Strat-O-Matic Sunday: My Interview with Hal Richman and John Garcia of Strat-O-Matic
This month, we’ve weaved articles on why SSTN writers have enjoyed Strat-O-Matic baseball around posts featuring our giveaway of Strat’s new Baseball Enemies set.
I first encountered the game like many my age (I’m 50) did – advertisements in baseball magazines. I encountered an ad that stated I could “Play 1980 Big League Baseball Games” and was immediately intrigued. For the price of a quarter (not a small investment, I could have gotten a pack of baseball cards for that price) I sent for and received a brochure describing the Strat-O-Matic baseball game. Christmas Day 1981 was my day to get my first Strat set – a “selector set” including the Yankees and a number of other 1980 teams. I played the heck out of those cards that winter.
Shortly thereafter, I received a flyer advertising Strat’s great “Oldtimer Teams” and if I wasn’t hooked before, I was then. I was already a baseball history buff, and had read up on teams like the 1927 Yankees, 1934 Cardinals, 1948 Indians, etc.. Now I could roll them with Strat! Most of my future earnings as a kid from mowing lawns, feeding animals, etc. went to baseball equipment, baseball cards, and Oldtimer teams. In the meantime, I had introduced the game to friends and a neighborhood draft league popped up. Great fun. A great way to grow up.
Thankfully the company continues to thrive! Of course, it offers a computer/Windows and online games as well. I still like the cards and dice, as I feel a bit more engaged with the game at hand, and it provides me an opportunity to “unplug.”
As an adult, I really have come to appreciate not only the fun of Strat-O-Matic baseball, but the accuracy of the game. I enjoy their extensively researched “Classic” baseball season releases. The players hit, field, pitch, run and even get injured just like they did in real life. They will be releasing the 1962 season, along with 2019, in February 2020.
So, when Paul asked if I’d be interested in interviewing some of the folks behind the Strat scenes, I jumped at the opportunity. Last week I spent time interviewing founder Hal Richman and research director (and card maker) John Garcia. Check out our conversation below:
What is keeping things at Strat-O-Matic busy right now? Hal – I had better let John answer that… John – The 2019 season – a bear to compute! So many players to card, significantly more than even five years ago. More players, less usage, particularly on the pitching side. The small sample size can have an effect on ratings, especially the left/right splits.
Strat recently released the Enemies Set. Can you talk a bit about it? Hal – The Enemies Set was an idea of my son Adam. John then took it from there. The cards are based on statistics against only the team’s rivals – in the Yankees’ case against Boston. It’s a unique set, one which we think will be very successful. It makes for some interesting lineup decisions, like the Yankee outfield of O’Neill, Ruth, Mantle, DiMaggio, Maris, etc. Who do you pick?
I have to ask – why no Thurman Munson in the Enemies set, given his part in the rivalry? John – Munson’s stats weren’t as good as Bill Dickey and Jorge Posada’s. Prorating his games against Boston for a whole season, Munson batted .268 with 13 home runs. It’s difficult to make the Yankees roster – even Yogi Berra didn’t make it! Keep in mind, Bill Dickey batted .331 in his career against Boston.
Are more sets like this planned for the future? Hal – Well see how is does. Not all folks are fans of the six teams represented (Yanks, Red Sox, Giants, Dodgers, Cardinals. Cubs), but we think it will do very well. It is a really unique product.
Hal, let’s go back to 1961, when you put out your first set. What vision/hopes did you have for the company at that time? I had no idea what would happen. My goal was to support a family and buy a house. I’ve been able to do that and more, and feel very grateful.
Why has Strat not only survived, but thrived through the years? Hal – We combined play value and realism. Too much of either would be detrimental. Many games have been realistic but destroyed play value. Strat walks that line. Our game is fun to play, and is very realistic.
Say Strat-O-Matic was going to issue a new baseball set – say the 1947 season – how do you go about creating it? John – I’ll start with the data from Retrosheet/Baseball Reference. We then go to the individual boxscores to create left/right ratings, add sacrifice flies, etc. I go through issues of The Sporting News and research fielding, injuries, hit and run and bunting ratings and just overall scouting.
Hal – I used to do 100% of the reading/scouting on the older players. My favorite season to research was 1911, a Deadball season. In 1911 Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson were both .400 hitters. I noticed that Cobb and the Tigers faced many more lefthanders than Jackson and Cleveland, which makes his final batting average even more impressive.
Nap Lajoie was known to be among the league leaders in putouts and assists at second base. In my research I found that he literally called players off of grounders so he could field them, inflating his stats.
Another instance of interesting research was when I was preparing the 1930 season. Hall of Fame lefthander Carl Hubbell was known for his very effective screwball. Our research indicated that he did not throw a screwball in 1930. Throughout his career, he was consistently more effective against right-handed batters than lefthanders. Not 1930.
You can’t just use the numbers; research and scouting are essential to making an accurate card set. So, 1911 is your favorite card set you’ve produced? Hal – Yes. I was enamored with the older players. I received a book at age 9 on Hall of Fame players and loved it.
What is the hardest skill/attribute of a baseball player to replicate on a Strat card? John – Defensive ratings take a lot of time. We refer to the stats, as well collecting notes from scouts who watch the players daily. Once we pull that together we hold the “klatch”, which consists of Hal, Len Schwartz, Glenn Guzzo and myself. We just the sit in a room and hammer the fielding ratings out. We sometimes argue and yell, but in the end come up with very accurate ratings. It really is great fun.
In 2016, Strat introduced pitcher injuries to the game. How did you work through that process? John – This was something I had wanted to do for a little while. We did lots of playtesting on the computer, reviewed different systems, and did more playtesting.
What is the most exotic place you have mailed a Strat-O-Matic game? Hal – We had a customer in Kashmir who used to order games. While we do have customers in Europe and Japan, our primary customer base is in US and Canada.
John, what do you enjoy about your job? I’ve played Strat since I was 10-11 years old. I attended the 50th anniversary event as a customer. I love this game. To have a part in producing this is very gratifying. Strat has been my passion since even before becoming an employee.
Hal, what has been the most gratifying part of your work at Strat-O-Matic? Putting the Negro League set together. We worked with about 10,000 boxscores and formulated ratings from them to bring those players to life. The top level Negro League players were an amazing group, just as good as Major League players. Putting together the cards was really something. It was really important for the baseball public as well to see how good these players really were.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this time. Hal (he insisted I call him Hal) was friendly and spoke with great passion and enthusiasm about his years with the game. What a thrill to speak with the gentleman responsible many hours of my enjoyment through the years.
John was so generous with his time not only during the interview but with follow up questions afterwards during this busy time of the year. I found his insight on creating the cards to be really interesting.
It’s great when you find a product you really like, and really like the folks behind it. Thanks to both for taking the time to sharing with myself and our readers.
Check it out! http://www.strat-o-matic.com/