In 1975 the Schaper toy company introduced Super Toe, a foot-high plastic placekicker with a right leg you could cock like a pistol's hammer. Violently slap him on the top of his helmet, as if pushing the plunger on Family Feud, and Super Toe would kick a plastic football through yellow uprights. The harder you slapped, the harder he kicked, a technique that would be employed, many years later, to operate Sebastian Janikowski.
Mattel, meanwhile, manufactured its own plastic masochists. Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots were twin, lantern-jawed boxers—one red, one turquoise—who eerily presaged, in physique and personality, the Klitschko brothers. The object of every bout was decapitation, uppercutting your foe's head clean off his shoulders, and forcing the vanquished eight-year-old in his corner to cry (as the loser did in the TV commercial): "You knocked my block off!"
Likewise, the loser in the board game Battleship was supposed to shout, "You sank my battleship!" And while Battleship, Risk and Stratego had appealing stakes—the winner ruled the Earth, until bedtime saw the sun literally set on his empire—there were, and remain, no greater holiday gifts than a handful of classic sports-related toys and games. For what could be more engaging than games that replicate games, diversions from diversions?
Most of them are still on sale, Luddite survivors in an Xbox world. They're enduring but endangered classics like electric football, which has been in near-continuous production since its invention in 1947 In EF, 22 men are fastidiously arranged at the line of scrimmage until—at the snap—the gridiron beneath them begins to vibrate, causing players to wander off lethargically in 22 separate directions, like old men in bathrobes gone off their meds on the grounds of a group home.
Slot cars, too, remain a quintessentially American toy, for the driver squeezes a trigger to make his race cars speed around a serpentine length of track. These twin impulses—toward shooting a gun and driving too fast—are also wedded in the drive-by shooting, itself a quintessentially American alloy.
But even slot-car racing is not as much fun as table hockey. To have more fun with a table, you'd have to be under it. Invented in 1932, in his Toronto home, by Donald Munro, the first table hockey game was a Christmas present to Munro's own children. Over the years, the two teams—in my neighborhood, always, maddeningly, Red Wings and Maple Leafs—devolved from un-helmeted tin men with dynamite hair to plastic people in plastic hats, skating out their lives in a six-inch length of slot. And you thought you were in a professional rut.
Still, the game has aged well in many ways, primarily by means of a clear plastic dome that prevents slap shots from going over the boards and out of play beneath the sofa bed. Gone too is that inaccessible dead zone behind either net. A puck that stopped there was always a millimeter out of reach, so that the nearest Leaf and Wing were left to flail at it impotently—fanning it with their sticks like Roman manservants with palm fronds, until your big brother at last tipped the table (and puck) toward his own skater.
We like to think of Foosball as the swinging, Eurotrash cousin of table hockey. And while EA Sports' FIFA Soccer 2004 video game is worth wishing for—with 10,000 players from 350 teams and 16 leagues around the world, it can replicate Ronaldinho's every facial tic—there is something more human about a Foosball table's 22 identical mannequins, skewered onto eight aluminum rods, each rod a shish kebab of armless Venus de Milos whose expressions really are blank, whatever the score.
These inscrutable dummies, whose only goal celebration is the occasional backflip, are men as Kipling defined them, for they always "meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same."
What's more, by bringing topflight European soccer to your Midwestern basement, football saw the Europhile American through an awkward stage, when you were no longer a child but not yet a soccer hooligan. It saw you out of your Dr. Dentons and into your Dr. Martens.