The story of Strat-O-Matic (cont.)
In his last year as an amateur baseball player, Keith Hernandez began playing Strat-O-Matic and was immediately hooked. He tried recreating the entire 1971 National League schedule and had played about 128 games for each team by the time he went off to his first spring training in February 1972.
On his first night upon arriving in Florida, he reached into his luggage -- and discovered that his Strat-O-Matic set was missing. He called his father, who told his son to concentrate on actually playing the game.
"Needless to say, I never finished the '71 season," Hernandez says wistfully.
Hernandez, who played 17 years in the majors mostly with the Cardinals and Mets, reconnected with the game after retiring and now plays regularly on his computer; he has recreated the 1964 NL season three different times. And he admits to using Strat-O-Matic to prepare for Mets games as analyst on SNY.
"Yes, I don't see the American League that much," Hernandez says, "so I want to know the running rating. You can see if they are good bunters or not, good hit-and-run guys or not, what kind of arm they have, what kind of range they have -- absolutely it's helpful."
Ken Glanville, who was older than his brother Doug by more than seven years, had a plan for his little bro. It included steady doses of Wiffle Ball and Strat-O-Matic to prepare Doug for a life in baseball.
"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," says Doug Glanville, who played nine seasons in the majors, primarily with the Phillies and Cubs.
Both players have suggested improvements to the game: Hernandez sought to refine outcomes when the infield is pulled in; Glanville wanted to add a rating for the throwing arms of cutoff men. With such passion, perhaps it was no surprise that Doug Glanville contacted Richman in 2002 when he was only given a 2 defensive range rating instead of a 1. (Players are rated 1 through 5, with 1 being the best.) Cardinals centerfielder Jim Edmonds had won the Gold Glove that year, even though Glanville outpaced Edmonds by 102 putouts (413 to 311) in the outfield and made fewer errors.
Richman met with Glanville behind the batting cage at Shea Stadium one day for a pleasant, if serious, conversation. Richman tried to placate the player with a reprint card in which Glanville's rating had been changed to a 1, calling it his "olive branch."
Glanville replied, "That's not the real thing. Are kids across America playing with that card?"
When a player strike canceled the 1981 All-Star Game in Cleveland, media members created a replacement game, using Strat-O-Matic cards, on a card table over home plate at Municipal Stadium. Opera singer Rocco Scotti sang the national anthem. Bob Feller rolled the first dice. The stadium scoreboard was in operation. That set is now in Cooperstown as part of the Hall of Fame's collection. And when the strike continued, some newspapers resorted to playing every canceled game with Strat-O-Matic and writing up summaries. One New England radio station even broadcast Strat-O-Matic re-enactments in place of Red Sox games.
Strat-O-Matic headquarters are in a nondescript one-story building in tiny Glen Head. Anyone who ever sent away for cards or a game from the company knows its iconic address -- 42 Railroad Plaza -- and, yes, it is, in fact, across the parking lot from the local Long Island Rail Road train station.
There are just nine employees and 1,800 square feet of office space -- mostly unwalled desks scattered around an open loft area -- and an adjacent warehouse nearly four times as big.
This is where the games are intently researched. Much of the cards are created by plugging statistics into Strat-O-Matic's proprietary formulas, but for all the game's reliance on statistics and probabilities, there's a certain subjectivity to producing some of the game's rating for defense, baserunning, bunting and hit-and-runs. That's where long-tenured employees such as Steve Barkan, Len Schwartz and James Williams contribute. Williams' mother was Richman's first employee; he was the second.
Barkan, who has been working there for 42 1/2 years, is the type of guy who will note that extra half-year even after more than four decades of continuous employment, which makes him the perfect lead researcher for Strat-O-Matic's historical teams. (It makes cards for seasons even before the game's founding in 1961.)
Schwartz and Guzzo, the author who now works for Strat-O-Matic on a contract basis, spearhead the research into the more subjective ratings. They watch as many games as they can, contact team broadcasts and scour through newspaper clippings from beat writers -- so much so, Schwartz said, that he knows which ones are afraid to criticize and whose reporting is most reliable.
"People may disagree with our ratings, but it's not for lack of effort," Schwartz said.
Richman used to have a favorite Strat-O-Matic baseball card: the 2001 Barry Bonds card with its single-season record 73 home runs. No card ever had such awesome power. "But no more," Richman says. "Statistics are very important to me and, I think, to most avid baseball fans. He corrupted them."
