Some months ago I bought a copy of the classic game Strat-o-Matic. It came in a long rectangular box, the awkward packaging that seems to have since been jettisoned in favor of the more manageable deep square box. The box lid is decorated with I’d say maybe two-color print (puke brown and black), with text in that now-tired robot kind of font, the typographical suggestion of futuristic advances as seen from 1970 (akin to this).
I bought the game with some little bit of trouble, that being the first time in years that I crossed the threshold of a game-type store, which is millimeters away from a comic book store, atmospherically speaking. The guy at the counter had not heard of Strat-o-matic before, and this was someone who has heard of things before that maybe five max people in the Midwest ever have, some of them probably involving wizardress figurines. I spelled it out for him a few times, dashes included, and he found on his computer a copy in Indianapolis that he’d have shipped down to the local.
I didn’t know what the box would contain, or what manner of “game” Strat-o-matic would be. As I understood it at the time, the game consisted of player cards and dice. The roll of the dice corresponded to whatever was listed on the card, such that the player could simulate baseball games, series, seasons, careers, using his favorite pro ballplayers. He could even, in theory, make his own cards and use THEM. I now know what the box contains, and I’d had no misconceptions of consequence. The game does consist of cards and dice, and I can do all of the aforementioned until my eyes bleed.
Hal Richman invented Strat-o-matic when he was a kid, him being dissatisfied with the existing simulation game, All Star baseball. The little math whiz created and then honed his set of cards, and tirelessly tested the dice-rolling system until he got it right and found popular audiences in 1963. The result was a system that could accurately simulate a full season of fake baseball–with variations for chance that happen in real life too, steroids notwithstanding–down to the batting average point (why would you do this? one might ask, seeing as how you’d know the result already. For the answer, see the statement on randomization and the unpredictable quirks of probability, which I don’t understand at all).
I picked up Strat-o-matic because I’ve played fantasy baseball online since I was fourteen years old, and I figured it was time to see where it all started. Fantasy baseball is not the exact antecedent of Strat-o-matic in that it capitalizes on the real-world stats of the pros rather than their enumerated tendencies, but the underlying drive to form customized lineups and manage surrogate teams is the same.
I don’t know exactly why fantasy baseball is so satisfying and fun to play. Perhaps it’s the blend of real-world action and imaginary rearranging and strategizing. No one, for example, likes to play a sports video game with made-up players rather than real-life simulacra. In any event, to understand fantasy baseball, you have to already understand the baseball fan’s love of stats, and the human race’s love of numbers in toto.
Marshall McLuhan says that numbers are infused with a sense of the rational; that numbers, like all media, are extensions of our phsyical bodies; that numbers reinforce unity; that numbers have an iconic power. 61, 42, .400 &tc. for quick and obvious examples in the baseball universe. MM: “In every sense, the amassing of numbers statistically gives man a new influx of primitive intuition and magically subconscious awareness, whether of public taste or feeling.” Money, clocks, &tc.
With that weighty mass of information behind me, I cracked the Strat-o-matic box and dug in. There are many pieces of paper. There are charts and cards filled front and back with numbers and more charts. Three dice and booklets and ads and all kinds of crazy crap. I will spare the details of the game, but I’ll say that it takes some reading to know what one should do at all. Essentially, you roll the dice then look at corresponding charts on each card, note the action that it signifies, and chart it on the regular-style scoresheet, like you’d see at a ballgame. Imagination is not included.
As punchcards are to the Mac Book Pro, so Strat-o-matic cards are to Yahoo and ESPN fantasy baseball. The hidden mechanisms are revealed in the antique technologies. The labor of calculation and tabulation is passed on to the player, not rendered effortlessly by the machine. Every at bat is a roll of dice and a shuffling of cards, and a shift of attention from one player card to the next and the next and the next until 10 seasons are complete and Hall of Fame voting can reasonably begin. I’ve completed, as of this writing, five games.
To play, Strat-o-matic requires that I first unfold lots of pieces of paper, find the right stacks of cards, sharpen a pencil (pen=bad idea), determine batting orders and fill out the lineup cards for both teams, pick the starting pitchers, clear my day’s schedule out. Then the game begins, as I fend off thoughts of video games and laptop computers and the Internet. It’s a certifiably Amish undertaking, a self-imposed ludditism in which the trappings of modern life are foresaken for a 50s gaming style. And it’s hard. My attention wanders, my mind’s eye strains to create the mental imagery that I feel pressured to imagine, mostly because I’ve spent so much time getting the whole thing going.
The parts and pieces of our creative consumption of baseball entertainments is already provided–video games have perfectly rendered faces and batting stances, fantasy baseball churns out every stat, even the baseball stadium displays a hitter’s stats for the last ten games, &tc. Strat-o-matic gives a little and then asks for a lot. Granted, it was created during a simpler time without persoal computers. But there is a reason that it still exists, that the card sets are updated each year and I can find it at the game store. I don’t know that even typewriters get that kind of respect.
There’s a lot more to say on this topic…