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Strat-O-Matic more than a game for its founder and devotees

GLEN HEAD, N.Y. -- If you've ever drafted a fantasy baseball team or played a video game from EA Sports or tabulated a pitcher's WHIP, you've indirectly enjoyed the legacy of Strat-O-Matic, even if you've never heard of the small game company from the northern Long Island hamlet of Glen Head whose name is derived from a word so obscure the dictionary later cut it.

Strat-O-Matic is a board game with dice, cards and charts. At first glance, it looks like a math teacher tried to spruce up the multiplication tables with baseball references.

There is a card for the batter and a card for the pitcher, both carefully crafted so the frequency of each result -- home run, strikeout, double play and everything in between -- mirrors the players' real-life statistics. Dice rolls point to outcomes on either card or to charts that take into account fielding or ballpark conditions. Each year new cards are created, representing the new results of the previous season.

No time is wasted on frills like illustrations. The magic of Strat-O-Matic is in its realism: how the cards of major leaguers perform as well as the players on whom they're based.

On Saturday, the company will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game's first commercial edition with a free event in New York City. Over half a century, the game has captivated and influenced key minds in and around baseball, from journalists and fans to players and executives, which is all the more remarkable considering the game's humble origins as the brainchild of an 11-year-old boy from Long Island who used it as an escape from his complicated father.

Hal Richman was born in 1936, the heart of the Great Depression. His father, Irving, was an insurance executive who could be imposing and overbearing. He grew up in the ghetto, according to Hal, and didn't shy away from physical confrontations. He was the rare man of that era to lift weights recreationally.

"I had a father I loved, but he was a very difficult man," Hal Richman says. "As a youngster being brought up by him, he really didn't know how to father and was very difficult, so I had to escape him. By playing sports, which he knew nothing about, I was able to go into that area and get away from him."

Richman, by his own admission, wasn't much of an athlete. Though a pretty good table-tennis player, he had less success playing baseball and basketball. He's quick to joke about his Great Neck (N.Y.) High School basketball team that didn't win a game and was voted the worst team on Long Island -- and he wasn't even good enough to make it.

He needed another outlet to fill his love of sports. Even at age 11, Richman was frustrated by the baseball simulation games that existed, such as Ethan Allen's All-Star Baseball. That game didn't account for the pitcher's ability, and its spinner was both an imprecise tool for dictating outcomes and susceptible to wearing down. Dice, on the other hand, would solve the deficiencies of the spinner. So in his desire to invent a new game, Richman rolled two dice 5,000 times, logging the results to determine each number's probability. He used that information to design a more realistic baseball game.

"Creating this game was his psychological escape where he could retreat to his room to be with his heroes," says Glenn Guzzo, author of the 2005 book Strat-O-Matic Fanatics.

While Richman shared his game with a few friends throughout his childhood, he mostly played the game himself. After he graduated from Bucknell, becoming the first in his family to finish college, Hal's father wanted his son to follow him into the insurance business. His mother, a real estate agent, knew Hal didn't want to, so she set up a meeting with a man in the toy business to whom she had sold a house. They met for three hours and the man said his game had promise, but that it just wasn't commercial.

Hal returned home, sat at the breakfast table in his kitchen, grabbed a few multi-colored dice and, overcome with frustration, just kept rolling and rolling. That's when he had an epiphany. He would add a third die to the roll, so that half the time the result of the at bat would be dictated by the hitter's card (if the third die was a 1, 2 or 3) and half the time by the pitcher's card (for a 4, 5 or 6).

"That step is what made the baseball game," Richman says. "This would not have happened if I hadn't been stimulated by this man's criticism."

Next, he needed a name. Richman had been reading the dictionary, hoping a word might trigger an idea. He stumbled across "strategicalmatical." He kept playing the word through his head while shoveling snow on a winter day and -- remember, this is the era that spawned the Chop-o-Matic and, later, the Veg-o-Matic -- settled on the game's first and only name: Strat-O-Matic. ("Strategicalmatical" has since been retired from dictionaries.)

