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The Managers: What Strat-O-Matic Meant to Its Creator, Its Fans, and Baseball

For inventor Hal Richman, the legendary baseball board game Strat-O-Matic was an escape from a difficult childhood. For generations of fans, it's just been an escape.

by Pete Croatto
Jul 6 2016, 1:41pm

Image via Strat-O-Matic.com

Hal Richman had already borrowed more than $6,000 from friends to launch Strat-O-Matic, but two years later, in 1963, his board game was still struggling and he needed more money. So he turned to his father, Irving, who loaned him $5,000 on one condition: Hal had to repay him by November. If he came up short, it was off to the family insurance business.

Irving Richman was a man who lived life at a boil. He and his business partner—it was his own brother, for crying out loud—would duke it out right there in the office. In Managing to Win: The Story of Strat-O-Matic, a bittersweet new documentary on Richman and his creation, Hal returns to his childhood home, where, he says, there was "a fight every night." He asks the home's new owner if the rooms have heat. Yes, says the owner, they do.

"We didn't," Richman says. "We used to see our breath in the morning. My father was a very frugal man. He had heat. We didn't."

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Irving's penchant for fighting remained even at 81 years of age; his final opponent was a 38-year-old (Irving, if you were wondering, was the aggressor).

"I loved the man, but he was difficult for all of us in the family," said Richman. He never bonded with his father, and Richman believes his father expected him to fail, which is why he made the deal. "I could not look past the game," he said. "It was too devastating to think past it as an alternative."

I asked Richman, now 79, if Irving did anything to inspire him.

"Well, I did work out of his basement with the game for at least four years," he said. "That was very important. I didn't have to pay rent."

***

Other board games had simulated baseball, but Strat-O-Matic was indisputably the best. The randomness of three dice shot some of baseball's chaos into it; pitchers determining the outcome reflected how the sport actually works; real stats from all the players brought it down to earth.

Richman's creation brought baseball's essence into your house. The game's leisurely pace invites other pleasures, leaving plenty of time to drift into managerial wonder. Strat-O-Matic "played to that most basic of baseball fans' instincts, which is to say, 'I can do a better job than the people who are running my team," said the editor and writer Daniel Okrent, the inventor of fantasy baseball. "I think that's the kind of subliminal motivation."

Like any baseball game, Strat-O-Matic features two teams. Each player, batters and pitchers alike, is represented by a card with a table listing the raft of possible outcomes commensurate with his abilities, from Home Run to Ground Out Into As Many Outs As Possible. You roll three dice to get players from here to there. The things a player does most often in real life—strikeout, homer, whatever—will happen most often in the game, because those outcomes, based on the previous year's stats, are pegged to the most common dice combinations.

Hal Richman getting inducted into the (very real) Jewish Sports Hall Of Fame. Image via Strat-O-Matic.com

People are still playing Strat-O-Matic 55 years later, for the same reasons they always have—it's a great game. "I've brought a lot of happiness and a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people, and that's very important to me," Richman said.

Talk to some of those people, for whom Strat-O-Matic was both an escape and a transcendent entertainment, and the memories emerge clear and bright after years packed in storage. For a couple of summers, before girls and jobs barged in, the board game was a staple for Norm Schrager; growing up in Yonkers, New York. He would head over to his friend's house to play for hours in the sunroom, with the Yankees providing visual and audio ambience. A teenage Dan Patrick faked an illness so he could stay home from school to celebrate the arrival of the game's updated player cards. "At the age, you know, kids are trying to look through Playboys and we're looking through Strat-O-Matic cards," the former SportsCenter and current radio host said.

It was all about enjoyment, according to Patrick, who engaged in battles with colleague Gary Miller when the pair worked at CNN and, later, at ESPN. They played constantly—at Atlanta Braves games, in bars, wherever. Patrick recalled one expletive-laden contest concluded with the two not speaking for 48 hours.

The game was the invention of a child who loved sports but wasn't particularly skilled at playing them; growing up on Long Island, Richman didn't even make his winless high-school basketball team. The earliest version of Strat-O-Matic unfurled from Richman when he was 11 years old. He played All-Star Baseball—the Articles of Confederation to Strat-O-Matic's Constitution—so much that he wore out the spinner, but the board game failed to incorporate all of baseball's aspects, such as pitching. "The timing was perfect," he said, "because there was a dearth of product in that area, and I wanted the product." So Richman created it himself.

