Aunts and uncles can be more like your siblings than your parents; they’ll often tease and say things without fear of damaging your fragile psyche. It was my Aunt Gert (Smolinski) who called attention to an eccentricity that set me apart from the rest of my family. She did it while explaining her gift to me on my ninth birthday.
“I told the man at the store I needed a game a boy could play by himself.”
My mother didn’t particularly appreciate the remark; it suggested her son was an anti-social oddball.
Sometimes the truth hurts.
More important to me was Gert’s gift. I forget what it was exactly — most likely something called All-American Football — but it certainly was a sports-related board game that didn’t require a second player, only someone who could coach or manage two teams simultaneously.
That would be me. After all, I’m a Gemini, I’m supposed to be two people in one.
AUNT GERT was partly responsible for my discovering a love of sports games. Two years earlier, in 1945, she and my Uncle Bill had given their oldest son, Billy (aka Bimby), the All-Star Baseball Game, which allowed anyone to manage real-life major leaguers. The game was the brainchild of a former big league outfielder, Ethan Allen.
The game was like baseball roulette. It was played on a cardboard replica of baseball field. Near home plate was a spinner upon which you placed a heavy paper disc, about 3.5 inches in diameter. On each disc was the name and position of a player who’d given Allen permission to include him in the game. Also on each disc was a pie-chart breakdown the player’s hitting performance. The chart included numbered categories from 1 (home run) to 14 (fly out).
The charts could fairly accurately duplicate a hitter’s statistics — over a season’s worth of games. That is, if you had occasion to flick your spinner 600 times over Joe DiMaggio’s disc, the pointed end of that spinner would stop about 30 times over the space marked 1.
Results of games played on All-Star Baseball seemed realistic. Games took about 20 minutes to play; no two games were alike. The same teams of discs could produce a double-header in which the scores were 1-0 and 5-12.
(For details on this classic board game, see Ethan Allen, The Original Spin Doctor.)
PLAYING GAMES outdoors was our top priority, but we had to reckon with the Central New York weather, rain more so than snow (because, as kids, we actually loved those Syracuse winters and would play in the snow for hours).
Our street games involved boys and girls of all ages. Cousin Billy was seven years my senior, one of the older boys on the block, but we played with and against each other in basketball, touch football and softball.
When stuck indoors, we played cards (Pitch or Hearts) and board games, from Monopoly to Sorry to something called Mr. Ree (a Clue-like detective game).
Sometimes we invented our own games, like the time Billy created Shotgun Shell Football, using 22 of his father's discarded shotgun shells, one BB and some string (to pull the shells along the floor). A strange game, to be sure, one played on your hands and knees in the biggest room in the house.
It was inevitable that Billy would introduce me to All-Star Baseball. I took to it immediately, since baseball basics were pretty much the same as softball. I recognized few names among the major leaguers on the discs, but accepted the notion that they were all-stars.
My mother noticed my interest and bought the game for me. This must have been 1946, but the game had remained unchanged since it was introduced in late 1941, partly because of World War II’s effect on baseball and things deemed non-essential, like board games. My All-Star Baseball featured players from the 1941 season, though several had spent intervening years in the service. One of them, outfielder Bruce Campbell, played his last big league game in 1942.
It didn't matter. I divided the 40 discs into four teams and started my first All-Star Baseball League. Though I was league commissioner and manager of all four teams, I knew most players only by their last names because this first edition of All-Star Baseball didn’t list first names on the discs.
I conducted a 30-game season, long enough to make things interesting, too short for an accurate assessment of the players. As with real baseball, Ethan Allen’s creation produced streaky performances. My pennant winners, the Washington Senators, won 21 consecutive games, a record that would go unchallenged through my many leagues that followed for more than 50 years. That's right, 50 years.
Fielding is not a factor in All-Star Baseball, so unless you arbitrarily decide which player made a put-out, you cannot keep score as you would in a real game. However, you can compile what my parents considered a staggering amount of statistics. At 8, I kept track of at bats, hits, doubles, triples and home runs for the batters, wins and losses for the pitchers.
A lightly regarded catcher named Hayes (later I’d learn his first name was Frankie) led my league in hitting, beating a couple of guys named (Joe) DiMaggio and (Ted) Williams. My top pitcher was (Ernie) White, who in real life won 17 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1941. Thereafter the real White won only 12 more, none of them after I started playing the game.
COUSIN BILLY also conducted a league that summer and we arranged to have a World Series between our respective pennant winners. Some guys played on both teams.
Our series exposed problems with All-Star Baseball. For one thing, it couldn’t withstand the treatment it received at the hands of its target audience, young boys. Billy was older, more careful. His discs looked almost like new. However, some of mine were torn and tattered after only a few months. My World Series first baseman, (Joe) Kuhel, had a couple of rips that interfered with the spinner.
Game one found Billy’s team ahead by one run when my Senators batted in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs, a runner on base and Kuhel was up. The first flick of my index finger produced a spin that bounced all over the place. Billy agreed I should try again. But the second spin also ricocheted off a rip in the disc. I was allowed a third spin — after I smoothed Kuhel’s disc as best as I could.
