Ballpark 'N Me

December 5, 2021
  

 

I'm curious to know what makes Ballpark such an enjoyable game for you.  I've seen it over the years, and as I long time baseball board game player it looks pretty detailed.  I don't know that I've ever heard you go into what you love about the game and would love to know what makes it so enjoyable for you.  

 

So what does make it so enjoyable for you?  

 

Thanks Large,  

 

Matt

 

 

            I have been thinking about how to answer your question since you posted it about a week ago, so let me get to work on that.

            Ballpark was invented by a KU professor, Dr. Charles Sidman, in the late 1950s.  It is mathematically a very clever game, although it does have significant flaws or miscalculations in it, some false assumptions underlying it.  Anyway, Ballpark is based on

1)      Random numbers, 1 to 50,

2)     Player Cards, Batter Cards covering the numbers 1-25 and Pitcher Cards covering 26-50,

3)     Park Charts, representing each major league park, and

4)     A "book", a 48-page book in which you have to look things up a few times a game, or more. 

It’s pretty intuitive; it sounds a little complicated but experienced players typically play a game n 30-40 minutes, a three-game series in less than two hours.

            Dr. Sidman organized a group of friends, who started the first Ballpark league about 1960 or 1961; don’t know the exact date.  Could have been 1965.   You have to remember; baseball was more popular then than it is now, especially among mature men.   It might be difficult to do that now, although board games are actually much more popular now than they were then, I believe, and there are many "board game groups" in the generation behind me.

            Anyway, the group of professors at some point began talking about pooling their resources, and converting this wonderful game, as they saw it, into a commercial product.  I wasn’t there, but in that era Strat-o-Matic and APBA were developed into commercial products, I think one of them was marketed before then.  I think as they saw it, there are these commercial games like this, but our game is obviously better than their games, so why don’t we make put our game on the market and seeing what we can do with it?   In 1971, they opened a restaurant in town called The Ballpark.  The idea was that you would go in, order a sandwich and a beer or something—they were supposed to be terrific sandwiches, but you know how that goes—you would order a sandwich and a beer, and play a game or a series of Ballpark games.   You could use any team that had won a pennant from 1920 to 1970, so you would play the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies against the 1931 Cardinals, if you wanted to.  This was 1971; the 1931 Cardinals then were like the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals are now, not all that far in the past.  All of the "old" Ballpark stuff was copyrighted in 1971. 

            The restaurant was fairly successful for a period of five years or so.  Anytime you went in their would be people there, some of them playing the game and some not, some just drinking beer or eating a sandwich. Groups of young men developed who played the game regularly, would drop in a couple of times a week for a series.  They all got to know one another, and they formed leagues.  The restaurant encouraged the formation of leagues, for obvious reasons, and when you have a league, the league has to recruit members in order to sustain itself.  People like me, who were known to be obsessive baseball fans, were recruited to join leagues—even if people didn’t LIKE you, they would still recruit you to join the league because the league needed you. 

            The key point is that by the mid-1970s there was a culture in Lawrence of organized baseball fanatics—not just baseball fanatics, but baseball fanatics who knew other baseball fanatics and interacted with them on a daily basis.  Those people knew the history of baseball at a very deep level.  You play the 1924 Washington Senators in Ballpark a few times, you start wondering who Nemo Leibold was, and who Muddy Ruel was, and who George Mogridge was.  Many of these people collected and read baseball books, and shared stories from them relating to the players.  The players from baseball history became like the people in your home town, people that you knew and talked about.  Jim Carothers, I think, became the first college professor to offer a course in the History of Baseball.  This became a common thing, and then those courses faded away as baseball slipped in popularity among college-age students. 

            That culture is the key point of this essay. You understand, I am not in any way, shape or form comparing myself to Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Isaac Newton, but things develop out of local cultures exactly like this.  Most of the artists, writers, musicians and scientists that you have ever heard of came from intense local cultures of art, literature, music or science. 