If his bedroom was Richman's lab, summer camp was his rollout. Richman roomed with three other boys who loved baseball. They played during the hour when the counselors rested and the campers headed to their bunks. The game was so popular Richman created a fourth team to keep everybody happy.

Back in Great Neck, "people thought I was a bit crazy," Richman said. When he applied for colleges, his mother, Helen, warned him not to reference his creation for fear he'd be branded a nerd. That was before she drained his bank account of $10,000—his Bar Mitzvah earnings—so she could maintain the house. Only $21 remained.

Richman was undeterred. The game launched in 1961, and Richman's work steadily embedded itself in the DNA of sports culture. "The engagement with detailed statistics that I got involved in with Strat-O-Matic segued naturally into the creation of Rotisserie," Okrent said, referring to the first fantasy baseball league. WHIP, the stat Okrent is credited with creating, is itself derived from Strat-O-Matic. EA Sports founder Trip Hawkins was consumed by Strat-O-Matic Football and used it as a springboard for Madden NFL.

The game celebrated statistics and teased you with their malleability. "I think it combines that love of 'data' with how much can I affect it," said Schrager, who would wonder if a player who hit 35 home runs could reach 50. "It's the first sophisticated game that baseball fans could play to replicate baseball," Okrent said. "The detailed statistical breakdowns were so vastly more sophisticated to anything that preceded it."

Mike Cieslinski, the designer of DYNASTY League Baseball and Pursue the Pennant, devoured baseball board games. He played Strat-O-Matic as a teenager for a year or two. His fascination with the game's righty-lefty splits spurred him on an "archaeological dig" for more data when he began creating his own games in the 1980s. Pursue the Pennant and DYNASTY League Baseball are archived in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, said Strat-O-Matic influenced a generation of sabermetricians. The game moved from the bedrooms of little boys to the offices of grown men who make decisions. "A 2002 Baseball America survey of major-league teams' front-office executives, 50 percent of them said they played Strat-O-Matic or a similar game as a kid," Thorn and Alan Schwarz wrote in Richman's entry of "Baseball's 100 Most Important" in the 2004 edition of Total Baseball. Richman came in at No. 82.

Richman acknowledges the game's statistical influence, but says that was not the intent: "I was a batting average guy like everyone else," he said.

Where the magic happens. Image via Strat-O-Matic.com

Creating was the high. Richman would wake up in the middle of night with an idea, jot it down, and try to fit it into his cardboard world the next day. The passion matured into a business. The early years were relentless. Richman would type orders, handle shipping. From October to December, he worked 80 hours a week. The rest of the year, Richman cut back to 60 hours.

Since then, however, Richman "lost contact," as he puts it, with the game he birthed. So have others. Five years ago, Okrent received a complimentary game from Strat-O-Matic Media LLC that remains unopened. His attention is fixed on fantasy. Patrick says he hasn't played in at least five years. The company sent a game, which he displayed on the man cave set of his popular radio show; it has since been demoted to the cave's closet. Strat-O-Matic has moved on to other platforms and variations for today's quick-is-slow world.

"I swear to God, I'm slightly surprised that it has [endured]," said Schrager, who hasn't rolled the dice in decades. The board game, he observed, is akin to sitting on the front porch and listening to Vin Scully on the radio.

But that connection to and evocation of an unhurried past is why Strat-O-Matic still has devotees, Cieslinski said. "The people who play the game the way they used to when they were growing up, I think that's the big appeal," he said. "They want to go back and have that same kind of experience. So they'll stick with something that they're comfortable with and they grew up with—it reminds them of being 15 again. There is that very strong loyalty to wanting to go back and play that game that you grew up playing." Strat-O-Matic, he added, has a roster of "people that they've touched the lives of."

A good sports board game, Richman says, must be fun to play and realistic, two opposing forces that must collaborate. Few have found that balance. Richman's goal with Strat-O-Matic was to use the game to build a life—get married, have a home, send his kids to college. "That was the extent of it," he said. "I had no idea this would last." Popularity led to personal clarification. In Managing to Win, the documentary, Richman discusses how, after Newsday profiled him, an old business associate of Irving called—and vilified Irving, who had died five years earlier. Richman got fed up. Then the associate changed course. Your father loved you; he was proud of you.

Strat-O-Matic was a pleasure, and then a job; it has changed with the times, but its legacy is set and sure. The father stacked the odds against his son, who found a level of incomprehensible success despite it all. Hal Richman made something, and made something of himself. What would Irving think? "He'd be very proud of me," Richman says.

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