Success wasn't immediate. In 1961 and '62 Richman lost the few thousand dollars he had invested in the game. In '63 he borrowed $5,000 from his father with the understanding that, if he didn't pay it back, he'd go into the insurance business. That was the year Strat-O-Matic had its breakthrough. Games for other sports would soon follow, and Richman would become a career entrepreneur. He never did have to sell insurance.

*****

In the 1970s two friends in the book business -- Daniel Okrent, an editor, and David Obst, a literary agent -- played Strat-O-Matic obsessively, so much so that their fanaticism was profiled in a 1976 Newsweek article about the rise of dice baseball games. They were photographed in an office, donning baseball caps and playing the board game they loved. "I remember just getting an enormous amount of ridicule about that," Okrent says. "My guess is that the ridicule came largely from people who in their later years became rotisserie fanatics."

*****

What's most amazing about Strat-O-Matic is its longevity despite having spawned its own competition. The two biggest recreational hobby threats to Strat-O-Matic for the baseball fan's hour and dollar are fantasy baseball and sports video games. As it happens, Daniel Okrent, inventor of rotisserie baseball (the original fantasy game), and Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, whose sports games are the industry standard, both credit Richman's Strat-O-Matic for shaping their ideas.

"If there hadn't been Strat-O-Matic," Okrent says, "I still think I would have come up with rotisserie, but unquestionably it helped."

Says Hawkins, "The real reason that I founded Electronic Arts, was because I wanted to make computerized versions of games like Strat-O-Matic."

Okrent, the New York Times' first public editor and now an editorial adviser to Time Inc., played Strat-O-Matic fanatically with a friend for a few years in the early 1970s. He was only a few years removed from those days when he invented the original rules for rotisserie baseball in the fall of 1979, drawing on several similarities between his invention and the board game: "Certainly the assembly of a team -- we were drafting teams from scratch -- had a relationship to rotisserie [as did] the general obsession with detailed statistics and the fact that statistics could be reduced to probabilities."

Okrent also created the statistic of WHIP, which stands for Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched and was one of the original categories for rotisserie. He originally called it IPRAT (for Innings Pitched Ratio), and he readily admits that his inspiration was a fatigue rating in Strat-O-Matic; namely, that after a certain number of innings, a pitcher's performance worsened if he gave up a combination of three hits and walks in one inning or four hits or walks over two innings.

"That was absolutely in the back of my mind when I was putting together the first categories for rotisserie," Okrent says, "which is to say that walks are as important as hits in demonstrating a pitcher's weakness."

Hawkins, meanwhile, began playing Strat-O-Matic in 1967. He started with football but later fell in love with the baseball game and hasn't missed a season since. The video games produced by EA Sports -- its Madden football franchise, of course, the biggest seller -- were revolutionary. They differentiated from the products of most other gaming companies in their attention to detail, their implicit strategy, their automatic stat-keeping and their annual updates. Like Strat-O-Matic, the hallmark of EA Sports was its realism, which is marked by the video game maker's slogan: "If it's in the game, it's in the game."

Even though Hawkins -- who is now founder and CEO of mobile-app game company Digital Chocolate -- never saw EA and Strat-O-Matic as competitors, the advent of realistic new sports video games threatened Strat's livelihood. It wasn't until Hawkins read Guzzo's book that he understood the effect his company had on Richman's.

"I was actually really kind of frustrated when I read the book realizing how much stress Electronic Arts had caused Hal Richman," says Hawkins. "My life would suffer greatly if Strat-O-Matic were to stop publishing."

*****

It's the championship game of a La Jolla neighborhood Strat-O-Matic baseball league. Trip Hawkins is playing a friend in his family's first-floor living room. Two other friends are playing the third-place game at another table. Unbeknownst to Hawkins' friends, his father is working in the downstairs garage.

The game is not going well for Hawkins. Frustrated by the outcome of his dice rolls, he kneels down, clasps his hands and loudly exclaims, "Please, God, can you change the luck in the game?" His father yells back, "For goodness sake, Trip, it's only a game." The room silences. "Who . . . was that?" one whispers to another.

