January 15, 2006

DON'T PLAY WITH THE DICE (via Robert Schwartz):

Strat-O-Matic, the Throwback, Endures the Era of the X-Boxes (LORNE MANLY, 1/13/06, NY Times)

Stan Suderman and 66 of his friends and acquaintances gathered in Las Vegas last night, eager to jump-start three days and nights of intense fun.

These men did not come for a long weekend of casino-roaming or nightclub-hopping. Instead, they will spend 16 hours or more a day shut inside a conference room at the Desert Rose Resort playing a board game.

Members of the mostly professional group of players, which includes doctors, lawyers, and teachers, have ponied up $200 apiece for the privilege of entering the world championships of Strat-O-Matic baseball, a game that has resonated for 45 years with sports-crazy kids and the adults they grow up to become.

Somehow, in a video-game age in which the landscape is ruled by John Madden, an old-fashioned sports board game stubbornly hangs on. Hundreds of thousands of people still roll the dice and check the cards of their chosen players as they re-create whole seasons or series, pit storied teams against one another, or draft leagues of their own.

The game's realism accounts for much of its longevity. But the competition and camaraderie it breeds, the social lubricant and taunting opportunities it provides, may be just as important.

"Guys just don't call up other guys and say, 'I'm lonely, let's chat,' " said Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, the pre-eminent sports video-game maker, who still regularly plays Strat-O-Matic with friends. "It's really helpful to have something to talk about."

The godfather of this male-bonding tradition is 69-year-old Hal Richman. Growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., he found refuge from a bullying father in the imaginary world of board games. But even at the age of 11, he recognized that existing games - like All-Star Baseball, with its spinner determining the outcome of each at-bat - were lacking in verisimilitude.

Knowing nothing about statistics, he still deduced that dice would result in a more accurate game. After years of using his friends as guinea pigs while he fine-tuned the game, Richman dipped into his bar mitzvah savings and finally unveiled the first version of Strat-O-Matic in 1961.

Not only is the game itself great but it inspired one of the bvery best, but sadly underappreciated, American novels, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. : J. Henry Waugh, Prop..

Baseball statistics: history or property?: Fantasy league company sues for free rights to batting averages (AP, 1/15/06)

A company that runs sports fantasy leagues is asking a federal court to decide whether major leaguers' batting averages and home run counts are historical facts that can be used freely or property that can be sold.

In a lawsuit that could affect the pastime of an estimated 16 million people, CBC Distribution and Marketing wants the judge to stop Major League Baseball from requiring a license to use the statistics.

The company says baseball statistics become historical facts as soon as the game is over, so it shouldn't have to pay for the right to use them. [...]

Major League Baseball has claimed that intellectual property law makes it illegal for fantasy league operators to "commercially exploit the identities and statistical profiles" of big league players.

Jim Gallagher, a spokesman for Major League Baseball Advanced Media, baseball's Internet arm, declined comment on the lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing this summer in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ben Clark, a St. Louis attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights, said a win by Major League Baseball could "send a shudder through the entire fantasy industry," he said.

On the other hand, he said, it stands to lose the rights to any royalties for use of statistics.

"You just wonder whether it's a fight Major League Baseball wants to have," he said.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 15, 2006 11:59 PM

My Dad used to play a different board-based baseball simulation called APBA, which I believe is still sold as a computer game. I had the 1976 and 1979 seasons myself, as a kid (my Dad had 1969, although I don't remember him being much of a Mets fan).

A Sports Illustrated article from a couple of years ago pointed me to the Coover book. It is, as you say, an underappreciated but great novel.

Posted by: M. Bulger at January 16, 2006 9:24 AM

I had some friends in college who were in a play-by-mail Strat-O-Matic baseball league. On several occasions, I got roped in to playing in place of the PBM opponent as the "Oxford Condors" took on the rival "Morgantown Mice."

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 16, 2006 10:25 AM

I've always liked Strat-O-Matic but in my circle of friends the big one was Avalon Hill's version of Superstar Baseball.

Since 1980, we (a core group of nine that now includes four Stanford science PhDs) have played dozens of leagues. We've added additional players and modified the rules somewhat, and as a result we've come up with a game that plays fast, is relatively accurate statistically, and is very satisfying.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at January 16, 2006 10:58 AM

re: stats ownership

Not totally unrelated, but a few years ago the CSX and Union Pacific railroads started demanding licensing fees from modelling companies, with the latter even going so far as suing companies who won't pay up a percentage of every item produced (CSX just has a flat license fee). BNSF, on the other hand, despite owning everything Santa Fe, doesn't even bother. I cite it as another example of bad corporate public relations, and forgetting where you make your profits.

(And I've still got my APBA season sets for '76 through '83. And last I heard still a card based game.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 16, 2006 2:49 PM