            I came from a culture exactly like that, and this is critical to my accomplishments, absolutely central to it.  When I started the Baseball Abstract, it was universally believed that there was no significant audience for a book like that.  I could not believe that that was true, because I actually knew dozens or hundreds of people who were interested in the same type of issues that I was.  That fact gave me the confidence that all of the people who told me I would never make a living by doing this didn’t have any idea what they were talking about.  The concept of "replacement level" comes directly from Ballpark.  I was always (and still am always) trying to figure out how to value players from Ballpark.  I started out by just counting accomplishments, expressing these as Approximate Value (a concept you can still find on Football Reference, although it never really worked ALL that well).. . but anyway, I started out trying to evaluate people for Ballpark by Approximate Value.  All Ballpark Leagues have some sort of protection limit at the end of the year and draft for the next year. . . in other words, you are playing the American League in 1937 and you have 27 players on your roster and you can protect 10 of them for next year, then you re-draft before you start the 1938 season.  At some point it occurred to me that players of a certain quality, you can replace in the draft; what mattered was value ABOVE replacement level—meaning replacement level in the Ballpark draft, but then a couple of years later I realized that the concept of replacement level had real-world implications. 

            Well, Dr. Sidman went off to teach at some other University, the Ballpark closed in the late 1970s, most of the original Ballpark managers went off to another school or died.  Dr. Sidman spotted some of the mistakes he had made in designing the game, and re-designed it, but the Lawrence Ballpark culture clicked on, rejecting the modifications to the game that Dr. Sidman made after he left town.  It still clicks on today; I play today in that same league that Dr. Sidman started 60 years ago.   I’ve been in several other leagues over the years. 

            None of this is intended to say that Ballpark is a better or worse game than APBA or Strat-o-Matic or Diamond Mind; I don’t know.  It’s time and place; I wandered into a time and place where there was a robust baseball culture, founded on Ballpark baseball, and this fact is central to my career.  But to talk now about Ballpark itself, the design of the game worked for me, and still does.  Ballpark is randomized on several different levels.   Let us say that it is triple-randomized by the interaction of the cards, the park charts, and the dozens of different charts which are in "the Book". 

            You draw the number for the player; let us say that it is 23.  Well, it could be 23 Right or 23 Left.  For different hitters, it would be a Home Run for one, a Ground Ball for another, a T5 (tap to the third baseman) for another.  It is a randomized outcome.   Let’s say it is a T5; the third baseman could be a 1 (an outstanding fielder), a 2, a 3, a 4, a 5, a 6, a 7 or an 8 (a bad fielder.)   Each gets a different array of outcomes, and that array is randomized by the Park Chart.

            Each Park chart has sets of outcomes; a T5 to a 6 third baseman gets one outcome with the bases empty, a different one for each base-occupied situation, a different outcome in a different park.  It’s randomized outcomes.  A T5 might be a Z; that sends you to the Z chart, at the back of the book.  A Z might be an infield hit, an error, a ground-out advance, a ground-out no advance, a double play.  A fielder might be ejected from the game for arguing.  It’s randomized. 

            The triple-randomized design of the game—and in reality there are several more identifiable layers of randomization, beyond these three, but I’m trying to keep it comprehensible.  The triple-randomized nature of the game prevents you from breaking the codes.  That’s a terribly important feature of any game, the extent to which the codes are transparent.  You tend to lose interest in any game once you fully understand its codes. 

            But the design of Ballpark is such that you can never fully understand the codes.  I have been playing the game for 50 years, and I’m REALLY good at this kind of thing, pardon my saying so, and I’ve done hundreds of organized studies of how it is put together, representing thousands of hours of work, but I still don’t fully and absolutely understand how everything fits together.   I know most of it, and I understand why the game doesn’t work sometimes the way it is supposed to work. 

            I first heard of APBA and Strat-o-Matic probably in 1962 or 1963—I was born in 1949—and I immediately began developing similar games for my own amusement.  I never owned one of those games; we couldn’t afford anything like that, but I invented my own games on the same concept, several or many different variations of it.  In college I made and distributed one game to friends, and a few hundred games were played; a friend of mine from college with whom I have re-connected claims that he still has that game in a box somewhere, although I certainly do not, and haven’t seen anything of it for 50 years.  It’s not really that odd; I have known several other people who did the same thing as kids, including John Henry, owner of the Red Sox. 