What happened next is perhaps the biggest reason most All-Star Baseball Game fanatics play by themselves. The point of the spinner came to rest above the line that separated the 4 (fly out) from the 1 (home run). Cousin Billy called Kuhel out, I claimed victory on a two-run homer. After a second look, Billy allowed as how the arrow might be favoring the right side of the line. Kuhel had his home run; game one was mine.
There was no game two. Cousin Billy canceled the series.
The game soon introduced discs and spinners that tolerated the clumsiness and carelessness of young hands. No matter. Cousin Billy had outgrown the game, but I was just getting started. By 1948 I had a new version which included several old-time all-stars, plus players from the 1947 season. Everyone was identified by first and last names.
Cadaco-Ellis (now simply Cadaco), the Chicago company that produced the game, changed the name to honor its creator, and Ethan Allen All-Star Baseball began offering a new set of discs each year, discs that could be ordered by mail, something that became an annual ritual at the Major home. Each set included players who’d been all-stars the season before.
With more discs, I expanded my league to eight teams. My father built me a compartmentalized box where I kept the discs. He mimeographed score sheets. My father didn’t understand my hobby – he’d much rather I concentrate on real baseball — but he saw some merit in what I was doing. Cousin Billy had taught me to use a slide rule to calculate batting averages. I think my father enjoyed that his nine-year-old son carried a slide rule.
Only once did I allow an outside manager in my league, someone who provided my favorite All-Star Baseball memory. Cousin Ray Mesaris, who was a few years older, moved in with the Smolinskis one summer (probably 1950). Ray lived in Highland Falls, NY, near West Point, and was a New York Giants fan. He asked if my Giants could be his team.
One day Ray’s starting second baseman, Bill Rigney, was missing from the box. Ray had to insert another infielder into his line-up for a three-game series.
When we returned the players to the box and shoved it under the living room couch, we found Rigney’s disc. It had escaped the box and was half-hidden under a rug. Manager Ray Mesaris reacted quickly — he fined Rigney and suspended him for 10 games.
Life was so much simpler without a players association.
ALL-STAR BASEBALL wasn’t my only addiction. Cadaco also makes Bas-Ket, a simple basketball game that involves levers, springs and a ping pong ball you shoot through a small basket and net.
My first Bas-Ket was a Christmas gift. Helping me break it in was Bob Mullally, husband of my cousin Kathleen (Nicholson). Bob was fiercely competitive, showing no mercy. Another Christmas, he and I spent hours playing a hockey game. He was about twice my age, but on these occasions we both acted like six-year-olds. His visits are among my favorite holiday memories.
However, I could also play Bas-Ket by myself, and for a few years I used the game for a league that mixed in players from Solvay High School, Syracuse University, the NBA Syracuse Nationals, and various college and pro stars, including George Mikan and Bob Cousy. I’m sure I tilted the game in favor of my Cousin Billy’s team, but I invoked what I later called The Jimmy Smolinski rule: It’s my league and I can do as I please.
(Cousin Jimmy, a younger brother of Billy Smolinski, briefly got into All-Star Baseball in the early 1950s. Jimmy’s favorite player was Al Rosen, and while people who manage two teams simultaneously should be objective, Jimmy couldn’t do it where Rosen was concerned. Whenever the Indians third baseman came to bat, Jimmy would find an excuse to re-spin – again and again – until Rosen got on base.)
My parents were infinitely patient, seldom complaining, though Bas-Ket must have been annoying, what with the constant sound of metal striking a ping pong ball and the oven timer going off throughout the evening, signaling the end of a period. Yes, the oven timer. That was my idea, by the way, not a suggestion that came with the game.
There were other Cadaco games — All-American Football, played with dice and a spinner; Foto-Electric Football, which would take too long to explain, as would Foto-Electric Baseball, one of Cadaco’s failures.
I loved my hockey game — every kid seemed to have one, with a small steely substituting for a puck — and I had two horse racing games. My mother even bought me a bridge game that could be played solitaire style, but I never quite got into it.
It was at Kent State University that I met two guys who were just as nuts as I was — Larry Martin of Urbana, Ohio, and Jay Moody of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I had created my own baseball game with a few charts and a deck of cards. Larry and Jay enjoyed playing it, so we started a league and enlisted two other students to join us. In this game you could insert yourself in the line-up along with any real players you wanted. We often chose obscure major leaguers or men we had seen in the minors.
Larry was a fan of the Cincinnati Reds (also nicknamed the Redlegs) and his high school was known as the Hillclimbers. Larry called his team the Urbana Climberlegs and managed them from the bench. His brother Steve pitched and played shortstop. Other Urbana athletes included Jimmy Holland and Gail Evans, but they played alongside real Cincinnati stars Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, as well as oldtimer Johnny Wyrostek — and Satchel Paige.
Jay’s Johnstown Johnnies had Dick Stuart at first base and legendary minor league home run hitter Bob Lennon in left field. Jay played shortstop and his second baseman was Ramon “Wito” Conde, whom Jay had seen in the minors. (Conde did make it to the majors — briefly — with the Chicago White Sox in 1962. Conde went hitless in 16 at bats. He fared much better in our league.)
