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, while his brother Steve drew the 1963 World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Bill Nunan was almost equally “lucky,” as he ended up with the American League champion New York Yankees, winners of 104 games in ’63. John got the average Chicago Cubs, Larry was assigned the Milwaukee Braves, while Bud was stuck with the pathetic Houston Colt .45’s. Tom and I felt fortunate as his Chicago White Sox and my St. Louis Cardinals were both second place teams in 1963. Still, I had to wonder how the only three guys present at the drawing were able to wind up with the three most coveted teams.

539wIf my memory serves, we were to play a 42 game schedule, with the group meeting at John’s house twice a week to get in as many games as possible each night. Opening night saw more controversy. Soon after Bill distributed everybody’s team cards (they belonged to him) I noticed that Curt Flood was missing from my set. Bill immediately accused me of losing the card, and threatened me with all kinds of physical violence if the card was not found promptly. As I wondered if the actual MLB Commissioner had ever beat up an owner, John offered a short term solution…I would use the 1965 Curt Flood card until the 1963 version turned up, which it eventually did, in Bill’s bedroom. I was also dismayed when I realized that the 1963 Cardinals did not include Lou Brock, as he did not become a Cardinal until the following season. John, knowing my interest in Brock, just happened to have Brock on his Chicago Cubs, and suggested we reenact the Lou Brock-Ernie Broglio trade a year before it happened, which I did, unaware that Brock only hit .258 in 1963, while Broglio was an 18 game winner. John sweetened the pot by adding Bob Buhl while I gave up an aging Stan Musial, who batted .255 in what was his final season.

The opening games at John’s house provided a glimpse into everyone’s Strat-O-Matic personality. Jeff Banchero acted like a manager during his games, fretting over each decision, and recreating discussions between him and his players. John Arnolfo, on the other hand, played the role of announcer, giving play by play accounts of whatever was unfolding in front of him. Then there was Bill Nunan, who played like he was double-parked, growling for everyone to hurry up. A typical Strat-O-Matic game took about 30 minutes…Bill could play a double-header in that amount of time. Of course, there was always the look of disgust he gave while playing against me, and the 1965 Curt Flood would come to the plate. There was also a slight problem with Larry Garcia’s handling of the Milwaukee Braves pitching staff. Players, especially pitchers, are supposed to be used at the same frequency as their real life counterparts, but Larry tried to use Warren Spahn every game, claiming, “I don’t care what you guys say…he’s ready.” From what I remember about the first couple of weeks of the 1968 Millbrae Meadows Strat-O-Matic League, the standings were somewhat bunched up after 18 games, although Tom Toschi’s White Sox won 11 out of their first 12.

I’d love to complete this article by telling you how our league turned out, but I can’t, because, unfortunately, the league folded before the season was halfway finished. Blame it on summer vacations, some guys getting jobs or girlfriends, but the sad fact that it just petered out. Or did it? Unlike the rest of us, Bill Nunan never lost his interest in Strat-O-Matic, playing the game well into adulthood. Some 30 years after our league collapsed, Bill told us his intention of reassembling the eight 1963 teams, and completing our 42 game schedules for us. Of course, by now, Strat-O-Matic had undergone several improvements, and a late 1990’s computerized version allowed Bill to play a game, and print out a box-score in a matter of minutes. Week after week, Bill updated us as to the progress of our teams, which was made doubly fun by the fact that all of us had remained friends. It’s hard for me to remember what happened with Bill’s attempt to finish our season, because, frankly, if you play enough Strat-O-Matic, you start confusing your countless simulations with the real thing.