Babe Ruth isn’t hitting. Halfway to the All-Star break, the once jovial Jidge has turned sour. Fastballs which eighty years earlier would have ricocheted halfway moonward, now float softly into tiny leather gloves waiting just short of the wall. Curveballs he’d usually blister up the middle for RBI singles have become looping pop ups to middle infielders or weak grounders tapped in front of the dish. Change-ups— well, the slow-ball junk rag-armed pitchers kept down and away from Ruth during his prime—- are now catching the corners for strike three, sending the confused Babe into tourettes-like fits of rage.
“YELLOW-BELLIED F#@* M* &*(%$%!!!!”
On the way out of the ballpark recently, after yet another goose egg in four tries, the man once famous for spending two straight hours leaned up against his car, signing autographs for every snot-nosed kid in the lot, was seen shoving one unsuspecting juvenile admirer out of the way, before jumping into a Hudson Essex and peeling across the gravel lot through a cloud of dust.
He’s never played in a league this tough. Nobody has.
When I first approached Strat-O-Matic regarding the Negro League set, I didn’t think about the TV, radio and newspaper coverage the game would generate. Never crossed my mind, actually. What I really wanted to see was the cards. The Strat-O cards. I wanted to see what the company could do with detailed statistical information, and more importantly, I wanted to play some games.
Like a lot of long-time Strat-O-Matic fans, I’d wanted to see Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil printed on one of Hal Richman’s officially sanctioned sets. I wanted to pencil their names, positions, and range ratings on a score sheet and have at it. A chance to roll the dice; with, say, Smokey Joe Williams staring down Babe Ruth from 60 feet 6 inches away.
In the Winter League, the Brigadiers and Skywalkers are tied for first place, with identical 4-1 records. They are followed closely by the Goblins and Enterprise (both 3-2), with the Kings (1-4) and Dragons (0-5) taking up the rear. This is the league where the great Babe Ruth has been weathering an early season slump. But the talent here is something else. Something….other-worldly. Bob Gibson and Willie Mays are in this league. Rogers Hornsby is here. Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner lace up the cleats once more; as do Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and Smokey Joe Williams.
This isn’t the Field of Dreams; it’s the Field of Dreams on Human Growth Hormones, steroids, and magic dust. Everybody who was anybody in baseball history (black or white), is included in the improbable mix.
The Goblins’ Rajah paces the loop with a blistering .583 BA thru the first 5 games, with the Dragons’ Mel Ott in second at .529. Oscar Charleston is hitting at a .421 clip, leads the league with 5 stolen bases, and is tied for the tops in homers with 2.
Around the batting cage before a recent game, Babe Ruth corners Cannonball Dick Redding, a legendary pitcher with the all-black Brooklyn Royal Giants back in the 1920s. Ruth wants to swap war stories from the old days, perhaps recapture some of the Jazz age magic, maybe shift his luck some in the early going.
“Remember the exhibition game we had here in the early twenties, Dick?” Babe asked.
“Which one now, Babe?”
“We were playing in some local pasture, one of the ovals, my team against you and all your colored fellas, and I hit three home runs off of you before them damn keeds came streaming on the field and stopped the game, wanting my signature and tearing at my uniform shirt.”
“I remember that, sure.”
Ruth and Redding both paused, watched Gehrig taking his cuts in the cage against the offerings of righty Emil Moscowitz, a former semi-pro star with the Brooklyn Bushwicks, who’d later become the Yankees’ batting practice pitcher in the 1940s.
“Babe, I need to level with ya, baby.” Cannonball said, never taking his eyes off the Iron Horse.
BAM!- Lou cracked a line-drive off the right-center field wall, then shook his hands, wincing with pain. He’d hit it off the handle. Three-hundred eighty-six foot line-drive, and he’d caught Emil’s slow ball on the bad part of the bat.
“Fire away, Dick.”
“Now don’t get mad, but the promoter told me to throw ‘em right down Broadway for ya, nice and easy, Babe. Told me ‘no funny stuff,’ right down the pike, and considering the pay day we was gonna get, I did what the man said.”
“Aw c’mon, Cannonball, you’re just sore about it. Got the hat trick on ya fair and square, pal.”
“Babe, we both been dead fifty plus years, why would I lie about that now, man?”