I peppered my lineup with names from Solvay High, with Cousin Jimmy at second base. The roster also had names from the Syracuse minor league team, back when it was known as the Chiefs, not the more politically correct Sky Chiefs. Players included Fenton Mole (1B), Jim Command (C), Charlie Weathers (OF) and my all-time favorite, Millard “Dixie” Howell, a pitcher who could hit the ball a ton. (When he finally made it to the majors, Howell became the only relief pitcher ever to hit two home runs in one game. He had only 44 at bats in his last two seasons with the Chicago White Sox, but hit five home runs.)
We called our organization the BCBL — Bicycle Card Baseball League, unaware that in the 1930s one of the most famous baseball games had begun in similar fashion, when high school friends from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, invented a game played with dice. They started a league called the American Professional Baseball Association. Years later one of them marketed APBA Baseball, probably the most painstakingly detailed and accurate sports game ever. (How detailed? It’s possible to have a rain-out in an APBA game.)
[NOTE: I received an e-mail from a baseball game enthusiast named Allen Shock who informed me that those friends in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, didn't actually invent the game they later marketed. The apparently got the idea from a little-known game called National Pastime that was invented by Clifford Van Beek of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and patented his idea in 1925. Van Beek's game was played with two dice and was the first baseball board game that used real player statistics. The game did not prove successful, though it was at the heart of the APBA game that was released in 1951 after the National Pastime patent expired. Dick Seitz, one of those Lancaster friends, expanded the game, which is played with three dice, and introduced pitching, fielding and various baseball strategies that made it the game of choice for people who take their board games very seriously.]
Anyway, as commissioner of the BCBL, I had to deal with protests from the managers, especially Martin. We all worked on the Kent Stater, the student newspaper, and Martin would often sneak into the office when no one was there, type his protest of some imagined slight by the commissioner against his team, fold the paper, print my name on it, climb up on a counter and tape his note to the ceiling. I’d respond in kind. (One of the frequent visitors to the newspaper office was Kent State student Lou Holtz, a football player best known for his sly grin and witty personality. Am I namedropping? You betcha.)
Back home that summer I tried out my baseball game on my Cousin Phil Smolinski (another younger brother of Billy). He and I and one of his friends conducted another season of the BCBL.
Unlike the Ethan Allen All-Star Baseball Game, mine made some allowances for pitching. In the Ethan Allen game, all pitchers were equal, and everyone fielded with equal ability. It’s the flaw that kept the game from enjoying the respect afforded APBA Baseball. My card game had one feature that in a weird way had one advantage over both All-Star Baseball and APBA. When a team manager made a pitching change after the inning had started, he was allowed to shuffle his cards, which meant, for better or worse, what followed would yield a different result than what would have happened had the pitching change not been made.
But back to Larry Martin. After we were out of college, headed our separate ways, I heard from Larry, who topped anything I ever did, game-wise. He bought APBA Baseball and played an entire National League season, probably 1963. He couldn’t believe APBA Baseball was so accurate that it could produce a pennant for the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the weakest-hitting teams ever to top the National League. But after playing a 162-game schedule with all 10 league teams, Larry found the Dodgers in first place in his league, thanks to Sandy Koufax and a pitching staff that clearly was the NL’s best.
As for Jay Moody, he introduced me to another obsession — Skittle Bowl — when my first wife and I visited Moody and his family after we moved to Pittsburgh in 1968. Jay might have bought it for his kids, but he’s the one who got hooked. So did I. Which is why it topped my Christmas list that year. When Carla and I divorced, there certainly was no custody battle over Skittle Bowl. I was just grateful she hadn’t smashed it over my head during the many hours I played it in our basement.
I also kept up with Ethan Allen All-Star Baseball, which survived, but endured some horrendous changes at the hands of Cadaco. (The most horrendous was reducing the number of hitting categories on the discs from 14 to 8. The American League's designated hitter rule also messed up All-Star Baseball; Cadaco had no statistical basis for the discs that were needed for AL pitchers included with the game.)
IN 1979 came a Sports Illustrated article about the All-Star Baseball and how it affected those who grew up with it. It prompted me to write a letter which SI published a few weeks later. Cadaco forwarded a copy of the letter to Ethan Allen, then 75 and living in retirement in Chapel Hill, NC. Allen wrote me a letter and for the rest of the summer we corresponded.
I also got a letter from a kindred spirit, a Boston sportscaster named Gil Santos:
“I spent hours, weeks, months, years playing that game, spinning away and convincing my parents and my friends I was nuts. See, I not only played the game, 154-game schedule and all, complete with records for homers, runs batted in, batting average, wins, losses, earned run average, the works . . . I announced each and every one. Winter and summer, day and night.”
I wish I had known Santos back in 1950. I would have sent him this news to include in one of his broadcasts: "New York Giants second baseman Bill Rigney faces a 10-game suspension for hiding under the Major’s living room couch . . . "