Strat-O-Matic more than a game for its founder and devotees
Strat-O-Matic is a dice game that seeks to simulate actual baseball performances
It was invented by Hal Richman when he was 11 years old living on Long Island
The game has helped spawn fantasy baseball and video games
GLEN HEAD, N.Y. -- If you've ever drafted a fantasy baseball team or played a video game from EA Sports or tabulated a pitcher's WHIP, you've indirectly enjoyed the legacy of Strat-O-Matic, even if you've never heard of the small game company from the northern Long Island hamlet of Glen Head whose name is derived from a word so obscure the dictionary later cut it.
Strat-O-Matic is a board game with dice, cards and charts. At first glance, it looks like a math teacher tried to spruce up the multiplication tables with baseball references.
There is a card for the batter and a card for the pitcher, both carefully crafted so the frequency of each result -- home run, strikeout, double play and everything in between -- mirrors the players' real-life statistics. Dice rolls point to outcomes on either card or to charts that take into account fielding or ballpark conditions. Each year new cards are created, representing the new results of the previous season.
No time is wasted on frills like illustrations. The magic of Strat-O-Matic is in its realism: how the cards of major leaguers perform as well as the players on whom they're based.
On Saturday, the company will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game's first commercial edition with a free event in New York City. Over half a century, the game has captivated and influenced key minds in and around baseball, from journalists and fans to players and executives, which is all the more remarkable considering the game's humble origins as the brainchild of an 11-year-old boy from Long Island who used it as an escape from his complicated father.
Hal Richman was born in 1936, the heart of the Great Depression. His father, Irving, was an insurance executive who could be imposing and overbearing. He grew up in the ghetto, according to Hal, and didn't shy away from physical confrontations. He was the rare man of that era to lift weights recreationally.
"I had a father I loved, but he was a very difficult man," Hal Richman says. "As a youngster being brought up by him, he really didn't know how to father and was very difficult, so I had to escape him. By playing sports, which he knew nothing about, I was able to go into that area and get away from him."
Richman, by his own admission, wasn't much of an athlete. Though a pretty good table-tennis player, he had less success playing baseball and basketball. He's quick to joke about his Great Neck (N.Y.) High School basketball team that didn't win a game and was voted the worst team on Long Island -- and he wasn't even good enough to make it.
He needed another outlet to fill his love of sports. Even at age 11, Richman was frustrated by the baseball simulation games that existed, such as Ethan Allen's All-Star Baseball. That game didn't account for the pitcher's ability, and its spinner was both an imprecise tool for dictating outcomes and susceptible to wearing down. Dice, on the other hand, would solve the deficiencies of the spinner. So in his desire to invent a new game, Richman rolled two dice 5,000 times, logging the results to determine each number's probability. He used that information to design a more realistic baseball game.
"Creating this game was his psychological escape where he could retreat to his room to be with his heroes," says Glenn Guzzo, author of the 2005 book Strat-O-Matic Fanatics.
While Richman shared his game with a few friends throughout his childhood, he mostly played the game himself. After he graduated from Bucknell, becoming the first in his family to finish college, Hal's father wanted his son to follow him into the insurance business. His mother, a real estate agent, knew Hal didn't want to, so she set up a meeting with a man in the toy business to whom she had sold a house. They met for three hours and the man said his game had promise, but that it just wasn't commercial.
Hal returned home, sat at the breakfast table in his kitchen, grabbed a few multi-colored dice and, overcome with frustration, just kept rolling and rolling. That's when he had an epiphany. He would add a third die to the roll, so that half the time the result of the at bat would be dictated by the hitter's card (if the third die was a 1, 2 or 3) and half the time by the pitcher's card (for a 4, 5 or 6).
"That step is what made the baseball game," Richman says. "This would not have happened if I hadn't been stimulated by this man's criticism."
Next, he needed a name. Richman had been reading the dictionary, hoping a word might trigger an idea. He stumbled across "strategicalmatical." He kept playing the word through his head while shoveling snow on a winter day and -- remember, this is the era that spawned the Chop-o-Matic and, later, the Veg-o-Matic -- settled on the game's first and only name: Strat-O-Matic. ("Strategicalmatical" has since been retired from dictionaries.)
Success wasn't immediate. In 1961 and '62 Richman lost the few thousand dollars he had invested in the game. In '63 he borrowed $5,000 from his father with the understanding that, if he didn't pay it back, he'd go into the insurance business. That was the year Strat-O-Matic had its breakthrough. Games for other sports would soon follow, and Richman would become a career entrepreneur. He never did have to sell insurance.
In the 1970s two friends in the book business -- Daniel Okrent, an editor, and David Obst, a literary agent -- played Strat-O-Matic obsessively, so much so that their fanaticism was profiled in a 1976 Newsweek article about the rise of dice baseball games. They were photographed in an office, donning baseball caps and playing the board game they loved. "I remember just getting an enormous amount of ridicule about that," Okrent says. "My guess is that the ridicule came largely from people who in their later years became rotisserie fanatics."
What's most amazing about Strat-O-Matic is its longevity despite having spawned its own competition. The two biggest recreational hobby threats to Strat-O-Matic for the baseball fan's hour and dollar are fantasy baseball and sports video games. As it happens, Daniel Okrent, inventor of rotisserie baseball (the original fantasy game), and Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, whose sports games are the industry standard, both credit Richman's Strat-O-Matic for shaping their ideas.
"If there hadn't been Strat-O-Matic," Okrent says, "I still think I would have come up with rotisserie, but unquestionably it helped."
Says Hawkins, "The real reason that I founded Electronic Arts, was because I wanted to make computerized versions of games like Strat-O-Matic."
