On June 12th, 1981, the MLB players association went on strike. The event marked the fourth work stoppage in a decade, and baseball’s devoted fans were understandably frustrated. After years and years of largely undisturbed 162-game seasons, the constant bargaining and counter-bargaining left many wondering if there was another way.
Every answer was unsatisfactory, but one stood above the rest: Strat-O-Matic, the baseball similarity that remains popular today. Reporters simulated the canceled games of the 1981 season on Strat-O-Matic. Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium even lit up the scoreboard for a replacement Strat-O-Matic All-Star Game on a card table set up over home plate. Bob Feller was even brought in for the honorary first dice roll.
The result was not just an explosion of popularity for Strat-O-Matic — besides just the publicity, the game used at the Cleveland All-Star event has been enshrined at the Hall of Fame — but the creation of a new industry: the baseball simulator. Strat-O-Matic dates back to the early 1950s, but the 1970s and early 1980s saw a massive surge in competitors, including some attempting to take advantage of fan griping over the constant strikes.
In the 1982 Street and Smith Baseball Preview magazine, just one year after a strike that wiped out nearly 50 games from the schedule, there were advertisements for 12 different Strat-O-Matic clones or other baseball simulator games. None were as explicit in their attempts to capitalize on fan unrest as the “APBA Major League Baseball Game”
Beyond just the tagline “No Strikes — No Bargaining — No Empty Stadiums,” the APBA game promises, “Whatever you do, you can be sure your players will be ready to go when your season starts,” and “You can sschedule your seasons anytime, from January to December, and be certain your players will be on the field as soon as you make out your lineup.”
These games were (and are) notable for straddling a fine line between realism and player control. “Just like real life,” APBA claims, directly after a very un-realistic guarantee that their players will never go on strike. All the fun of baseball, without those pesky humans ruining things:
“From the hitting of Bill Madlock to the pitching of Britt Burns, from the baserunning of Rickey Henderson to the fielding of Ozzie Smith, APBA players will perform so realistically that they’ll seem like living, breathing people. The fact is, though, that they’re made only of sturdy cardboard stock. And that has one clear advantage: you won’t have any labor problems with these players!”
Strat-O-Matic itself dialed back the venom towards the players, but still knew the strike — and its explicity role in filling the void left during the 1981 season — could be a strong marketing tool:
Unlike its competitors, Strat-O-Matic could not only tell but show its ability to serve as that much-needed baseball replacement in case the boys of summer decided not to play again in 1982, or any other subsequent season. And, of course, they had that whole “Hall of Fame” thing — and at a time when the Hall of Fame wasn’t widely seen as an object of ridicule.
Other games were less explicit in their references to the strike, like this one from L & L Activities:
L & L Activities offered less of a Strat-O-Matic type experience and more what looks to be an early public fantasy baseball league. The Rotisserie League — the famous first fantasy baseball league from which the scoring system gets its name — had been around for a few years already. For those interested in their own leagues, rounding up nine more obsessed baseball nerd was difficult in the pre-internet era. Seeing as interest was already big enough to create snail mail fantasy leagues in the early 1980s, it should come as no surprise the industry has exploded with the help of the internet.
We can also see in some of these advertisements the same attitudes that have led to the hyper-realism that has dominated baseball video games (and most sports video games) of late. These attitudes are most explicit in this advertisement for the modestly monikered “The World’s Greatest Baseball Game.”
Updated rosters! Hyperrealism! Roster updates! New features, like having to warm up your relievers in the bullpen! Total managerial control! Extreme realism (in case you forgot)!
I’ve never heard of “The World’s Greatest Baseball Game,” and I assume it failed for much the same reason there won’t be any MLB video games on the Xbox 360 or Xbox One this upcoming year: (following the cancellation of the MLB 2K series): they got too far up their own asses with “realism” and forgot to make a game that actually works.
But the fans want what the fans want, and if you can’t make something that actually works, might as well give them something you can call “realistic.”
Strat-O-Matic and APBA and others still exist today, but the internet has totally upended the baseball simulator market. Fantasy baseball leads the way, and computer simulators like Out Of The Park and Baseball Mogul represent the modern approach, and Strat-O-Matic has made their own forays into the computer simulator market.
We shouldn’t be surprised at all, though, that there is such an interest in fake baseball played on charts, spreadsheets, tabletops and the like. Baseball fans have been trying for it for the past 62 years, and especially in the past 40 or so. Labor battles have resulted in undeniable improvements to the game, but for the first time, there was real, regular uncertainty as to whether or not the next season would be played. Finding a replacement, a backup plan, however imperfect, was nothing if not a rational response.