“It may not happen when you want it to, but it’ll be right on time.”
I remember watching a documentary where a grizzled blues musician sipped flat beer and coughed up those little pearls of wisdom during the course of an interview. Not sure if it’s a lyric from an old song, or a dated Mississippi Delta self-help mantra (a way to keep yourself sane when you were getting paid $4 for a seven-hour set in some smoke-filled blues bar in the middle of nowheresville); but the expression struck a chord with me then, and now, now that the new Strat-O-Matic web site and Negro league All-Star set is available.
It’s been a long time coming, buddy, but it’s right on time.
As a long-time fan of Strat-O, I’m excited about the new web site. Slick, intuitive; it’s a fantastic jumping-off point for the future of a great little company and their innovative selection of games. Like the new Yankee Stadium, Strat-O-Matic’s new online home was long overdue. A franchise such as Hal Richman’s deserves only the best and this bodes well for those of us who care about the game.
As has been repeated enough over the past year, to the point where its become nauseous (sorry about that, guys), I’ve spent the past several years working as a consultant to the Strat-O-Matic game company, focusing on their Negro League All-Star set. The opportunity is really the product of happenstance, lucky timing on my part.
The Negro League set couldn’t have been produced 30 years ago, as our knowledge of blackball then was mired in what fellow baseball researcher Gary Ashwill has called the “hazy netherworld of unverifiable myth, tall tales, gut feelings and subjective judgments.” Truth is the set couldn’t have been produced ten years ago, let alone thirty. The data, or more accurately, the access to raw data in the form of box scores, was still outside our grasp. The timing wasn’t right.
So why now? How’s the research game changed over the past ten years? What’s different? As my involvement with the project winds down, I’ve given this question a little thought. I’ve settled on what I believe there are five key elements at play here, things which have coalesced in recent years and made the set a reality. In list form, they are:
- HISTORICAL FOUNDATION. We have forty years of Negro league research upon which to build. During the research phase, I must have consulted close to 100 books about the black leagues and/or its players, teams and ballparks during the past several years, all of which have had an impact one way or another on the set. But out of this small library, there are really six author/researchers without whom I couldn’t have survived. They are Robert Peterson, John Holway, James A. Riley, Dick Clark, Larry Lester and Phil Dixon. Four books in particular; Only The Ball Was White (Peterson), The Complete Book of the Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Holway), The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (Riley), and The Negro Leagues Book (Clark and Lester), are really the walls of support in the foundation of blackball knowledge. These four volumes; with their rosters, biographical info, statistical data and oral history provide the road map which all subsequent baseball historians can follow. These authors (and the anonymous people who have helped them behind the scenes), have produced work representing what must exceed 100 combined years of indispensable research.
- BILL JAMES. Yeah, I know, I know; he has an excellent chapter on black baseball in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, but blackball (by his own admission) isn’t his strongest suit. Yet it’s the other stuff, the sabermetric gadgets: ballpark effects, MLEs and league context issues, which are invaluable for creating a realistic baseball simulation.
- WINDOWS, INTERNET and EXCEL. I don’t want to insult anybody’s intelligence by trying to explain why these things are crucial. I was a member of the last group at my high school to take a typing class (on a genuine, good old-fashioned typewriter). We spent a few weeks studying the dewey decimal system. We had to learn how to track down specific magazine articles using a gigantic Hogwart’s-like book of tiny font citations, then, if we were lucky enough to discover an abstract which may (or may not) be of value, we’d check our Library Catalog to see if they actually carried the specific magazine we needed. They never did, so we’d return to the thick book and start over. Certain aspects of the old days sucked.
- NEWSPAPER DIGITIZATION. Last night, in the span of only an hour or two, I uncovered 15 or 20 new historical box scores I’d never seen before. These are Negro league teams versus white semi-pro outfits, part of a new “mad scientist” project I’m working on. The point is, every single day literally thousands of scanned newspaper images become available on the web, through a variety of different sources. When I started the Strat project (before it was actually the Strat-O-Matic project), I needed to use the old-fashioned microfilm editions of the Pittsburgh Courier (and other papers) to get those Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords box scores, which required, um, leaving the house and going to a library. Sitting in front of a machine and paying for photocopies. Near the end of the research phase for the game, I finally got access to the Courier in digital format, which allowed me to back track and double check things with ridiculous speed. Because of the internet and digitization, we can do things in five months which previously took five or ten years. By the end of next year, we’ll be able to gather information in five days which might have taken five or ten years to compile in the past. It’s a great time to be a researcher.
- CULTURE SHIFT. The country is simply a much different place than it was back in 1970, when Peterson first released his watershed book on black baseball. If anything, it’s a much more inclusive place. The Negro league legacy (warts and all), has been embraced by the Major Leagues and dozens of veterans from the black leagues have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. In his Afterword to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Baseball’s Great Experiment, author Jules Tygiel writes “Ironically, Americans, black and white, seem more aware of the Negro Leagues than they did in their heyday.”
Well, it’s about time. I hope you enjoy the game.
QUICK TIP FOR PEOPLE NEW TO STRAT-O-MATIC: I suggest beginning with the board game to get a feel for the game engine before graduating up to the computer version. Remember- You’ll need to get the game parts with the Negro League card set. After putting the Negro League set in your shopping cart, you’ll have to go under the Baseball Board Game section and look under “Individual Game Parts.” Under this section, scroll down to the product called “Baseball Game Setup.” For just $16, this has all the charts, dice, etc. that you’ll need to play the game.
By the way, if you have the coin, I’d strongly suggest getting the Hall of Fame/Negro League combo card set. For just $69.95, you’ll have all the greats, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb…and Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell.