Hal Richman didn’t waste any time when I asked him if he could have envisioned celebrating the 50th anniversary of his iconic baseball game, Strat-O-Matic.
“Absolutely not,” he said, after some initial laughter over the absurdity of the situation.
Hundreds of the game’s fans from across the country will participate in tomorrow’s “2011 Strat-O Opening Day” at the Community Church of New York (40 East 35th Street) from at 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The program features a variety of speakers, panels, celebrity guests — including former Major Leaguer Doug Glanville, pitching coach Rick Peterson, and John Dewan, founder of STATS INC. — and interactive discussions about the game.
In a telephone conversation from his office in Glen Head, NY, Richman — who was “minimally” a card collector as a kid — said he came up with the idea for Strat-O-Matic as an 11-year-old. His parents initially thought his obsession with these games was a waste of time. “They were very upset,” he said. “The emphasis was always on going into business with your father or becoming a lawyer or a doctor.” Richman’s father owned an insurance business.
Richman’s mother realized he found the notion of working dad anathema, so in 1959 she arranged an interview with someone in the toy industry. “He said, ‘You have talent, but you’re not commercial,” Richman recalled. “‘You have to spruce these products up; you have to do something different.’ He stimulated me to a different path altogether.” Richman decided to use dice as the determining factor in his game.
For the first couple of years, Richman was fine-tuning Strat-O-Matic while working full-time as an accountant. Prior to that he had worked for a toy company, pitching them ideas for his baseball product. “They rejected them, fortunately for me,” he said. “Because if they had taken them, they probably would have destroyed them.”
Unlike these days, when statistical updates appear on-line in real time, Richman did his initial work in an era devoid of personal computers
“I was pretty good at math,” said Richman, who majored in the subject at Bucknell University. He had to make the updates manually. “I was just going constantly to get the stats out. I avoided, initially, trying to do all 20 teams, but I realized I had to do them all. I worked very quickly.”
One side of the card offers a simpler version of the game, allowing younger players to enjoy the game. The flip side “has the super advanced, which introduced many, many new things: lefty-righty hitting for pitchers and batters, ballpark effects, clutch hitting, throwing arms for the outfielders, ratings for the fielders….”
“The basic game that was produced in 1961, 1962, I was able to do myself, and I continued to do sets myself until 1965. At that point it became too much; I couldn’t get them out in time.”
Richman enlisted the aid of a computer programmer to assist in the annual updates that reflect the previous season’s statistics. He was able to offer an advanced edition in 1971. “I never would have been able to do that because it was just too much work.”
After his initial success, Richman had one goal in mind: “[T]o get someone to take if off my hands and I’d be able to work for them and not be responsible for the entire operation. When you have your own little company, you do it all and there’s a lot of responsibility. You have to create your own [pay]check every week. I was hoping to work for a company like The Sporting News, having them adopt the game. That didn’t work out; no one was interested. So as a last resort I went into the business, even then trying to find a company that would basically take it over.”
Tired of waiting and entrusting his fate to others, Richman decided to market the game himself. He borrowed $5,000 from his father with the agreement that if he could not repay the loan within two years, he would, resignedly, go to work for the insurance company.
“By the third year — after paying my father back — I was making money and at that point, I was on my own. But it was scary.”
The progress was not always smooth. “There were a lot of crises along the way and each crisis made me more insecure. But I got over all of them,” he said. “At one point the Major League Players Association came after us for royalties. That was a very upsetting day. But we were able to overcome that.” Richman credited Marvin Miller, then the head of the players’ union, for working out an amicable arrangement. Other problems included competition from other baseball board-based games. “Then it built up and we had this tremendous following and it just kept on going.”
Although Richman would not say how many units his company has sold over five decades, he estimated that “millions” have played the game. “It’s hard to even say how many…because we don’t know. You sell a game to one person, how many others play it?”
Despite baseball’s growing popularity around the world in the intervening decades, Strat-O-Matic is still only available in English, although Richman said there was some thought about a Japanese version. “We [considered it] many years ago and might try to approach that again, but at this point, nothing’s in the works.”
So after years of working 60-80 hours a week (down to 20 since the 74-year-old entrepreneur went into semi-retirement), Richman has an opportunity to stand back, look at what he has accomplished with a little bit of paper and plastic, and bask in the adulation.
“Looking back on it now, I was very fortunate. Not many people have a business where people send you letters telling you how wonderful your product is, how important it is to them. Those are things that really kept me going.”
In addition to tomorrow’s event, Richman has another simha to look forward to: His March 27 induction into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in nearby Commack, a real “local boy makes good” story.
“You found out about that,” he said modestly. “It’s a great honor. I’m thrilled with it. I never anticipated anything like that. To be in the same Hall with [Sandy] Koufax and [Hank] Greenberg and the rest of them is very nice.”