On Sundays in the mid-1980s Buzz Bissinger and other staffers at the Philadelphia Inquirer would retreat to the Pen & Pencil Club, a journalists-only private space in Center City, a relic of the late 19th century when there were 13 daily newspapers in town, for weekly Strat-O-Matic marathons. In the 1987 championship game staff writer Rick Tulsky and his son Eric co-owned a team that was trailing in the ninth with Chris Brown batting against their opponent's closer, Calvin Schiraldi. The dice roll produced a home run if the ensuing roll of the 20-sided die was a '1' -- all results '2-20' were an out. Eric rolled a '1' for the walkoff win. Their opponent, who had punched through a flimsy Inquirer conference room wall in a previous series loss to the Tulskys, heaved his notebook off the table in disgust. Then he said, "See? I'm calm."
After the MLB Players Association was formed in 1966, Marvin Miller immediately called in two companies, Topps and Strat-O-Matic, that were profiting off the use of the names of major-leaguers. What Miller didn't realize was that Strat-O-Matic, despite its reputation, was a very small company, and so he summoned Richman's lawyer, Robert Sale, to his office.
When Sale told Miller what Strat-O-Matic's sales were -- a fraction of what the MLBPA assumed they'd be -- Miller, normally a very calm man, banged his pencil off his desk, sending it flying through the air. He shook his head and said, "Mr. Sale, I thought your sales would be my royalties."
In relaying this story now, Richman smiles and says matter-of-factly, "We made a deal we could live with." The use of the players' names was, of course, essential to the game's appeal. That realism remains unmatched.
Strat-O-Matic is still owned by Richman, though in the last few years he has solicited a buyer or at least an investor. Richman is secretive about his company's sales and revenue, other than to say that he's never had a year that was not profitable and to report that 2010 was his second-best year in history, as sales grew 12 percent.
The company also makes games for basketball, football and hockey, but baseball is the original and the bestseller. While sales of Strat-O-Matic's computer games have outpaced the board games of the other three sports, sales of baseball are "about even" between the computer and board games, Richman says.
"Its acceptance by other youth and the marketplace gave [Richman] a sense of identity," says Guzzo. "Strat-O-Matic survived and thrived because of Hal's persistence."
A dapper man in his early 70s flies from Montreal to New York's JFK airport. He takes a cab more than 20 miles to Glen Head. He enters Strat-O-Matic headquarters and buys a nominally priced card set. He's asked about the length and cost of his travels for such a small purchase, the man replies with a Quebecois accent, "My grandson wanted these. And the mail takes too long in Canada."
Another visitor, a young man, strolls in and says, as eyes moisten around the office, "The only thing I have in common with my father is Strat-O-Matic."
There's always been something about baseball that's timeless and paternal, and so too has Strat-O-Matic connected generations. But rather than just embellish the existing narrative of the game being passed from father to son, Richman's creation has left an indelible impact on baseball itself.
"That game should be in the Hall of Fame," Bissinger says, "and so should Hal."
But such praise was never the validation Richman sought. Some of his childhood friends later told a newspaper reporter they were surprised he ever tried to market the game, believing it was more meaningful as a personal creation.
In his later years, Irving Richman started to watch a little baseball, which was at least implicit acknowledgement of his son's career work. "His generation," Hal Richman says of his father, "it was very difficult for them to congratulate you."
Irving Richman died in 1993 at the age of 100. Newsday later wrote a flattering profile on Richman and Strat-O-Matic in 2005, the article noting his complicated relationship with his father under the headline, "Father of the Game." Richman explained to the reporter that he was aware of the seemingly difficult circumstances that led to the game's creation.
"If I had been a good athlete, if I had made the high school baseball or football team, I might not have invented the game," Richman told Newsday. "If my father had been a regular father, it wouldn't have happened. I had to escape into my own world to escape my father."
Soon after the piece ran, a business associate of Irving Richman called Hal. The man spoke at length about the difficulty he had working with his father. "Your father was impossible to deal with," he told Hal Richman.
Richman, of course, didn't want to hear this and tried to end the conversation, politely telling the man, "Thank you very much for calling about the article."
That's when the caller got around to his reason for picking up the phone.
"But you know," he said, "your father really loved you."
Recalling this moment six years later, Richman grows a little misty-eyed. "That really got to me," he says, his voice cracking slightly. "That still gets to me."
The game that has meant so much to baseball has meant even more to its founder, who used its creation to escape his father, only for it to ultimately bring them closer.
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