Strat-O-Matic's new card set brings the Negro leagues back to life
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I have never forgotten that
I remember that story because my friend
There's the great
That night, Buck sat awake and waited to see how Satchel would handle the situation. Around midnight, he heard Satchel's door open, and Buck (being the snooping kind) tiptoed to the door to listen. He heard Satchel knock on the door and whisper "Nancy." No answer. Satchel knocked a little louder. "Nancy!" No answer. Satchel knocked loud. "NANCY!" And then a door opened -- but it was from Satchel's room. That had to be Lahoma.
And with that, Buck opened his door and said, "Did you want something Satchel?"
And Satchel Paige saw Lahoma and said, "Yes Nancy, what time is the game tomorrow?"
And for the rest of his life, Satchel Paige called Buck "Nancy."
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I am thinking about these stories now because I am looking through an amazing set of cards. This is the new Strat-O-Matic Negro League All-Stars baseball set. This is the culmination of a lifetime of dreaming by Strat-O-Matic founder
Strat-O-Matic, you no doubt know, is a baseball strategy game. The slogan on the box is "Manage Major League Players who hit, pitch, field and run as they do in real life." The slogan isn't necessarily catchy -- I think of the Geico commercial where the executive comes up with his own dynamite slogans like "They're the bee's knees!" -- but it's appropriate because what has made Strat-O-Matic so important and affecting to generations of baseball fans like me (and so inscrutable to others) is exactly what the box promises. You get to manage real-life baseball players. The cards can come to life. The dice can sound like the crack of the bat.
"John Miller is a respected oncologist in Washington, D.C.," Costas said some 35 years later. "But if you walked up to him today and said the name 'Gary Geiger,' a look of pure horror would come over him."
When I first wrote that story, I heard from a relative of Gary Geiger, who expressed extreme joy about it. As he should. Because the genius of Strat-O-Matic comes from what we all know: Baseball is a game of numbers. Yes, that means players' skills can be expressed in numbers. But maybe it also means that numbers can be expressed in players. If 61 is
But it has to be real. That's the hard part. The numbers on the card have to lift off the cardboard. And that is why this Negro League Baseball set was so hard to do. Because there has always been something very unreal about Negro Leagues Baseball.
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I have always been drawn to stories about Cool Papa Bell. And I have always been repelled by them, too. You know the stories I'm talking about, right? Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he once hit a line drive up the middle and was hit by the ball as he slid into second base. Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he once scored from first on a bunt. Cool Papa Bell was so fast that he would steal second and third on the same pitch. Cool Papa Bell was so fast that managers would play six infielders and let Cool Papa handle the outfield. Cool Papa Bell -- here's the famous one -- was so fast that he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room got dark.
There's something charming about these lines, of course. But there's something phony about them, too. Cool Papa Bell was a real man, flesh and blood, who played in various Negro leagues from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s. He was, by surviving accounts, a breathtakingly fast player who could chase down fly balls all over the park and beat out routine ground balls to shortstop. He hit .300 just about every year, often hit .330, sometimes hit .350. But he did not hit .900, and he did not steal two bases on single pitches with regularity, and in fact most of the sketchy numbers that have been gathered show disappointingly low stolen base totals for Cool Papa throughout his career. The Shades of Glory numbers -- the data gathered by the Baseball Hall of Fame Negro Leagues study -- show Cool Papa with only 144 stolen bases in 865 recorded games.
There are logical reasons for this: (1) Stolen bases were often missing from Negro leagues boxes. (2) Cool Papa spent much of his time batting ahead of batting legends such as Oscar Charleston,
The Cool Papa Conundrum, as I call it, is to me the toughest part about remembering and celebrating the Negro leagues. On the one hand, these myths and nicknames and stories are so wonderful and poignant and memorable. And on the other hand, they can turn these players into something more or something less than they were. And often they can turn players in something more AND something less than they were at the same time.
When people would ask Buck how fast Cool Papa Bell was, his answer was always the same. "Faster than that," he would say. Buck spent a lifetime trying to keep alive the memories of men who were denied their chance to play baseball in the major leagues. Sometimes, at the end of his life, I sensed that he worried that people would remember the stories but they would forget the men.
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"You're up against all this... stuff," Hal Richman says. Hal's story is familiar -- 50 years ago he was that kid who needed to escape a demanding father. He didn't play guitar like
The game almost failed. But Hal kept going. And Strat-O-Matic (a name he came up with while shoveling the driveway in Great Neck, N.Y.) survived and thrived because while Hal was creating a children's game -- well, ages 9 to adult -- he was not thinking about protecting the children. He was not interested in creating myths or, as
It is this unsentimental approach that has made Strat-O-Matic so real and so successful. Because of this, there have always been some lingering doubts in Hal's mind about doing a Negro leagues set. Oh, sure, he has long WANTED to do one. He has long felt an affinity for the Negro leagues. He had spent hundreds of hours reading baseball stories and he felt heartsick reading about the way black players were treated. On the other hand, he had no interest at all in putting together some sort of fantastical baseball set that would be built around fly balls that never land or fastballs so fast that no one could see them. He had even less interest in putting together a baseball set that would somehow undervalue the talents of those great players. The task seemed mostly impossible.