*****

Strat-O-Matic would benefit from other improvements along the way -- lefty/righty splits, separating fielding ratings into two for range and errors, ballpark effects, its own (largely graphic-free) computer version and many more -- and each advance honed the game's realism even more. The more it mirrored real baseball, the more it influenced real baseball.

Outcomes in which the batter reached base are displayed in bold type on the cards, giving visible evidence that walks are an effective part of offense. Cards such as Gene Tenace's in 1974 -- when he batted .211 but had 26 home runs, 110 walks and a .367 on-base percentage -- had more obvious value in Strat-O-Matic than a world in which batting average reigned supreme.

"While I certainly wouldn't claim to have grasped the whole Moneyball thing ahead of my time," said broadcaster Bob Costas, speaking from the MLB Network studio, where he serves as host, "I do remember arguing with other kids that the most important statistics were on-base percentage and slugging percentage."

While Strat-O has a nice roster of celebrities who play the game -- such as Spike Lee (Strat-O-Matic makes a cameo in his movie Crooklyn), Tim Robbins and Drew Carey -- more influential are those either in or around the game. That list includes former players (such as Lenny Dykstra, Keith Hernandez, Doug Glanville); a former manager (Glenn Hoffman); a large number of general managers (Billy Beane, Andy MacPhail and others); several broadcasters (Costas and Jon Miller chief among them); and an inordinate number of baseball writers (including yours truly, who began playing fanatically at age seven thanks to my Uncle Stephen and has continued playing occasional games with my brother, Jon).

In fact, in Alan Schwarz's 2002 book, The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, he surveyed 50 decision-making baseball executives and found that half of them played Strat-O-Matic when they were younger.

So realistic is the game that famed baseball writer Bill James noted in his 1986 Baseball Abstract that the Strat-O-Matic and APBA should be employed as teaching tools for new managers the way major airlines put pilots through flight simulators before taking the skies.

Author Buzz Bissinger says of Strat-O-Matic, "It changed my life." He started playing at the age of nine and complemented games with New York Times-style write-ups, writing he credits with leading him to his later profession. When Bissinger followed Cardinals manager Tony La Russa for a year to write the book, Three Nights in August, he says his background in Strat-O-Matic baseball helped him keep up.

*****

In 1967 a 15-year-old Bob Costas is playing his cousin, John Miller, in a game of Strat-O-Matic baseball. Costas is managing the Braves against the Reds. He is losing 6-3, and the bases are loaded with two outs. Costas goes to his bench for a pinch-hitter, Gary Geiger, who had hit only four home runs in 126 at bats the previous season. Only a roll of 3-6 -- a '3' on the small die and any combination of '6' on the pair of dice -- would result in a home run.

"As anybody who really respects Strat-O-Matic knows, you have to physically move the card out of the dugout and towards the batter's box," says Costas, his broadcaster's voice rising with the moment of a game played 43 years ago. "Gary Geiger comes marching out of the dugout and his card settles into the batter's box. My cousin is mocking the move as I'm rolling the dice around the palm of my hand and I'm saying, '3-6, 3-6. This is your nightmare. If 3-6 comes up right here, Gary Geiger's name is going to live in infamy in your mind for the rest of your life. Here we go, baby, boom!' 3-6. Gone. Grand slam. Game over. 7-6. Gary Geiger lives in honor in my head and in infamy in John Miller's."

*****

In his last year as an amateur baseball player, Keith Hernandez began playing Strat-O-Matic and was immediately hooked. He tried recreating the entire 1971 National League schedule and had played about 128 games for each team by the time he went off to his first spring training in February 1972.

On his first night upon arriving in Florida, he reached into his luggage -- and discovered that his Strat-O-Matic set was missing. He called his father, who told his son to concentrate on actually playing the game.

"Needless to say, I never finished the '71 season," Hernandez says wistfully.

Hernandez, who played 17 years in the majors mostly with the Cardinals and Mets, reconnected with the game after retiring and now plays regularly on his computer; he has recreated the 1964 NL season three different times. And he admits to using Strat-O-Matic to prepare for Mets games as analyst on SNY.

