We’d order the teams well before Christmas, and they’d arrive in early January. Fresh white pristine cards. We’d go through them and check out the player ratings in fielding, throwing arms, defensive ranks, speed, stealing ratings. We’d review the cards, always on the Advanced game version. The basic game was for wimps. Sometimes we’d disagree with the ratings certain players were given by the game inventor, a true genious by the name of Hal Richman. But we went with Richman’s Strat-0-Matic ratings because, in the end, the inventor of the game was the ultimate arbitrator.
Strat-o-matic. A computer based card game, invented in the 1960s was about as close you could get to managing the real teams. In fact, it is because of Strat-O-Matic that I truly believe that I could strategize with any manager in the game. The inventor, Hal Richman, gets little credit for being the first, well respected, sabermetrician out there. He was way ahead of his time.
|Hal Richman, the inventor of Strat-O-Matic|
Richman, a 1958 Bucknell university graduate in mathematics had invented the concept of the game as a young boy in 1948. He was a Yankee fan, who idolized Joe DiMaggio and had an absolute love for baseball, the aura of statistics and strategy. By 1960 he had created the game. Cards for each baseball player in the league were developed. Players were rated through the extense research of Richman, who followed the game religiously and read periodicals from every market in the country to get a true feel for a players ability in all the tools. Hitting, hitting for power, speed running the bases, speed with regard to stealing bases, pitcher longevity, bunting ability, hit and run ability, and so much more. Heck, Richman even put a mechanism in the game where a player could get injured and be forced to sit him out for weeks at a time.
Richman would create the cards for each player between October and December of each year for distribution for the new year, based on the previous year’s stats. Hal stated in interviews that he’d work 80+ hour weeks just producing the full set of players cards for two full months to get the new season’s sets out in time.
In the photo above is a sample of two real life Strat-O-matic cards. They are the1971 Frank Howard and 1971 Mike Cuellar cards. The concept of the game was simple. The players of Strat-O-Matic baseball serve as managers of each team. In this case the Washington Senators and Baltimore Orioles. You would prepare your line up and face off for a nine inning game. The offensive side would have three dice. One red and two white. You roll the red die and come up with a number, 1 through 6. That number would represent a column on one of the cards. In this case, Frank Howard, a right handed batter is facing Cuellar, a left handed pitcher. If you rolled a 1, 2, or 3, you would look at the the offensive players card. If you rolled a 4, 5, or 6, you look at a column on the pitchers card. So, as an example, if I rolled a “1,” I’m looking at the column under “1” on the far left, because Cuellar is a lefty. (If he was facing Jim Palmer, a righty, you’d look at the “1” column towards the right center of the card, which corresponds to when Howard was facing a right handed pitcher.
The next step is the manager of the offensive team rolls the two white dice and adds up their total. So if, for example, I rolled a “5” and a “3,” their total being “8,” Frank Howard has just walked. That is the gist of the game. You will note that there are ratings on each card for Howard’s ability to bunt, hit and run, steal, run the bases, his power rating. Additionally there are references to his fielding rating in Left Field and first base, his defensive positions, as well as his throwing arm. I assure you, Howard’s ratings in each of those areas with the exception of power are about as bad as you could get on a Strat-O-Matic card. Likewise, you’ll notice that with Cuellar, 1971 was a fine year for him and he had a lot of complete games. His card indicates that as a starter, he wouldn’t tire significantly until the 9th inning. Anything on his card with a black dot next to it would become a single if it happened in the 9th inning or later.
That is a brief explanation on how Start-O-Matic baseball is played. In 1963, Richman put out his first full set of teams and that was when the game caught on. Within 3 years, he was forced to deal with the newly organized MLB Players Association and Union President Marvin Miller. The players wanted their cut for having their names used in the game. Richman showed up at Miller’s offices and opened his books to him. “Your sales were supposed to be our royalties,” said Miller in their initial meeting. He had no idea that Start-o-matic wasn’t a real big money making venture. Miller agreed to a modest deal with the young company and as a result, didn’t put Strat-O-Matic out of business. Richman was appreciative stating “The MLBPA could have shut down the operations...but instead decided to work with us.”Richman interview from 1999 Linked HERE
As the years went by and the popularity of the game grew, eventually today’s MLBPA organization has re-negotiated the licensing agreement through teams of lawyers and the game has gone by way of the internet. I must admit, I’m not familiar with the internet version of the game and I haven’t played a game of Strat since the mid 90’s when I briefly introduced it to my sons.