Okrent, the New York Times' first public editor and now an editorial adviser to Time Inc., played Strat-O-Matic fanatically with a friend for a few years in the early 1970s. He was only a few years removed from those days when he invented the original rules for rotisserie baseball in the fall of 1979, drawing on several similarities between his invention and the board game: "Certainly the assembly of a team -- we were drafting teams from scratch -- had a relationship to rotisserie [as did] the general obsession with detailed statistics and the fact that statistics could be reduced to probabilities."
Okrent also created the statistic of WHIP, which stands for Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched and was one of the original categories for rotisserie. He originally called it IPRAT (for Innings Pitched Ratio), and he readily admits that his inspiration was a fatigue rating in Strat-O-Matic; namely, that after a certain number of innings, a pitcher's performance worsened if he gave up a combination of three hits and walks in one inning or four hits or walks over two innings.
"That was absolutely in the back of my mind when I was putting together the first categories for rotisserie," Okrent says, "which is to say that walks are as important as hits in demonstrating a pitcher's weakness."
Hawkins, meanwhile, began playing Strat-O-Matic in 1967. He started with football but later fell in love with the baseball game and hasn't missed a season since. The video games produced by EA Sports -- its Madden football franchise, of course, the biggest seller -- were revolutionary. They differentiated from the products of most other gaming companies in their attention to detail, their implicit strategy, their automatic stat-keeping and their annual updates. Like Strat-O-Matic, the hallmark of EA Sports was its realism, which is marked by the video game maker's slogan: "If it's in the game, it's in the game."
Even though Hawkins -- who is now founder and CEO of mobile-app game company Digital Chocolate -- never saw EA and Strat-O-Matic as competitors, the advent of realistic new sports video games threatened Strat's livelihood. It wasn't until Hawkins read Guzzo's book that he understood the effect his company had on Richman's.
"I was actually really kind of frustrated when I read the book realizing how much stress Electronic Arts had caused Hal Richman," says Hawkins. "My life would suffer greatly if Strat-O-Matic were to stop publishing."
It's the championship game of a La Jolla neighborhood Strat-O-Matic baseball league. Trip Hawkins is playing a friend in his family's first-floor living room. Two other friends are playing the third-place game at another table. Unbeknownst to Hawkins' friends, his father is working in the downstairs garage.
The game is not going well for Hawkins. Frustrated by the outcome of his dice rolls, he kneels down, clasps his hands and loudly exclaims, "Please, God, can you change the luck in the game?" His father yells back, "For goodness sake, Trip, it's only a game." The room silences. "Who . . . was that?" one whispers to another.
Strat-O-Matic would benefit from other improvements along the way -- lefty/righty splits, separating fielding ratings into two for range and errors, ballpark effects, its own (largely graphic-free) computer version and many more -- and each advance honed the game's realism even more. The more it mirrored real baseball, the more it influenced real baseball.
Outcomes in which the batter reached base are displayed in bold type on the cards, giving visible evidence that walks are an effective part of offense. Cards such as Gene Tenace's in 1974 -- when he batted .211 but had 26 home runs, 110 walks and a .367 on-base percentage -- had more obvious value in Strat-O-Matic than a world in which batting average reigned supreme.
"While I certainly wouldn't claim to have grasped the whole Moneyball thing ahead of my time," said broadcaster Bob Costas, speaking from the MLB Network studio, where he serves as host, "I do remember arguing with other kids that the most important statistics were on-base percentage and slugging percentage."
While Strat-O has a nice roster of celebrities who play the game -- such as Spike Lee (Strat-O-Matic makes a cameo in his movie Crooklyn), Tim Robbins and Drew Carey -- more influential are those either in or around the game. That list includes former players (such as Lenny Dykstra, Keith Hernandez, Doug Glanville); a former manager (Glenn Hoffman); a large number of general managers (Billy Beane, Andy MacPhail and others); several broadcasters (Costas and Jon Miller chief among them); and an inordinate number of baseball writers (including yours truly, who began playing fanatically at age seven thanks to my Uncle Stephen and has continued playing occasional games with my brother, Jon).
In fact, in Alan Schwarz's 2002 book, The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, he surveyed 50 decision-making baseball executives and found that half of them played Strat-O-Matic when they were younger.
So realistic is the game that famed baseball writer Bill James noted in his 1986 Baseball Abstract that the Strat-O-Matic and APBA should be employed as teaching tools for new managers the way major airlines put pilots through flight simulators before taking the skies.
Author Buzz Bissinger says of Strat-O-Matic, "It changed my life." He started playing at the age of nine and complemented games with New York Times-style write-ups, writing he credits with leading him to his later profession. When Bissinger followed Cardinals manager Tony La Russa for a year to write the book, Three Nights in August, he says his background in Strat-O-Matic baseball helped him keep up.
In 1967 a 15-year-old Bob Costas is playing his cousin, John Miller, in a game of Strat-O-Matic baseball. Costas is managing the Braves against the Reds. He is losing 6-3, and the bases are loaded with two outs. Costas goes to his bench for a pinch-hitter, Gary Geiger, who had hit only four home runs in 126 at bats the previous season. Only a roll of 3-6 -- a '3' on the small die and any combination of '6' on the pair of dice -- would result in a home run.
"As anybody who really respects Strat-O-Matic knows, you have to physically move the card out of the dugout and towards the batter's box," says Costas, his broadcaster's voice rising with the moment of a game played 43 years ago. "Gary Geiger comes marching out of the dugout and his card settles into the batter's box. My cousin is mocking the move as I'm rolling the dice around the palm of my hand and I'm saying, '3-6, 3-6. This is your nightmare. If 3-6 comes up right here, Gary Geiger's name is going to live in infamy in your mind for the rest of your life. Here we go, baby, boom!' 3-6. Gone. Grand slam. Game over. 7-6. Gary Geiger lives in honor in my head and in infamy in John Miller's."