"Yes, I don't see the American League that much," Hernandez says, "so I want to know the running rating. You can see if they are good bunters or not, good hit-and-run guys or not, what kind of arm they have, what kind of range they have -- absolutely it's helpful."

Ken Glanville, who was older than his brother Doug by more than seven years, had a plan for his little bro. It included steady doses of Wiffle Ball and Strat-O-Matic to prepare Doug for a life in baseball.

"Even as a Little League player I understood a lot more about the tactical side of the game because my brother introduced me to Strat-O-Matic," says Doug Glanville, who played nine seasons in the majors, primarily with the Phillies and Cubs.

Both players have suggested improvements to the game: Hernandez sought to refine outcomes when the infield is pulled in; Glanville wanted to add a rating for the throwing arms of cutoff men. With such passion, perhaps it was no surprise that Doug Glanville contacted Richman in 2002 when he was only given a 2 defensive range rating instead of a 1. (Players are rated 1 through 5, with 1 being the best.) Cardinals centerfielder Jim Edmonds had won the Gold Glove that year, even though Glanville outpaced Edmonds by 102 putouts (413 to 311) in the outfield and made fewer errors.

Richman met with Glanville behind the batting cage at Shea Stadium one day for a pleasant, if serious, conversation. Richman tried to placate the player with a reprint card in which Glanville's rating had been changed to a 1, calling it his "olive branch."

Glanville replied, "That's not the real thing. Are kids across America playing with that card?"

*****

When a player strike canceled the 1981 All-Star Game in Cleveland, media members created a replacement game, using Strat-O-Matic cards, on a card table over home plate at Municipal Stadium. Opera singer Rocco Scotti sang the national anthem. Bob Feller rolled the first dice. The stadium scoreboard was in operation. That set is now in Cooperstown as part of the Hall of Fame's collection. And when the strike continued, some newspapers resorted to playing every canceled game with Strat-O-Matic and writing up summaries. One New England radio station even broadcast Strat-O-Matic re-enactments in place of Red Sox games.

*****

Strat-O-Matic headquarters are in a nondescript one-story building in tiny Glen Head. Anyone who ever sent away for cards or a game from the company knows its iconic address -- 42 Railroad Plaza -- and, yes, it is, in fact, across the parking lot from the local Long Island Rail Road train station.

There are just nine employees and 1,800 square feet of office space -- mostly unwalled desks scattered around an open loft area -- and an adjacent warehouse nearly four times as big.

This is where the games are intently researched. Much of the cards are created by plugging statistics into Strat-O-Matic's proprietary formulas, but for all the game's reliance on statistics and probabilities, there's a certain subjectivity to producing some of the game's rating for defense, baserunning, bunting and hit-and-runs. That's where long-tenured employees such as Steve Barkan, Len Schwartz and James Williams contribute. Williams' mother was Richman's first employee; he was the second.

Barkan, who has been working there for 42 1/2 years, is the type of guy who will note that extra half-year even after more than four decades of continuous employment, which makes him the perfect lead researcher for Strat-O-Matic's historical teams. (It makes cards for seasons even before the game's founding in 1961.)

Schwartz and Guzzo, the author who now works for Strat-O-Matic on a contract basis, spearhead the research into the more subjective ratings. They watch as many games as they can, contact team broadcasts and scour through newspaper clippings from beat writers -- so much so, Schwartz said, that he knows which ones are afraid to criticize and whose reporting is most reliable.

"People may disagree with our ratings, but it's not for lack of effort," Schwartz said.

Richman used to have a favorite Strat-O-Matic baseball card: the 2001 Barry Bonds card with its single-season record 73 home runs. No card ever had such awesome power. "But no more," Richman says. "Statistics are very important to me and, I think, to most avid baseball fans. He corrupted them."

*****

On Sundays in the mid-1980s Buzz Bissinger and other staffers at the Philadelphia Inquirer would retreat to the Pen & Pencil Club, a journalists-only private space in Center City, a relic of the late 19th century when there were 13 daily newspapers in town, for weekly Strat-O-Matic marathons. In the 1987 championship game staff writer Rick Tulsky and his son Eric co-owned a team that was trailing in the ninth with Chris Brown batting against their opponent's closer, Calvin Schiraldi. The dice roll produced a home run if the ensuing roll of the 20-sided die was a '1' -- all results '2-20' were an out. Eric rolled a '1' for the walkoff win. Their opponent, who had punched through a flimsy Inquirer conference room wall in a previous series loss to the Tulskys, heaved his notebook off the table in disgust. Then he said, "See? I'm calm."

