T.R.’s Memoirs: Never found the Holy Grail under the tree, but still had lots of fun
Baseball cards and board games. They are a big part of childhood for any baseball fan. With Christmas upon us, retired Rangers beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back at his love of both while growing up on military bases across this country.
Merry Christmas to one and all! Here’s hoping Strat-O-Matic is under your tree.
Willie Mays batted leadoff because he had speed and power. Carl Yastrzemski batted third for the obvious reason that he is my all-time favorite baseball player.
Hank Aaron batted cleanup, and this was five years before he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. So, please, enough of the gibberish about how Aaron was underappreciated and underrated.
On my baseball card team, he was the cleanup hitter ahead of Harmon Killebrew and Brooks Robinson. The lineup really became formidable when I was also able to acquire Johnny Bench.
I’ve seen that 1968 Willie Mays baseball card listed as high as $2,668 on the internet, but that’s if it’s in mint condition. Aaron’s 1969 card goes for $1,780 in mint.
Mine wasn’t mint, not when you are playing against your friends at Fort Shafter on the island of Oahu. We weren’t investors. We were kids who loved playing with our baseball cards, fondling them and trading them.
The Willie Mays card came out the same year as the famous Nolan Ryan rookie card, the one with Jerry Koosman. The one that sold at auction for $600,000 at auction in 2020. Oh yeah, I had that one and other rookie cards from back then.
“People used to send me those all the time in the mail to sign,” Ryan once told me. “But they didn’t include a return address, so I just gave them to my kids.”
So, Mays led off for my baseball team. You rolled the dice twice. The first roll was with one dice, the second roll was two dice. Roll a three and then a four … Mays hits a home run. Same with a four and then snake eyes. A one, then an eight was a triple. Six and 11 was a double, which also had a star next to it. That meant the runner at first, if there was one, could score from first base.
Pretty simple: six columns, 11 results in each column. You could get anything from a strikeout to a home run. There was a second sheet: one column for steal, bunt, hit-and-run.
I invented that baseball game myself and can still remember in my head the 66 possible outcomes. The games actually had realistic outcomes.
Not that I was some mathematical genius. Hey, my mom once opened up my algebra notebook from school and out fell a half-dozen baseball scoresheets. She was not amused.
Once in sixth grade, my mom told me the baseball cards had to go on the top shelf of my room and weren’t coming down until my grades went back up. I begged my parents to take the belt to my butt instead.
All right, I wasn’t the greatest student. But I was the only one at Fort Shafter Elementary that could calculate a batting average, earned-run average and slugging percentage. Nobody but me had any chance at slugging percentage.
I instinctively also knew back then there was something wrong with catching a flyball with two hands or choking up on the bat. Or fielding a ground ball on one knee.
One day I would love to write a book about all the dumb things I was taught in youth sports, stuff that Rangers managers told me over the course of 32 years was bullshit. It would be a long book. But my coaches were Army officers, so you damn sure didn’t talk back or argue with them or Col. Sullivan would have something to say about it. Two hands it was or the bench.
During the day we played outside in the tropical Hawaiian sun, across Hase Drive in the field next to the creek that ran down from the Ko’olau Range through Fort Shafter down to the ocean. We lost more than a few baseballs in the heavy brush along the creek.
If you had enough, you picked sides and played until the sun went down. Not enough players? You could play over the line, with right-field closed off, or 500, which could get quite rough.
Or if you were by yourself, you threw a tennis ball against the wall of a house made of rotting wood built well before the Japanese bombed the naval base a few miles away. Even the big brass on Palm Circle, running the Vietnam War from the safety of the Hawaiian Islands, lived in houses that predated Tora Tora Tora. But I could bang that tennis ball against the wall all day.
At night, the baseball cards and the dice came out while we listened a young Al Michaels broadcast the Hawaii Islanders games on KGU Honolulu, Radio 76. Don Drysdale was the ace of my pitching staff because my baseball card collection began after Sandy Koufax retired. My luck at rolling the dice was exceptional when that 1969 Don Drysdale was on the mound.
Mona Lisa? Starry Night? Guernica? Persistence of Memory. You can have all the great works of art.
There was nothing like opening a pack of baseball cards, the eager anticipation, the smell of gum wafting out and thumbing your way through the 10 cards to see who was there, hoping it would be Hank Aaron and not Tommie Aaron, or Willie Mays rather than Jerry Mays.
Or the dreaded checklist card. If you don’t know the sinking feeling of seeing the checklist card in your pack, well, you just weren’t a serious baseball card collector.
I still remember how jealous and furious I was when somebody also landed the first Vida Blue card on Fort Shafter. That was in the summer of ’71 when Vida Blue took the nation by storm.
Anyway, my brilliant baseball dice game was a great invention, and I even told my friends I was going to patent it. They nodded solemnly and agreed I should do that. But I still longed for the real thing, and that was Strat-O-Matic, the Holy Grail of baseball games.