            But if I saw that game now, from college, I could break the codes for that in ten minutes, I think.  On encountering Ballpark, I was aware that I was dealing with a vastly more nuanced, more sophisticated mathematical model of baseball than what I had created.  I immediately became fascinated with that model, with understanding that model, understanding real baseball through that model, and understanding how real-world baseball is different from that model.   I still am.  I still work on all three prongs of that obsession quite literally on a daily basis.   Sometimes I win my Ballpark League; usually I don’t.  But the process of it has served me tremendously well over the course of my career, and I felt that I owed it to Ballpark to explain that to you as well as I could.  

 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

RoelTorres
In 1984, when I was 12 years old, they came out with a video game called MicroLeague baseball. You could draft your own teams. It was the greatest game we'd ever seen. My brother, my friends, and I all loved it. We had a league and played hundreds and hundreds of games. From the Wikipedia article:

"A general manager disk available separately allowed users to make trades with other teams or create their own players. A stat compiler disk allowed players to save the results of every played game and compile statistics for each player, allowing users to play an entire season. The game was unique for its time for its concentration on management. Things like batter stance and fielder placement were all possible for the first time in a licensed baseball game."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MicroLeague_Baseball

There were five of us in that league from 37 years ago. We still get together every two weeks (I saw them four days ago). I was a groomsman at all their weddings, best man for three of them. They were all groomsmen and the best man at my wedding.

Nothing bonded us together more than the hundreds of simulated games of MicroLeague baseball. I wanted to get an edge in the league, which is why I bought my first Bill James Abstract. As a kid, that book was eye-opening. I had never read baseball analysis at that level before. Bill became my hero, and it was a thrill when I ended up writing for the site over a decade ago.

In summary, playing in a simulated baseball league was the formative experience of my life. And it continues to pay dividends today, 37 years later.
1:12 PM Dec 7th
 
pebblyjack
I also live in Lawrence. I have played in a BallPark league almost continuously since 1998. And, while I won't do it as eloquently as Bill, I would like to share my perspective of the game.

Our league is based on the Professor's League (Bill's league), which is built around the school year and is progressive. We play one 48-game season in the Fall and the next season in the Spring, with summers off. We play at each other's houses, at local bars, and more recently via Zoom. We used to use a 6-sided and 10-sided dice to generate numbers, but we now mostly use electronic random number generators.

When I first started, there was the Professor's League and our league which had an 8-team AL (playing 1978 when I joined) and an 8-team NL (playing 1938 when I joined) (Bill was in that league then). We would play 12 games against the other league, 36 games in our league, play a league championship series between division winners, and then play a World Series against the winner of the other league. The AL folded after 1989 (the last year of the old cards) and I eventually took over a team in the old NL (in 1950) and we played through 1961.

After 1961, we reformatted the league to have 12 teams, corrected some coding errors (most centering around CF eligibility), introduced a salary system, a hybrid auction/draft system, a player usage system (devised by Bill), the park charts from the new version of the game, and, recently, a website that keeps track of standing and stats. We restarted in 1919 and are currently winding down the 1941 season.

Since 1998, I have spent (wasted?) countless thousands of hours deconstructing and re-deconstucting every chart, every rating, etc., in the game to "accurately" value each card, really for no better purpose than to gain an edge in my league. Reducing each card and rating to runs, and then wins, and then using the marginal value of a win, I assess a dollar value to each card. (Ironically, the value for players in our league often matches Bill's win shares. So, if a player in 1941 was worth 30 win shares, he will be worth about $30,000 of a $250,000 budget in our league). I will echo Bill's sentiment that the way the game is constructed, it is no easy feat doing this as there are multiple layers of randomness that must be taken into account for each chart, rating, etc.

