Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Brief History of Russball: Part 1

On May 1, I will be flying to Las Vegas for the first Russball season since 1998. That makes it a very big deal to me, and I'd like you to understand why. Over the next three weeks, as I prepare for the three-day Russball marathon, I'll write about the origins and history of the game. It should take three or four posts, and by the time we're done you'll know about the Lefty Grove Rule, the Drafting-Third Jinx, and why long-retired Earl Averill made the greatest catch in Russball history. More importantly, you'll see why the game has meant so much for so long to its participants.

I was introduced to this game more than 30 years ago, a year or two after I moved to Las Vegas. My first friend there, George Steedle, played the game along with his pal and fellow Pittsburgh native Stew Baskin. All three of us were born in 1951, and they moved to Las Vegas as soon as they graduated from Penn State in 1973. I first set foot in Sin City the day after the 1979 World Series ended.

They called the game Diceball. The table-top game was officially named "Superstar Baseball," an Avalon Hill  product originally marketed by "Sports Illustrated" in the 1970s. I had never seen it before they showed me how to play. I was an APBA freak during childhood, memorized the eight game boards and everything, played with friends and by myself (an only child), and had dabbled with other games. But from the first, Diceball was the most interesting version of indoor baseball I ever played.

Like Statis Pro, but unlike APBA, it gives the pitcher the first chance to decide a batter's outcome. If the pitcher doesn't hit one of his "out numbers," then the batter gets to swing. It was fun to put together lineups of all-time greats, to send the likes of Honus Wagner, George Sisler and Hank Aaron up to bat against Walter Johnson in the first inning and go from there. We played occasionally and informally, usually joined by John Jurewicz, who had first introduced the game to George years earlier. John was from the Chicago area, a star pitcher in high school, and liked to spit tobacco juice into a paper cup between innings. George and Stew didn't play high school ball, and their chief baseball-related joy was idolizing Roberto Clemente. Like me, they had begun their Las Vegas lives as poker dealers, but Stew had soon switched to a career as an investment broker. I had met George in 1980 when we both worked in the poker room at a little casino called the Bingo Palace. John worked for a company that leased slot machines.

Inevitably, we evolved from one-night showdowns into leagues that took much longer to finish. That meant drafting teams, getting more organized, and playing a lot more often. We settled on a four-team season of 36 games, consisting of four three-game series--two home, two away--against each team. More extensive play revealed the essential flaw in the game's design. We noticed first that a lot of very good pitchers didn't have a lot of "out numbers," leaving them chronically vulnerable. Only a few starters--Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Sandy Koufax--seemed consistently capable of dominating the opposition. It didn't seem right that Cy Young and Bob Feller did well to get through five or six innings.

One reason they didn't log that many innings was that relievers had better cards, most notably some old-time starters who pitched a lot in relief. By far the best card belonged to Lefty Grove--as a reliever. So the favored strategy was to draft Grove in the first round and use him in every game. It never occurred to us to put a limit on how often a pitcher could be used. We did eventually create the Lefty Grove Rule, which limited any pitcher to 108 innings per season, or three innings per game. In addition, the starting pitcher had to give up a run before he could be replaced, or log three scoreless innings. Grover Cleveland Alexander wasn't far behind Grove in out numbers, and we played a lot of games in which they entered in the first or second inning and went the distance. Carl Hubbell and Ed Walsh were two others who worked chiefly out of the bullpen during the old Diceball days.

We could live with that aberrant deployment of a pitching staff, but more troubling was the discovery, over time, that a lot of great hitters were steadily poor performers. Even though they had plenty of chances to swing off their own cads, there seemed to be a scarcity of high-occurrence good rolls. If Willie Mays, Eddie Collins, Hank Greenberg and others had trouble hitting over .230, something was out of whack.

The result was a lot of low-scoring games, not in itself a bad thing because in a 2-1 or 3-2 game, every baserunner is crucial and exciting. Diceball turned into the Deadball Era, with only occasional three-run home runs and .300 hitters. But we wanted more hitters to do well. When Duke Snider went 1-for-39 one season and Jimmie Foxx couldn't buy a hit against right-handed pitching, it was time to take a closer look at how those cards were made.

