Toys Were Us

Dec. 08, 2003
Dec. 08, 2003

Table of Contents
Dec. 8, 2003

Toys Were Us

In 1975 the Schaper toy company introduced Super Toe, a foot-high
plastic placekicker with a right leg you could cock like a
pistol's hammer. Violently slap him on the top of his helmet, as
if pushing the plunger on Family Feud, and Super Toe would kick a
plastic football through yellow uprights. The harder you slapped,
the harder he kicked, a technique that would be employed, many
years later, to operate Sebastian Janikowski.

This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2003 issue Original Layout

Mattel, meanwhile, manufactured its own plastic masochists. Rock
'em Sock 'em Robots were twin, lantern-jawed boxers--one red, one
turquoise--who eerily presaged, in physique and personality, the
Klitschko brothers. The object of every bout was decapitation,
uppercutting your foe's head clean off his shoulders, and forcing
the vanquished eight-year-old in his corner to cry (as the loser
did in the TV commercial): "You knocked my block off!"

Likewise, the loser in the board game Battleship was supposed to
shout, "You sank my battleship!" And while Battleship, Risk and
Stratego had appealing stakes--the winner ruled the Earth, until
bedtime saw the sun literally set on his empire--there were, and
remain, no greater holiday gifts than a handful of classic
sports-related toys and games. For what could be more engaging
than games that replicate games, diversions from diversions?

Most of them are still on sale, Luddite survivors in an Xbox
world. They're enduring but endangered classics like electric
football, which has been in near-continuous production since its
invention in 1947. In EF, 22 men are fastidiously arranged at the
line of scrimmage until--at the snap--the gridiron beneath them
begins to vibrate, causing players to wander off lethargically in
22 separate directions, like old men in bathrobes gone off their
meds on the grounds of a group home.

Slot cars, too, remain a quintessentially American toy, for the
driver squeezes a trigger to make his race cars speed around a
serpentine length of track. These twin impulses--toward shooting
a gun and driving too fast--are also wedded in the drive-by
shooting, itself a quintessentially American alloy.

But even slot-car racing is not as much fun as table hockey. To
have more fun with a table, you'd have to be under it. Invented
in 1932, in his Toronto home, by Donald Munro, the first table
hockey game was a Christmas present to Munro's own children. Over
the years, the two teams--in my neighborhood, always,
maddeningly, Red Wings and Maple Leafs--devolved from unhelmeted
tin men with dynamite hair to plastic people in plastic hats,
skating out their lives in a six-inch length of slot. And you
thought you were in a professional rut.

Still, the game has aged well in many ways, primarily by means of
a clear plastic dome that prevents slap shots from going over the
boards and out of play beneath the sofa bed. Gone too is that
inaccessible dead zone behind either net. A puck that stopped
there was always a millimeter out of reach, so that the nearest
Leaf and Wing were left to flail at it impotently--fanning it
with their sticks like Roman manservants with palm fronds, until
your big brother at last tipped the table (and puck) toward his
own skater.

We like to think of Foosball as the swinging, Eurotrash cousin of
table hockey. And while EA Sports' FIFA Soccer 2004 video game is
worth wishing for--with 10,000 players from 350 teams and 16
leagues around the world, it can replicate Ronaldinho's every
facial tic--there is something more human about a Foosball
table's 22 identical mannequins, skewered onto eight aluminum
rods, each rod a shish kebab of armless Venus de Milos whose
expressions really are blank, whatever the score.

These inscrutable dummies, whose only goal celebration is the
occasional backflip, are men as Kipling defined them, for they
always "meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two
impostors just the same."

What's more, by bringing topflight European soccer to your
Midwestern basement, football saw the Europhile American through
an awkward stage, when you were no longer a child but not yet a
soccer hooligan. It saw you out of your Dr. Dentons and into your
Dr. Martens.

Other games approximated games that were already faint
approximations of still other games. And so tennis was replicated
by Ping-Pong, which was in turn replicated by Gnip Gnop, a
portable Parker Brothers echo of table tennis. But all of these,
alas, were waylaid by Pong, the original video game, which three
decades ago ushered in the digital age, making all other
playthings look as analog as Lincoln Logs. Which is where we
stand--or rather, sit--today, blinking into the PlayStation game
on the plasma TV. Even so, this December you might stuff a
stocking with Strat-O-Matic baseball or Mattel hand-held football
or Trac Ball, which was jai alai for the family without its own

And pass a moment in quiet gratitude for Reyn Guyer, the Edison
of the rec room, inventor of both Twister and the polyurethane
wonderstuff known as Nerf. More than anyone, Guyer brought the
stadium into the basement, allowing children everywhere the
anarchic pleasure of playing ball in the house. With no
possibility of putting an eye out.


Table hockey: To have more fun with a table, you'd have to be
under it.