*****

After the MLB Players Association was formed in 1966, Marvin Miller immediately called in two companies, Topps and Strat-O-Matic, that were profiting off the use of the names of major-leaguers. What Miller didn't realize was that Strat-O-Matic, despite its reputation, was a very small company, and so he summoned Richman's lawyer, Robert Sale, to his office.

When Sale told Miller what Strat-O-Matic's sales were -- a fraction of what the MLBPA assumed they'd be -- Miller, normally a very calm man, banged his pencil off his desk, sending it flying through the air. He shook his head and said, "Mr. Sale, I thought your sales would be my royalties."

In relaying this story now, Richman smiles and says matter-of-factly, "We made a deal we could live with." The use of the players' names was, of course, essential to the game's appeal. That realism remains unmatched.

Strat-O-Matic is still owned by Richman, though in the last few years he has solicited a buyer or at least an investor. Richman is secretive about his company's sales and revenue, other than to say that he's never had a year that was not profitable and to report that 2010 was his second-best year in history, as sales grew 12 percent.

The company also makes games for basketball, football and hockey, but baseball is the original and the bestseller. While sales of Strat-O-Matic's computer games have outpaced the board games of the other three sports, sales of baseball are "about even" between the computer and board games, Richman says.

"Its acceptance by other youth and the marketplace gave [Richman] a sense of identity," says Guzzo. "Strat-O-Matic survived and thrived because of Hal's persistence."

*****

A dapper man in his early 70s flies from Montreal to New York's JFK airport. He takes a cab more than 20 miles to Glen Head. He enters Strat-O-Matic headquarters and buys a nominally priced card set. He's asked about the length and cost of his travels for such a small purchase, the man replies with a Quebecois accent, "My grandson wanted these. And the mail takes too long in Canada."

Another visitor, a young man, strolls in and says, as eyes moisten around the office, "The only thing I have in common with my father is Strat-O-Matic."

*****

There's always been something about baseball that's timeless and paternal, and so too has Strat-O-Matic connected generations. But rather than just embellish the existing narrative of the game being passed from father to son, Richman's creation has left an indelible impact on baseball itself.

"That game should be in the Hall of Fame," Bissinger says, "and so should Hal."

But such praise was never the validation Richman sought. Some of his childhood friends later told a newspaper reporter they were surprised he ever tried to market the game, believing it was more meaningful as a personal creation.

In his later years, Irving Richman started to watch a little baseball, which was at least implicit acknowledgement of his son's career work. "His generation," Hal Richman says of his father, "it was very difficult for them to congratulate you."

Irving Richman died in 1993 at the age of 100. Newsday later wrote a flattering profile on Richman and Strat-O-Matic in 2005, the article noting his complicated relationship with his father under the headline, "Father of the Game." Richman explained to the reporter that he was aware of the seemingly difficult circumstances that led to the game's creation.

"If I had been a good athlete, if I had made the high school baseball or football team, I might not have invented the game," Richman told Newsday. "If my father had been a regular father, it wouldn't have happened. I had to escape into my own world to escape my father."

Soon after the piece ran, a business associate of Irving Richman called Hal. The man spoke at length about the difficulty he had working with his father. "Your father was impossible to deal with," he told Hal Richman.

Richman, of course, didn't want to hear this and tried to end the conversation, politely telling the man, "Thank you very much for calling about the article."

That's when the caller got around to his reason for picking up the phone.

"But you know," he said, "your father really loved you."

Recalling this moment six years later, Richman grows a little misty-eyed. "That really got to me," he says, his voice cracking slightly. "That still gets to me."

The game that has meant so much to baseball has meant even more to its founder, who used its creation to escape his father, only for it to ultimately bring them closer.

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