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Strat-O-Matic baseball puts spotlight on Negro Leagues

A new version of the tabletop game allows players to do what African Americans couldn't in the first half of the 20th century -- compete in games pitting Negro League and major league players.

December 21, 2009|By Kevin Baxter
  • A close-up of Art Pennington's Strat-O-Matic playing card. Pennington played in the Negro Baseball League from 1940 to 1950.
A close-up of Art Pennington's Strat-O-Matic playing card. Pennington… (Jim Slosiarek / For The Times )

Reporting from Cedar Rapids, Iowa — Art Pennington hasn't faced Satchel Paige in nearly 60 years, but he's at the plate now, batting from the left side here in the water-damaged basement of a 50-year-old clapboard house.

"Oh boy," Pennington says, shaking his head. "I didn't hit him then. I won't hit him now."

With that, the former Negro League All-Star rolls red dice across a rickety card table. When they come to a stop, the man sitting next to him consults a color-coded rectangular card: Pennington has hit a soft grounder back to the mound. He's an easy out at first.

"Sounds about right," Pennington, 86, says with a chuckle. After all, the player they called "Superman" had more wives -- five -- than hits against Paige in a 22-year baseball career in which he batted well over .300.

That's the main attraction of Strat-O-Matic, the card-and-dice tabletop baseball simulation game. Authenticity.

Nearly 50 years after it was devised by a college math student, Strat-O-Matic has been far overtaken by computer video games in style, but not in substance. Thanks to a complex and painstaking mathematical formula, the game is nothing if not accurate.

Now, thanks to a former limousine driver and accidental baseball historian, there's a new version that provides a glimpse into an era of baseball unknown by some and largely romanticized by others.

His name is Scott Simkus, and about a dozen years ago he commandeered a microfilm reader at the offices of a suburban Chicago newspaper searching for the results of a long-ago game his late grandfather, a semipro outfielder, played against the Negro Leagues' Cuban Stars.

Simkus, 39, never found exactly what he was looking for, but in the archives of the Chicago Tribune and newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier, he found more than 3,000 other box scores, which he parsed and cataloged into what may be the most detailed collection of Negro League statistics ever compiled.

Those numbers allowed Simkus and Hal Richman, founder of Strat-O-Matic, to put together a Negro League version of the game -- no small, or unimportant, feat.

For decades, baseball's color line kept the game segregated, with African American stars playing in the Negro Leagues and winter circuits in Latin America while their white counterparts played in the major leagues. Statistics in the black leagues were kept so haphazardly -- if at all -- that it was hard to tell exactly how many games the likes of Paige and Pennington played each year, much less how they did or how they would have fared against white big leaguers.

Simkus' research goes a long way toward answering those questions. His collection contains enough box scores from 1909 through the late 1940s that Richman and Simkus were able to calculate how 103 Negro Leaguers might have fared in a variety of circumstances.

"This is a missing piece of baseball history," Richman says. "There have been a lot of books written about the Negro Leagues. But it's not the same as playing a game.

"You can't put Satchel Paige up against Babe Ruth in a book. You can in Strat-O-Matic."

Or, as on this particular day, you test the new version by putting the only living player in the set up against Paige to see if he could change history.

Even for Superman, no such luck.

Pennington looks a good bit younger than his birth certificate indicates, his close-cropped hair and thick beard and mustache still more black than gray. And as he flips through the player cards that make up Simkus' game, the old days come racing back.

Everyone knew Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe could throw hard, Pennington says. What they didn't know was that he was cutting the ball.

"He'd strike 'em out like nothing," Pennington says. "See, we didn't have balls that they changed, like the majors now. He would put a scratch or something on it and, man, that ball would do the dipsy doodle."

And although Pennington was fast -- Olympic champion Jesse Owens once challenged him to a match race -- he was no match for teammate Cool Papa Bell. "That sucker could fly," Superman says. "Cool Papa did practically everything. He would always be talking about how his legs were hurting. But he ran well when he got on base."

Then there was catcher Josh Gibson, who Pennington says once hit a ball so hard that it went right through the third baseman's glove, taking the webbing with it into the left-field corner.

"The best I've ever seen," he says of Gibson.

The best pitcher? No contest there, either. It was Paige.

"I think I got three hits off him," Pennington says. "He would put that big [size] 15 shoe in front of you, you'd be looking at that foot, and he got it by you. He comes from the side and it was like a .45."

One of the first times the baby-faced Pennington batted against Paige was in Detroit, in front of his family and about 40,000 other people.

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