My problem? It was sold only out of the back of sports magazines, a prospect my parents viewed with disdain, something on the level of those Charles Atlas ads about body building and purchasing real seahorses through the mail. Store-bought, yes. Magazine ad? Be serious. And the Scarecrow thought getting a brain from the Wizard was tough.
Strato-O-Matic to me was what the Red Ryder BB Gun was to Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Only not with quite the same happy ending.
My parents were willing to buy the crap sold in stores, electric football being the biggest boondoggle ever invented by a toymaker. The Nintendo generation just doesn’t understand the joy of 22 plastic figures moving around the field simply through electronic vibration while one of them with the football tries to vibrate through the line without being touched.
Mickey Cumby claimed to have invented the “Arrowhead offense,” which he insisted would revolutionize electronic football. All I saw was the same 22 guys moving around aimlessly by vibration.
Supposedly there was a passing element to electric football, but you had a better chance of hitting a snoozing German Shepherd named Lady than you did the receiver buzzing around downfield.
Methinks cheap hotels used the same vibrating concept for their beds, charging 25 cents a throw but with much better odds of customer satisfaction.
Back then, everybody was trying a gimmick. Remember Monday Night Football? No, not the broadcast. The game. You had to play it with the lights off. You selected your offensive play, the other guy selected his defense and the result of the play would light up in the dark. Roger Staubach was on the box cover, no less.
Talking Football held more promise. You had about a dozen offensive plays on a disc. You selected your play and put it in the disc player. The defensive player, not seeing your play on the other side, selected the defense by rotating the disc.
Then you pushed the disc into the player, and some announcer — it definitely wasn’t Al Michaels — broadcast the result of the play.
That was a big hit. The Meyers boys got it for Christmas one year in Fort Ord, Calif. The Kowalchuk boys across the street loved it so much they demanded their parents go out and buy it for them the day after Christmas.
Baseball offered the same junk. Remember Carl Yastrzemski Baseball? My parents bought that for me. Of course.
The damn thing was played on an enclosed tin baseball field about the size of your mother’s biscuit sheet. A spring action pitched the ball. Well, actually a marble. A spring-action bat hit the marble, and it rolled around until it dropped into a cup somewhere in the field. The cup’s label told you if it was a single, double, triple or out. The home run cup was in dead center field.
But if your spring action pitched it too hard, and the spring-action bat hit it too hard, the marble would jump the board and go flying underneath the bed, television or refrigerator.
Hours and hours of fun!
Denny McLain had something similar. It came out right after he won 30 games for the Tigers in 1968 and before he got suspended for consorting with gamblers. Don’t think there was much gambling on his board game. Or purchasing it. But it was also under my tree instead of Strat-O-Matic.
I also had a lunch box baseball game with a spinner and magnets that was just as realistic, although most people were more interested in my ho-hos and ding-dong desserts.
How do your parents expect you to get an A in math when they are buying you remedial sports games better suited for first graders.
Then it finally arrived in ninth grade. Nirvana! What the Red Ryder BB Gun was to Ralphie was to me the Sports Illustrated board game called …
Pennant Race. Wasn’t exactly Strat-O-Matic but the next best thing.
Based on the 1972 MLB season with 24 teams. Individual player cards, both pitcher and hitter. Dice. You rolled the dice and checked the pitcher’s card. If he didn’t get an out or a walk, the batter rolled for the result. There they all were — Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Clemente, Jackson, Killebrew and, of course, Yastrzemski. Each had his individual card tailored to how he did that year.
Yes, the Rangers were terrible in 1972 and in Pennant Race. Poor Tom Grieve hit .204 that year, and his card reflected that. I didn’t have a great first impression of Tom Grieve growing up.
But I played Pennant Race for hours at night at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., including an entire 162-game schedule for the Boston Red Sox. Yep, solitaire. Didn’t date much in high school, but I spent a lot of late nights rolling of the dice on my bed.
Sports Illustrated also made two football games: Paydirt and Bowl Bound. Pay Dirt had all NFL teams from the 1973 season, and Bowl Bound had the 29 best college football teams — one per school — from a period of 1960-71.
I got Paydirt for Christmas in my sophomore year in high school. Bowl Bound was under the tree my junior year. I played a full schedule of 10 games for each college team, which ended up with ’66 Notre Dame winning the national championship.
Sure, I played with friends. But they weren’t quite as fanatical.
I finally graduated from high school in Alabama in 1977 — my grades reflected my love of Bowl Bound and Pennant Race — and went off to the University of San Francisco. The games obviously stayed home. My childhood was over. I had serious studying to do, trying to make my way in the world.
That lasted one semester until I went back to Alabama for Christmas. I wasn’t going to repeat that mistake. Bowl Bound, Pennant Race and Paydirt were going with me to the University of San Francisco. Being separated from your loved ones is a terrible thing. I shipped them to California in an Army footlocker.
That footlocker is still in my garage here in Plano. So are those games.
Let me know when you want to drop by and play.