It was my brother Taylor that first spotted the game. I think it was in a Sporting News ad. Taylor, a true stat-geek, ordered the Strat-O-Matic cards with his earnings from making hero sandwiches at his first job, Senada’s Deli and Bakery in Hacienda Hts. I owe it to him for turning us all on to “Strat” as we called it. The first season we played was 1971. We divided up the teams and Taylor was kind enough to allow me to manage the Dodgers. Year after year we continued. And the participants in our league grew.
|This Strat-O-Matic Baseball ad from 1973 was probably similar to the one that my brother, Taylor, spotted when he ordered the game in 1971.|
Attempts were made to play the full season, but it was nearly impossible. I suppose it could have been done if we didn’t keep stats. But what good would that have been had we not kept stats? That was the whole purpose of the game. Keeping records. I learned how to use a slide rule while recording slugging %’s and ERA’s. Summer vacations were spent playing the game for hours on end, deep into the night.
By year two, our participants in our Strat League were Mike S., Jeff, Richard, Brad, Bill, David, Clark, Marvin, Jon, Mike T. and a few others. Some stuck with our full blown league. Others just dropped by and played a game once in a while. During one vacation shared with 4 close families, the boys spent the entire week playing baseball in the day and Strat at night. It was a dream week in San Diego and later the next year at Lake Elsinore. True baseball nirvana.
There was Strat “etiquette” too. This was in reference to proper decorum while playing the game. It meant there was no gloating, no showboating. If you did well, you were allowed a brief moment of jubilation. A exclamation of “Yes!” or a short clap or fist pump. But that was it. Anything beyond that and you’d get punched in the arm. Yes, we had our share of Strat-O-Matic brawls. Like the time my ’73 Dodgers won the Start-O-Matic World Series against my brother’s Minnesota Twins. With the last roll of the dice and the victory at hand, Taylor grabbed the die and said “That doesn’t count, that was practice.” and proceeded to roll the dice again. After that, it was on. Two Strat-O-Matic fanatics rolling around on the floor in a brawl reminiscent of a Dodgers-Giants melee. It wasn’t until another sibling came in to break it up amongst a lot of laughter between the two of them that order was restored. I wasn’t laughing though, nobody was going to cheat me out of my World Series victory.
We forced one of our players, David, to roll the dice from a Yahtzee cup. It turns out that there were accusations of cheating where he’d roll the dice in a certain way that would reduce the chances of it spinning horizontally and coming up with an unfavorable number. Then there was my younger brother, Richard, who we forced into the league out of the need for an additional player. Rich didn’t have much interest in the game at all and it was always tough to get him to participate with any concern or desire to win. One summer night my brother Taylor was literally shaking him to keep him awake late at night to roll the dice so he could finish up a game. Our mother wasn’t too pleased when she walked in and witnessed that event. The game was shut down for the night.
Strat was a way of life in our household, and as we grew up and went away to college, eventually, life moved us away from the game. The end of Start-O-Matic was a sense of realism that my childhood had come and gone . I was a 21 year old, and I attempted to play out the season with cards from the 1981 season by myself. It wasn’t fun without the comraderie and competition of my brother and friends. It was the last year that I ordered teams.
Now, years later, as I encounter some of my old strat-o-matic playing buddies, we reminisce and laugh about those times. We laugh about strategies we used. Also the creative managing that we believe should be used in today's game, i.e., putting a left handed reliever in to face a lefty, move him to rightfield for a hitter to keep him in the game and then return him to the mound for the next batter. Why in the world has that hasn’t been done in today’s game, with the paranoia managers today have with the lefty-lefty and righty-righty matchups, I’ll never know.
There is a push for Hal Richman to be inducted into the baseball hall of fame, just as Bill James was. This past March, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, an honor that deeply touched the 75-year old baseball genius. Generations of baseball fans learned the game through Richman’s board game. As a missionary in Argentina, somehow one of the fellow missionaries working with me mentioned Strat-O-Matic in a conversation. From then on, we were best friends.
At a Dodger game in the 70's, while sitting in the Left Field Pavilion, a guy several rows behind us was heckling Lou Brock and called him out as a “4” with a +3 throwing arm (both very poor defensive ratings in Strat-O-Matic). From that moment on, we were buddies the rest of the game.
|Doug Glanville, a Strat-O-Matic player, protested that the game ranked his defense too low.|
When Lenny Dykstra mentioned he played Strat-O-Matic in a post game interview, he earned my instant respect. So did Spike Lee, Billy Crystal, Doug Glanville, and Keith Hernandez. And Mike Smith, the current Clippers announcer, former Celtic, BYU All American. Why do I mention Mike?
Well he’s Mike S., the guy I mentioned as part of our original Strat League in the early to mid 70s.