Back in the gauzy wilds of the early 1980s in the neighorhood of Morningside Heights, four callow underclassmen decided the day's lectures held no interest and so piled into a brown sedan and rode to Glen Head, Long Island. Their mission was a simple one: arrive at the office of the Strat-O-Matic Game Company as the cards for the previous year's Major League Baseball season were released. The directions weren't the greatest, delivered as they were in those days not by handy smart phone or GPS unit but by a gruff voice at the end of pay phone line. The trip meandered along the North Shore. Yet the transaction eventually took place, and the four young men spend the ride back poring through the coded performance charts on a tall stack of white index-sized cards. The evening yielded yet another marathon session of play, the latest of many on that particular campus.
Strat-O-Matic turns 50 this week (a year before I do) and it's worthwhile to pause and recall all that wonderfully wasted time rooting for dice rolls and split card results. The Times had a piece this weekend on the anniversay and the Strat-O phenomenon, which is stubbornly anti-technology despite an online game that's a poor cousin to the original; heck, the biggest innovation in the company's history was the replacement of split cards number 1 to 20 with "the unique 20-sided die." That was nearly 30 years ago. The company's 75-year-old founder, Hal Richman, who may well have been the voice on the phone, told the Times that “Strat-O-Matic isn’t a religious experience for these people, but it does have tremendous meaning in their lives.”
I remember when Lenny Dykstra won a game with a homerun for the Mets back in 1986 and told sportswriters: "the last time I did that was Strat-O-Matic!" There's an alterative reality to the game that comes closer to the rhythm of baseball than any of the uber-realistic video titles. And the players felt that, as the celebration this weekend clearly showed.
Among the 600 aficionados was the former major league center fielder Doug Glanville, who spoke at the event.
“There’s a lot of pressure when you roll the dice on your own cards,” Glanville told the crowd.
He said that one year, he complained to Richman when his defensive rating dropped. Now an analyst for ESPN, Glanville said he sometimes studied players’ cards like scouting reports.
“I just saw an Ian Kinsler card today and saw he was an ‘A’ bunter,” he said. “I didn’t realize he was that good.”
Strat-O-Matic, in which rolls of the dice correspond to results on cards that mirror players’ real-life statistics, has survived in an age of high-tech video games.
“Like Othello or chess, you can learn the game swiftly, but you’ll never tire of the strategies,” said Glenn Guzzo, a former newspaper editor and the author of “Strat-O-Matic Fanatics,” who has been playing since he asked his mother for a set for his 12th birthday in 1963.
He said the game’s combination of playability (it can be completed in a half-hour) and realism were essential to its longevity. “There are also an infinite number of ways to keep your imagination fertile,” he added.
I haven't played Strat-O-Matic in a while, but I find myself on Long Island quite a bit for business these days. Maybe I should light out for Glen Head one early spring morning.