I played with the numbers and soon figured out the basic flaw in the card-making formula. "Superstar Baseball" uses three dice, giving 216 possible results (6x6x6). Automatic outs by the pitcher occurred roughly 25% of the time. But the hit numbers on the batters' cards didn't take that into account. They were calculated as if every result came from the batter's card. There were different results against righty and lefty pitching, which was fine, but hit numbers landed only 30-40% of the time. In effect, Ty Cobb would barely hit over .300 against right-handed pitching, and it was tougher for everyone else. The most extreme case was Jackie Robinson, whose card I remember well; he had 46 hit numbers against righties. But they would get him out on an automatic number 54 times out of 216, so his card came into play on 162 of every 216 at-bats. That determined the actual probability of his getting a hit. Taking away 25% of his hit numbers meant just 34.5 hits per 216 at-bats, or a .160 average. That's why Jackie Robinson didn't play much in Diceball.

Once I figured out the arithmetic, I knew I had to do something about it. The catalyst for change was the birth, in 1986, of George's son Russ, his first child. I decided to produce a new set of cards which would provide a baseball legacy for Russ--hence, Russball. The Diceball cards didn't have any players later than the 1970s, of course, so I decided to go in the other direction. I would make a set of cards consisting only of players that George and I could describe to Russ from having seen them play. That meant going back only as far as the late 1950s, giving me a three-decade period from which to draw. That was plenty. I had no trouble putting together a set of 125 players.

Of course, my key aim in making the new cards was to give every player a chance to excel, not merely get by. The pitchers had to have more out numbers. When Koufax or Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver was "on" in reality, nobody could hit them, so I had to design cards that would enable them to get hot. Conversely, if they were cold--if they couldn't roll their out numbers--they should get pummeled, as even the Hall of Famers did on occasion. So batters had to have a lot more hit numbers. (For instance, the highest number of hits on a Diceball card was Al Simmons vs. left-handed pitching, 92 numbers out of 216, hence his Diceball nickname "Death To Lefties". The highest number of hits in Russball is Rod Carew's 107 vs. right-handed pitching.) Russball batters are victims of automatic hits more often (roughly one-third of the time), but when they do get to swing, they're much more dangerous.

Over the years, some new players have been added, others dropped, and the numbers have been revised and refined more than once. The result is just what we wanted: Diceball was a very fine game, but Russball is terrific. The proof is in the pudding. Every game is hotly contested. An early big lead is no guarantee of victory; no matter how far behind you are, you'll almost always get the tying run to the plate before you're done. There are more high-scoring games, but there are plenty of strong pitching performances.

Our favorite Russball saying (coined by Stew) will tell you how suspenseful the games are:  "Every win a miracle, every loss a blow." Each game--lasting 20 to 40 minutes, with a three-game series played in two hours--is a roller-coaster ride with the same intense build-up of anticipation and strong emotion at the event itself that we experience in the best games in the real major leagues.

By the time I debuted that new set of cards in 1987, John had largely dropped out of the picture. He had three little kids and started his own business, and it became tougher for him to spare the time needed to play a full season. He did, however, introduce us to a younger (a decade or so younger than the rest of us) co-worker named Tim Carson, who became the d'Artagnan to our Three Diceketeers. By the end of the decade, Tim was the cage/credit manager for a downtown casino and a formidable foe in Russball.

George lived in Hawaii for awhile after Russ was born and didn't return to Las Vegas until 1988. It was the start of 1989 when we played our first formal season of four teams and 36 games. Later that year, John did join us for one final season of five teams and 48 games apiece. He disdained the new cards and took us on with a team of old Diceball cards. His squad, the Mad Pigeons, went 21-27 to finish fourth, and he hasn't played since. He has talked about flying from Chicago to Las Vegas to kibbitz during our season if he can get away that weekend. We all hope he does. I haven't seen him since 1991.

From 1989 until I moved to central California late in 1995, we played 23 Russball seasons, including the five-man season. That included a trio of three-team seasons in 1991-1992, the first when family woes sidelined George for a couple of months and the last two after I moved to Cooperstown for a year. I returned in time to get in two seasons that year. After I moved to California, the other guys did play one more three-team season.