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This is where Scott Simkus enters our story. Scott lives in Chicago. He has lived a fairly uneventful life -- a few jobs, a family, he has been playing Strat-O-Matic since he was a kid -- and one day he called up Hal Richman and said that he had gathered some 3,000 Negro leagues box scores and was interested in turning them into a Strat-O-Matic game.
You will ask: Why did Scott Simkus have 3,000 Negro leagues box scores? Well, even he is not able to explain that. Somewhere along the way, he had started looking in microfilm for some evidence about his grandfather, who would talk about playing baseball against the famous Cuban Stars. And, well, it just became an obsession. He was supposed to be selling copiers... but he was sneaking into libraries to copy more box scores. He was driving limos... and he was thinking about box scores. He was playing semi-pro softball... and he was thinking about box scores.
Well, it's not exactly right to say he was thinking about box scores. He was thinking about the players
It turned out that Simkus wanted exactly what Richman wanted -- something to believe in. And so they broke down the numbers that they had. And they adjusted those numbers. And adjusted them again. They ranked the varying strength of the Negro leagues. They used exhibition games between Negro leagues players and major leaguers to help determine their comparative strength, but then they used more exhibition games between Negro league players and minor league teams and then they used MORE exhibition games between Negro leagues players and semi-pro teams (which were often better than minor league teams). They followed those players who moved from the Negro leagues into pro ball and, in a few cases, into the major leagues.
Hal asked some hard questions. He wanted to challenge Simkus. "After all that work, my feeling is that the Negro leagues, most of the time, were playing at about a Triple-A level. Some years, they were better than that. But most years, at about a Triple-A level. But every year the best players in the Negro leagues were as good or better than the best players in the major leagues."
They determined that Josh Gibson was the second-best power hitter in baseball history -- behind only Ruth. They determined that Oscar Charleston was, quite possibly, the best player the game has ever known (his numbers on the card: .391/.478/.693 with immense home run power and blinding AA base stealing speed). They determined that Satchel Paige was electrifyingly good, a strikeout pitcher with eerie control, and almost impossible to hit a home run against.
But these were the obvious ones. They also put together cards for great players you may not know, like the excellent shortstop
"You can read about something," Simkus says. "But when you play a GAME, it can mean something entirely new..."
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My mind is filled with Negro leagues stories. I see "Frank Duncan" and I immediately remember that he was once married to the jazz and blues singer,
I see "
I see "Hilton Smith" and I think about him teaching a teammate to read while riding on the bus to the next game. I see "
I see "Buck O'Neil" and... well, I think about a lot of things. I think about how proud he would feel seeing this Strat-O-Matic set. He might not completely follow the complexities of the game, and he might disagree with some of the numbers, because that was his style. He liked to argue about these sorts of things. But I feel sure that he would love the spirit of the game. He would love how a game could bring these players back to life. You could steal Cool Papa or pinch run for
Oh, I have no doubt that he would still want people to tell the stories... because the stories are part of the spirit, too. But it all really goes together. In 50 or so years before 1947, black players were banned from the major leagues. And so, black players created their own leagues. Black newspaper reporters covered those leagues. Black photographers took the photographs. Black baseball fans would head directly from church -- wearing their Sunday finest -- to watch the games. There were black hotels where the players and entertainers stayed, and black restaurants where they could eat, and black nightclubs for the Saturday nights. It was a whole separate world, and as Buck used to say, It never should have been that way. But it was. Parts of it were tragic, of course. But, he said, parts were beautiful, too. The barbecue was great, and the jazz was hopping, and the baseball was something to see.
"We could play, man," he would say all the time.
On Buck O'Neil's Strat-O-Matic card, he hit .314. He had pretty good speed. He didn't hit with much power, but he played a brilliant first base. He didn't walk a lot, but you could hit-and-run with him. He would steal a base if you weren't paying attention. He'd take the extra base if he could -- he hit a lot of triples. You know the story about Buck O'Neil's best day, right? That was the day in Memphis -- Easter Sunday -- when he hit a double, a home run and a single, and then in his fourth at-bat he hit one high off the wall, could have been an inside-the-park homer, but he stopped at third. The cycle. That night he went back to the hotel, and there were a bunch of teachers there. He walked up to one and said, "My name is Buck O'Neil. What's yours?" That was
"This set," Hal Richman says, "is the best thing I've done in my life."
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