Watching the baseball All-Star Game Tuesday night, my mind wandered…back, back, back to the distant past, and another kind of All-Star game, one I played myself as a kid, lots of times.
This one was a board game—All-Star Baseball by Cadaco. It consisted mainly of a cardboard baseball diamond and a spinner, over which you placed a disc for each player in your lineup, in turn. The circle’s 360 degrees were divided into 15 or so parts, each representing an outcome for a time at bat. For example, “1” was a home run, “2” a groundout, “3” a base-on-error, “4” a fly out, and so on. You’d flick the spinner and record outs, base moves and runs as chance dictated. All the rules of baseball applied.
Described like that, it doesn’t sound like much of a game. It certainly wasn’t by the standards of today’s electronic marvels, which, I’m told, include “virtual” contests as vivid as the real things. Really, though, I remember the board game as captivating. On each disc was the name of a notable player, and its divisions conformed to his career batting statistics. When, say, you had the National League All-Stars, and Stan Musial was your batter, his chances of hitting a single, double, triple or home run—or making an out—were the same as they’d be in real life.
What’s more—and more important—when Stan was on your team, he was YOUR man. You could see him in the batter’s box, in his menacing, coiled stance, waiting like a cobra to strike at the next pitch. It was theater of the mind, a common exercise in those radio days, and at least as real as anything today’s computer mavens can produce.
Further interest could be gained by mixing lineups. Most of our games matched the then-current National League All Stars (circa 1948) against the Americans, but you could obtain discs from players of previous eras and use them as you chose. Thus, your first baseman could be Johnny Mize, and your centerfielder Ty Cobb. Or Tris Speaker. What talent at your call! What fun!
You’re only young once but you always can be immature, so I reached for pen and pad and began to jot my own All-Star lineups, unfettered by the calendar. The effort was a bit taxing because comparing players of different eras is difficult. I subscribe unreservedly to the idea that today’s baseball players—and other athletes—are better than those who went before. That’s because of advances in nutrition and exercise physiology, and because today’s high salaries enable jocks to be jocks—and train--- year around. But some of the old-timers could play in any era, and deserved attention.
My All-Star first basemen are Lou Gehrig for the American League and Albert Pujols for the Nationals. Gehrig is a BMT (before my time) guy, but his stats reveal a power hitter with few peers, and he was a real gent to boot. Still, I’d give the nod to Pujols, the game’s current monster, who averaged almost 40 homers a year in his first nine Big League seasons against higher-powered pitching than Gehrig faced. That last thing is what most distinguishes the current game from that of the past.
At second base I’d have old-timer Rogers Hornsby for the Nationals and Rod Carew for the Americans. Hornsby was the best right-handed hitter ever (with a lifetime average of .358), and can’t be ignored. Carew was a good glove and great singles guy, albeit not as good as Ichiro in the latter department. If Ichiro played second base I’d slot him here. Alas, he’s a right fielder, where the competition is tougher.
At third base I’d have Mike Schmidt for the Nationals and ARod for the Americans, edge to the latter. The steroids use of ARod and others muddies one’s judgment about some present-day stars, but we’re playing a board game here so I’ll shelve that issue for now. The NL shortstop would be Honus Wagner, the best player of the 1910s, with Cal Ripken for the AL’s, edge to Honus. If I were picking a team in the playground I’d choose Ozzie Smith, the best glove man ever, as my shortstop. But only hitting counts in the Cadaco game, so Wagner’s da man.
At catcher I’d have Johnny Bench for the NLs and Yogi Berra for the Americans, edge to Bench. My NL outfield would have Barry Bonds in left, Willie Mays in center and Hank Aaron in right. Their AL counterparts would be Ted Williams, Cobb and Babe Ruth. Edge to the AL, if only because of Ruth. He was the best baseball player ever, a great pitcher as well as a great hitter. His power numbers were astonishing for his time; in 1920, when he hit 54 home runs, the entire American League hit only 369. His contemporaries must have thought he was an alien.
Pitching didn’t count in the board game, but I picked some nonetheless: Walter Johnson for the AL and Warren Spahn for the Nationals. Johnson pitched before speed guns, but could hum ‘em anyway. “Something went by me that made me flinch,” said Cobb (who was not much given to complimenting foes) of his first at-bat against the young “Big Train.” Johnson won 417 games, with mostly mediocre Washington Senators’ teams, and finished an amazing 531 of his 666 career starts with a 2.17 ERA. ‘Nuf said.
Lefty Spahn never won a Big League game before age 25, but wound up winning 363 of them. I once shared a cart with him at a celebrity golf tournament and was charmed by his friendly manner and nonstop dumb jokes.
If you’d like to play the game I’ve outlined, or one of your own devising, you can; an Internet scan reveals that Cadaco (or someone) still is out there selling them. Some things, though, are better left to the imagination.