The Lexington Hotel on Chicago's South Side was once a headquarters for Al Capone. It contained his apartment, gymnasium and shooting gallery, where, rumor has it, the targets were often very realistic. The notorious days of the Lexington and the nearby red-light district are no more. The hotel is now called the New Michigan, and on its ground floor is Mama Batt's, a restaurant specializing in kreplach and matzo-ball soup—fare that would hardly have pleased Scarface. His ghost, however, might be pleased to know that on Monday evenings in the fall, dice are still being thrown in his old building. Batt's is the home stadium of a tabletop football league.
At 4 p.m. the players arrive at Batt's East, a room off the main restaurant. There are 24—the Old Gray Fox, Big Tom, Stump, et al.—and they remove their suits and open bags containing their uniforms. Big Tom Jillson is 6'3", 260, and once wrestled for Illinois. He struggles into black tights and red shorts with two big white buttons, dons Mickey Mouse ears, and with teammate Dave Petty goes to one of six game tables where await the B.C.s, dressed in Beatle wigs, T shirts and leopardskins.
Jillson sits in front of the game board and studies several defensive cards: "Good Against Strongside Off Tackle," "Weak Against Look-in Passes," "Best When You're in Doubt." He makes a disparaging remark about the B.C.s' ability to move the football, and the B.C.s batter Jillson's ears with plastic clubs.
At another table the Prince Valiant team of Bill Sloan and Gil McLendon is preparing to play Dick Tracy, a rookie outfit. Sloan believes it takes rookies at least one season to learn the complexities of the game—the percentage plays, the execution represented by the roll of the dice. Sloan and McLendon discuss last-minute game plans. "In exhibition games we played wide-open," McLendon says. "Now, we'll be more conservative." Sloan adds, "Lombardi would train at his strengths. In this game we'll go with our strengths." It is now 5 p.m., and the players get to their feet. A tape recorder plays the national anthem. The 1969 DFL (Donnelley Football League) season is under way.
The action at Batt's East is duplicated by an estimated 2,000 leagues throughout the U.S. All play Pro*Quarterback, manufactured by Championship Games, Inc., all are registered members of the AAU (Armchair Athletic Union), whose national commissioner is Tod Lansing, the game's inventor, and all read The AAU News, an eight-page tabloid featuring such articles as "NORAD Speeds Games to Lonely Arctic Sites." A number of companies produce tabletop football games—APBA, Milton Bradley, Strat-O-Matic, 3M—and each has a large following, with leagues on college campuses, in bars, suburban homes, commuter trains and at least one monastery. Tabletop games aren't restricted to football. APBA and Strat-O-Matic are best known for their baseball games. Lansing has invented one of several tabletop golf games, and it's possible to play hockey and basketball, too.
Tabletop devotees are notably fanatical. A Harrisburg, Pa. doctor thinks nothing of driving 105 miles to Philadelphia to play in a football league. An Ohio gasoline salesman refused transfer—and a promotion—until his company offered him an area where there was an APBA league. The Strat-O-Matic lunchtime baseball league at one office once completed a player draft over long-distance telephone hookups.
What accounts for this obsessive behavior? "It's the psychology of miniatures," says J. Richard Seitz, the inventor of APBA games. "You're creating an imaginary world relating to the real world of professional sports, but you're controlling it. You're the head coach, the manager." Hal Richman of Strat-O-Matic believes that advocates of table-top games are simply frustrated athletes. "We play these games because we're heroworshipers," he says, "and this is as close as we can get to the real game."
"My most glorious moment in sport came on the last day of our first table-top baseball season," one sportswriter admits. "I had to win to tie for the pennant. I was behind 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth. Luis Aparicio led off for me and flied to left. Willie Davis popped to first. Tony Conigliaro walked, and Frank Robinson was on via an error. Richie Allen tied the game with a double, and Denis Menke walked to load the bases. Up stepped Dick Stuart. He hit a home run, and to me that will always be as dramatic a homer as Bobby Thomson's."
Says Bill Sloan, DFL founder and commissioner, "I always play defense, and I try to put myself in Dick Butkus' place, wondering what he'd call. When my formation results in a fumble recovery, a big loss or an interception, I feel the same exhilaration Butkus must experience. There's nothing like it."
Sloan, like the other members of the DFL, works for Chicago's R.R. Donnelley & Sons, the nation's largest commercial printer. A tall, blond man in his mid-30s, he is pleasantly eccentric, a condition common to most tabletop enthusiasts. Sloan has always been fascinated by offbeat sports. Among these are Flockey—floor hockey played with paddles and a Ping-Pong ball—and winter golf, which is played with a tennis ball and hockey sticks.