Since the move, we have done a "shotgun" season three teams, all in the late 1990s. We found that we could comfortably play a 36-game season in less than three full days, and they were great weekends.The first time I drove to Las Vegas (with a kidney stone) to play; they joined me in Los Gatos the second time (George and Stew took time out on Saturday to go to a sports bar for the Penn State game), and the final gathering was in Las Vegas in 1998. That's when I brought out the new set of cards with a lot of great hitters in particular: Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., and many others. George objected to including so many contemporary players who were too good to be true, with Piazza and Thomas his two big thumbs-downs as we prepared for the season. He spent two months complaining about Piazza and Thomas being in the league, then drafted both of them and won the pennant. Need I add that George has survived four decades in Las Vegas?

Why no seasons since 1998? I haven't lived in Las Vegas since 1995, hung out in a redwood forest until 2002 and have lived in upstate New York since then. In 2000, Tim, having married an Australian woman on Babe Ruth's birthday, moved to Australia, where his computer expertise made him a much sought-after Microsoft instructor and systems administrator. For many years, he worked the computers for the Australian Air Force academy, understandably fell in love with the country, and became a dual citizen. But he and Julie returned to the U.S. last summer, settling near Boulder, Colorado. Linda and I visited them there last summer for a great weekend.

And now we're heading for Las Vegas for the first four days of May. Tim and I will fly in Thursday, arriving mid-evening. We're staying at Stew's house for the weekend of play; his wife is wisely visiting other friends somewhere else for the duration. We'll do a lot of catching-up that night, as Tim hasn't seen Stew and George since 2000 (I saw them two years ago), but we'll also hold the draft. That is always a special event and a lot of fun. I have the audio of an old draft on a cassette in a carton in some dark room. George and I at least are already doing "mock" drafts, taking each of the four drafting spots to see how we might build our rosters of All-Stars.

We don't want to draft third and fall prey to the Drafting-Third Jinx:  no team drafted third and won a pennant until the 23rd season, when my Blasters defeated Tim's Outsiders in the final game, a thrilling Russball finale. The teams went into the game with impressive 23-12 records, with Warren Spahn facing the Outsiders' Tom Seaver. Seaver led 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, and I tied it each time, the last on Tim Raines' home run in the ninth inning. Seaver left after ten, and in the 11th, Dale Murphy homered off Goose Gossage for the run that won the pennant. But I digress. Trust me. You don't want to draft third.

We'll play all day Friday and Saturday, aiming to get in 15 games a day. At two hours for a three-game series, five series in a day is a leisurely pace. That will leave the final six pivotal games for Sunday. Tim has a flight home late in the afternoon, but we're not worried about getting things done. As always, money will be wagered. But I'll tell you about that next time, when I give you a better idea of who these 125 All-Stars were.






5 comments:

Jim said...

Sounds like a lot of fun. Any ex-Senators in the game?

Dan Holmes said...

Gabe,

I love this article. I played Status Pro (from Avalon Hill) when I was a kid. Got my first cards in 1978 and purchased new sets in 1979 and 1980. That's when I started creating my own cards (Avalon Hill included the formula for making the cards). I ended up making hundreds of cards of all the best players in history. I liked that Status Prod did not rely on dice, it was different. I remember 1980's Kirk Gibson baing rated the highest level in basestealing (AA) and I played him all season and he swiped 100 bases. Overall though, the game was pretty realistic in terms of outcomes. Players would perform pretty close to their season stats. Playing time was a concern, and the "Z Chart" was great fun. It included odd plays like brawls, fires to ballparks, and suspensions. I even added some to the list. I never played much with other people, I played my own seasons.

Thanks for rekindling the memories and enjoy your LV trip for Russball.

Dan Holmes

Gabriel Schechter said...

Thanks, Jim. It is. Former Senators include just two men--Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard. You can throw in Maury Wills, who was born in D.C.

jgarrison1309 said...

Part of Jackie Robinson's card was a misprint, and a copy of Pee Wee Reese's card. That was part of the problem why he did not hit well in your mind and in your games.

jgarrison1309 said...

And Dan, YES! Statis Pro was a great baseball game. That Z chart was terrific. I played the 1980 cards over and over and over again. Miguel Dilone! Nuf Said.