Fenway Park celebrates its 100th birthday next month, and it was exactly halfway through that timeline, in the summer of 1962, when I first stepped foot in the place. It was a weekday afternoon game, Los Angeles was in town, and Angels outfielder Leon “Daddy Wags’’ Wagner ripped a line drive down the right-field line that kicked up a cloud of white dust and ruined an otherwise sensational day of hooky from Miss Kellert’s third grade class.
I’ve never been a Strat-O-Matic baseball guy, but it was right around that same time that Hal Richman, born and raised in Great Neck, N.Y., brought his little bit of hardball addiction to the marketplace. Born in 1936, and far more a fan than an athlete, Richman was only 11 when he created Strat-O-Matic, and he spent nearly the next 14 years perfecting it, going on to earn a degree in accounting at Bucknell before first offering his board-and-dice game for sale in 1961.
“To figure out the statistical probabilities involved in the game,’’ said Doug Drotman, a Strat-O-Matic spokesman, “Hal sat at his kitchen table and rolled a set of dice 5,000 times and wrote down the results.
“Kind of hard, I know, to picture an 11-year-old kid doing that, especially today. It would probably take you three seconds on a Google search to find a table that would give you those numbers. But that’s how he did it. That’s really how the game started.’’
Neurologists and seamheads alike know for a fact that baseball has a way of hitting line drives directly to the “numbers’’ part of the brain. For the record, Richman was born 13 years before Bill James, the game’s numero uno numbers guy, and he invented Strat-O-Matic decades before “Moneyball’’ became the square root of our national pastime.
There is just something about the game’s pace and structure and sweet statistical gobbledygook that captures, fascinates, addicts.
For years before and after my first trip to Fenway at age 9, I couldn’t wait for my father’s shirts to come home from the dry cleaner, because each pressed and folded shirt was backed by an 8-by-10-inch sheet of cardboard. With pen and ruler, I refashioned each piece of cardboard into a baseball scorecard, and then used that day’s Globe or Record American to write in the statistics of each player when making out the lineup for the next Sox game.
In Boston’s magical summer of 1967, I vividly remember being in the backyard, with homemade scorecard and Admiral transistor radio spread out on a folding table, the night Jack Hamilton beaned Tony Conigliaro. After a long delay in the game, I dutifully penned “HBP’’ into the tiny square near Conigliaro’s name, folded my official scorer’s table and headed into the house, heartbroken as I shuffled across the lawn.
Strat-O-Matic, still being sold in original board-and-dice form as well as in computer format (and online version, of course), is all about numbers, performance, probability, and, of course, the capriciousness inherent in a roll of three dice. For numbers lovers, it’s a flat-as-home-plate fastball, 85 miles an hour, right down Broadway.
Following each baseball season, Richman’s handful of employees pull together all the numbers of each major leaguer, and then in February release the game’s new edition complete with every player’s card of statistical data.
Strat-O-Matic players are always working off of last year’s numbers. Given the age in which we live, with every scintilla of information immediately at hand, that makes Strat-O-Matic-heads truly a different breed. Not only can they sit for hours, roll dice, and be absorbed in a world of baseball make-believe, they can do it with dated material.
Again, it reminds me of my youth, enthralled as I scrutinized week-old baseball box scores in a copy of The Sporting News at Blake’s Paper Store in Bedford.
“The game’s amazingly realistic,’’ said Arnie Pollinger, 52, longtime commissioner of SOMBILLA, a Strat-O-Matic league that he and a bunch of pals started in Boston’s metro west in 1979. “It has its similarities to fantasy baseball. But it’s different, because you not only put together your teams, but you act as manager, making out lineups and rotations, all that, and there’s lots of strategy involved.
“It gets you away from the day-to-day drudgery of life, the daily grind.’’
Pollinger, who grew up in Framingham and went to the University of Pennsylvania, has been an actuary with Fidelity Investments for the last 18 years. All the other members of his league were Ivy League students when it was formed 33 years ago. Thus SOMBILLA, which stands for Strat-O-Matic Baseball Ivy League League Advanced.
According to Pollinger, most of the original league members are still participating, along with his wife, Robin Perlow, whose first date with Pollinger was at Fenway in 1982. He proposed to her there two years later.
“She loves playing Strat-0-Matic,’’ said Pollinger. “She’s always loved baseball, and she certainly knows the game - maybe more than I do.’’
Arnie and Robin’s two daughters, Rachel (a freshman at Bowdoin) and Jinny (a senior at Holliston High), never caught Strat-O-Matic fever, which Pollinger figures may be a reflection of the times. Kids, he figures, don’t seem to be captured by board games the way previous generations were.
In hopes of hooking kids, Strat-O-Matic recently began marketing “Baseball Express,’’ an introductory version that is targeted to the 8-12 age group and sold at Toys R Us.
Each February, when the game’s new edition is released, it’s common for 200 or more Strat-O-Matic devotees to line up outside the company’s headquarters in Glen Head, N.Y., for its “Opening Day’’ release. Richman, now 75 and living in New York City, insists that the first pitch of the new season doesn’t go out the shop’s door before noon.
“To be out there like that, they must really love it,’’ mused Pollinger, whose league begins in November and shuts down in March, allowing members to enjoy the real game all season. “I’ve never been in New York for that. But that’s OK. I can wait the few days it takes for UPS to deliver it.’’
Pollinger, of course, looks forward each year to the arrival of Strat-O-Matic’s latest edition, even if his league isn’t going to put it in play until November. But as the board game’s Opening Day approaches each February, Pollinger has learned not to rush home in hopes of taking the wraps off it.
“No point in that,’’ he said. “My wife’s already beaten me to it.’’
Strat-O-Matic can provide the numbers. Husbands and wives must figure out the ground rules for themselves.