Therapeutic obsessions: Replaying the National Pastime on a table top

Vintage edition of the APBA baseball game (From apbagames.com)

Vintage edition of the APBA baseball game (From apbagames.com)

Kenneth Heard is an Arkansas newspaper reporter with a fierce devotion to a baseball board game, APBA (pronounced “app-bah”), that uses dice, charts, and individual player cards to recreate the National Pastime on a tabletop. Furthermore, he writes about the experience via a unique blog, “Love, Life and APBA Baseball.”

Tabletop sports games are the forerunners of today’s fantasy and computer sports simulation games. Among a diehard subset of mostly Boomer-age sports fans, they remain quite popular. APBA (company website) and its perennial competitor, Strat-O-Matic (company website), are two of the longest surviving holdovers. During the heyday of these games, high school kids, college students, and grown men would play them obsessively, staging dream match-ups between all-time great teams and even replaying entire seasons in hopes that their favorite team might fare better than it did in real life.

His anchor at sea

Heard is a diehard APBA baseball player. He replays entire past baseball seasons and chronicles his progress on his blog. He’s currently replaying the 1942 season. Recently he completed a replay of the 1981 season, which in real life was interrupted by a players’ strike. You can read his concluding post on it here:

It was a long season; 16 months of rolling games, recording scores and some stats and watching what happened.

It was a good season. When I embarked upon this, I wanted to see what would have happened if the baseball strike didn’t occur. . . .

. . . When the regular season ended, Detroit and Baltimore were tied for the American League East, each posting 97-65 records. The Tigers beat Baltimore in a one-game playoff, but were defeated by Kansas City, 3 game to 1, in the American League Championship Series.

In the National League, Los Angeles, which won the West Division by 9 games over Houston, swept Montreal in the three-game National League Championship Series.

The Royals took the first game of the World Series, 1-0, over the Dodgers on Amos Otis’ RBI double in the seventh inning. L.A. took the next two games, 9-0 and 6-2. Willie Aikens drove in the go-ahead run in Game 4 for the Royals in the ninth, and Kansas City tied the Series at two games apiece.

And that was it for the Royals. Dusty Baker hit two home runs for the Dodgers in Game 5 for the win and Rick Monday added two homers of his own in Game 6. McRae popped out and the season was over.

The APBA baseball game is Heard’s anchor at sea, “the one constant in my life,” as he explains in a July 14 blog post that also gives you an important bit of his life’s story:

I spent today watching the clock, marking all that happened on July 14 seven years ago when my life changed drastically.

At 4:30 a.m., in 2006, I told my wife I’d take her to the doctor later that day because she wasn’t feeling well. I told her I loved her and said things would be okay. At 6:30 a.m., I found her unresponsive on the floor in our bedroom. At 9:30 a.m., a doctor ushered me into a private room at the emergency room of the hospital an ambulance rushed her to. He looked at me somberly and said they tried all they could do, but she was gone. It was something he probably said often in rote fashion to families, but to me it was the most impacting thing I’ve ever heard.

. . . Here’s where the APBA comes in, and gives this blog part of its title. Some have told me they were impressed with the number of baseball games I replay each day. I average four to six a day at times. I’m a third of the way through the 1942 baseball season now, after three months of playing.

I love the game, but the frequency of games picked up after I lost my wife. I work, come home, fix something to eat, watch some television and then roll a few games. I don’t sleep much, so I can play late into the night.

As I’ve said a few times here before, the game is the one constant in my life. Things change, but the game remains the same. Different seasons, but the world that I create by tossing the dice and logging the wins of each game remains the same and gives me a safe, serene world that I can control and understand. I’ve been playing some form of the APBA game since 1977.

Shared obsession

Heard may be at the extreme end of his devotion, but he’s not alone. At the online Table Top Sports forum, sports game hobbyists engage in informed, sometimes impassioned exchanges about playing and analyzing these games, while sharing humorous stories about how spouses, other family members, and friends regard their hobby. Both the APBA and Strat-O-Matic game companies are found of touting the names of famous athletes and public figures who have played their games as youth and adults.

Several years ago, the New York Public Library published a book detailing how Jack Kerouac invented his own tabletop baseball game, created fictitious teams and players, and kept detailed notebooks of each season. You can learn more about it, including photographs of his homebrewed game, here.

And speaking of the literary end, novelist Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), is the tale of a man who invents his own cards & dice baseball game and becomes lost in the life of his fictitious baseball league. It’s considered a minor classic and one of the best books about the dramatic pull of baseball.

Universal Baseball Association

(One of my prized book purchases from The Strand bookstore in Manhattan is an autographed copy of Coover’s book, a discovery in the half-priced paperback bin many years ago.)

Work diversions (and beyond)

There’s not much about work in this post, is there? I guess that’s my point. Hobbies are good for us; they make for healthy diversions that are engaging, immersive, and fun.

Some of you might think that Kenneth Heard’s devotion to playing APBA baseball is over the top, but it works for him and makes for a fulfilling hobby. To the extent the game serves as his salve for some of life’s ups and downs, it’s better than falling for more self-destructive behaviors that we could easily list out.

Moreover, these games harken back to the idea of hobbies that don’t require thousands of dollars to sustain. For example, with APBA baseball and similar games, you can obtain the basic game parts and several past seasons for under $100, especially if you tap into eBay and other sites. To play APBA, all you need is an interest in baseball, an ability to learn the game engine, and — most importantly — an imagination to see it all unfold in your mind’s eye.

On this blog, I’ve written a lot of doom-and-gloom things about the economic times to come. I’ll stick to those forecasts; I think we’re facing a rough go of it. One of our salvations, however, may be the rediscovery of hobbies and activities that bring us great enjoyment without draining already tight bank accounts.

Me, too

As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve played these tabletop sports games too, especially during my “tween” years through college. I still collect the games, occasionally play them, and hope for more time to do so someday.

In the meantime, on my iPad is the tablet version of Out of the Park Baseball, a computer sports simulation game, and it’s great for airport waits and plane flights. I’m replaying the Chicago Cubs 1969 season, a year that brings painful memories for longtime Cubbies fans everywhere. Unfortunately, the digital Cubs are faring much worse under my stewardship than the real team did back in the day.

As they say, wait ’til next year.

7 responses

  1. I was fascinated by this. As a kid, (in the 1960s) I invented my own fantasy baseball game with an imaginary league. I still remember some of the players names. I finally saved enough money for an APBA game. It was for the 1968 season. I payed it obsessively with my brother. I hadn’t hear of it in years.

    • Bob, then I’m sure you were delighted to see that ou and Kerouac were on the same wavelength! These games sparked the imaginations of a generation of young sports fans. I’m glad they’re still around.

    • Brad, thank you! I’ve played the Mac version of OOTP only a few times. I’ve had so much work related travel over the past year that iOOTP has been more convenient. Unfortunately, as I noted in the article, my 1969 Cubs are performing woefully, so I think I’ve got a few things to learn about the game engine to improve with the 1970 season!

  2. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: Boyhood summers spent managing big league baseball teams | Musings of a Gen Joneser

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