Funny thing is, now that the Strat-O-Matic Negro League set is available, I haven’t had too much time to actually play the game. Oh, I’ve run a few computer-generated seasons, played a handful of solitaire games with the cards and dice, but my baseball time has been gobbled up with media stuff, new research projects, proposals and writing. I’ve had to live vicariously thru the creative replays of Strat-O gamers posted online at the StratFanForum, as well as the Strat-O-Matic Baseball Village. I’ve been following these mini-seasons, tournaments, and leagues the way a nervous father watches his son’s first tee-ball games.
One of the leagues I’ve been following isn’t available online. It’s Stuart Miller’s winter league. Several weeks ago, Miller wrote a piece about the Strat-O-Matic Negro League set for the New York Times and we hit it off during an hour-plus telephone conversation about blackball and the nuts and bolts behind creating a realistic simulation game. An APBA man by birth, Strat sent Miller copies of both their 2001 Hall of Fame set AND brand new Negro League edition for research purposes. Stuart Miller, it seems, has the greatest job in the world.
As fate would have it, Miller’s young sons, Caleb (11) and Lucas (9) took an immediate interest in the game and a three manager, six-team league was quickly formed. Dad has the Skywalkers and Enterprise. Caleb rules over the Brigadiers and Kings, while Lucas runs the Goblins and Dragons.
Not that anybody’s counting, but Stuart’s two teams are a combined 7-3 with Caleb in second at 5-5. Lucas Millers’ franchises are penciled in at 3-7 in the early going, but hoping to turn things around in a hurry.
Babe Ruth has an explanation for his early season woes, and surprisingly, it has nothing to do with speakeasies or late night pork chop romps.
“I wasn’t much for reading during my first go around on Earth,” Ruth confessed. “I mean, I liked some of the stories when I was a keed at St. Marys, the ones about pirates and buried treasures and pretty dames. I liked those.”
“But today it seems like people write an awful lot about baseball. They write about it, and they put their noggin to thinking about it much more so than actually playing the game. Too much, maybe. Stop by a schoolyard or forest preserve picnic back when Coolidge was in office, you’d always see a little ballgame going. Nothing organized, mind ya, just a little something between friends and families or whatever. During my few jaunts around town now, I don’t see much other than the youth league things, which is great, but no adults. Seems the adult game is dead, other than professional ball.”
“But I’ve been trying to read some of this stuff, the books, in between ballgames, as I’ve found your modern television device gives me a headache worse’n early morning orange juice and bootleg vodka. Everybody screaming real loud, and the movie pictures jumping all around real fast.”
“Now, I was pretty fair at arithmetic back in my day, keepin’ track of my home runs and such, and it seems today’s books about baseball have more than their fair share of mathematics inside. Maybe too much. And there’s a lot of stuff in there I never heard of like ‘linear weights’ and ‘WARP’ which sounds like part of that old chemistry class Brother Matthias kicked me out of back at the home.”
“If all the baseball stories are about linear weights and WARP, I doubt I’d want to play the game much either, if I was a keed again. Sounds like it’s for squares, you know? I’d just as soon sit at home, watching all the rubes, hillbillies and nincompoops scream at one another on the television talkie shows.”
“Before a recent game at Goblins’ Park, fella there showed me a book by Bill James. There was a right-handed guy with Detroit when I first came up named Bill James. I hit probably 3 or 4 home runs off that keed, but I doubt this book is written by the same guy. James would have to be upwards of 125 years old now. Do people live that long these days?”
“So, in one of these chapters by James, he talks about something called ‘sample size.’ Reminds me when I lived in Sudbury, there was a bakery in town gave out free samples on Saturday morning. And they were pretty good sized samples, so you knew pretty much how good a loaf of bread, or a coffee cake might be, and you might be more inclined to buy one.”
“So what this fella suggests is baseball can be like a bakery, you see. If you don’t have a large enough sample, you can’t really judge how good something is. This is like my batting average after playing just five games in this league, I suppose. You can’t figure on how I’m gonna do after just a few games.”
“But, see, I’ve known this for a hundred years. I know I’m gonna hit, given enough time, but this isn’t gonna stop me from cursin’ a blue streak after I strike-out or whatever. That’s just my nature, having grown up in a lousy neighborhood in Baltimore, where cursin’ was just the native tongue.”
“So I know what I need to do to turn things around. Just stick with it and play my game. But there IS one thing which could speed it all up. Put this Bill James fella on the mound. I want to take a couple cracks at his liner weight ball, see how far that baby flies. Hoo boy!”