While there are, as Bill notes, some issues with the game itself, and having played everything from All*Star Baseball, to Statis Pros, to Strat-o-Matic, to Pursue the Pennant, in my opinion it is easily the best game for playing head-to-head that I have ever played. One of our league members from Topeka has played even more baseball games than me and is an avowed Strat junky. While BallPark is far from his favorite baseball game, it is his favorite game to play head-to-head. It just works.
6:20 PM Dec 6th
 
Gfletch
That was a fun and interesting read. Thanks.

Two statements especially caught my interest. You wrote that baseball was more popular then than it is now, and that board games are more popular now than they were then.

In some respects I can imagine that the first thing might well be true. I would be surprised if the second were true.

Would you care to expand on those ideas?
11:56 AM Dec 6th
 
Marc Schneider
I played Strat-0-Matic when I was a kid and was always amazed how closely the results replicated real life. I would play the games by myself, "managing" both teams. One year, a friend and I replayed the 1970 season, with me playing the NL and him the AL. Just as in real life, the Reds and Orioles met in the World Series, but in my league, the Reds pitchers did not suffer injuries, which they did in real life. In the World Series, the Reds beat the Orioles in 7 games, while in the real World Series, the O's won in 5. I've always wondered, based on our results, if the real Reds might have won the real World Series if their pitching had stayed healthy.
9:45 AM Dec 6th
 
RexLittle
With all the charts, I would think it would greatly simplify and speed up play if the game were computerized. Do they have any plans to do this?

How are the random numbers generated? One of the problems with the Strat-O-Matic board game is that the cards they use to generate random numbers 1-20 get worn out very quickly. Back in the day (I play the computer version now) I used a 20-sided die instead of the cards. I guess you could use a pair of specially marked 10-sided dice for Ballpark.

9:26 AM Dec 6th
 
mathias2
OK, time for me to come clean. I roll about 2,000 games of Replay Baseball per year, replaying old seasons using actual lineups and transactions. I have completed 18 full seasons and the record of those seasons is in an encyclopedia. There is a season-by-season section patterned after the Neft and Cohen books and a large section that has each player's season-by-season stats. The encyclopedia gets updated after each finished season; it is closing in on 1,000 pages by now. If any of you are somehow interested in this crazy endeavor, the encyclopedia (a PDF) is available here:
https://onedrive.live.com/?id=3B7CEB8EE716CE13!773&cid=3B7CEB8EE716CE13
7:07 AM Dec 6th
 
BenchWarmer
I have been a gamer since age 14. Randomization can go the other way. In APBA, if Harmon Killebrew is up, and the red die is a six, and the white die is a six, you immediately KNOW that the outcome is a home run. Anyway, Strat and APBA survive to this very day. It’s a great hobby.
8:48 PM Dec 5th
 
okansas
Where was the restaurant?

I grew up in Lawrence and would have been about 8 when the restaurant opened. I have a dim memory of it being in the Hillcrest Shopping Center.
7:38 PM Dec 5th
 
Dr.G74
You seem to have made a very good simulation game in your Bill James Life In Prison baseball game. Did you attempt to emulate Ballpark when you made it?
5:54 PM Dec 5th
 
trn6229
Hello Bill,

Thank you explaining your involvement in Ballpark Baseball. I am a fan of Strat-O-Matic, but I want to support all games that replicate baseball using statistics and probability.

In your first 1977 Baseball Abstract at the end of the book, you had a baseball game that used a deck of cards. You rated two teams. You said that if you wanted more teams to contact you. I wonder if anyone did. I enjoyed your series on a Prison Baseball game.

All these games are fun. With the Strat-O-Matic Baseball computer game, I like to create an eight team, league, 25 players per team, 154 game schedule. I would use for example, players from the AL and NL in 1971 so Vide Blue, Tom Seaver, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and others would be in the same league. I know in one of your books you talked about the 1900 National League being a condensed league, when the NL dropped four teams and reduced from a 12 team league to an eight team league. Lots of talent, because the weaker players were dropped from the league and only the better players survived. These games are great fun.

Thank you!

Take Care,
your friend Tom Nahigian
5:35 PM Dec 5th
 
shthar
What seasons does the game use?

Do new cards come out every year?
5:01 PM Dec 5th
 
 
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