Strat-O-Matic baseball puts spotlight on Negro Leagues
Art Pennington hasn’t faced Satchel Paige in nearly 60 years, but he’s at the plate now, batting from the left side here in the water-damaged basement of a 50-year-old clapboard house.
“Oh boy,” Pennington says, shaking his head. “I didn’t hit him then. I won’t hit him now.”
With that, the former Negro League All-Star rolls red dice across a rickety card table. When they come to a stop, the man sitting next to him consults a color-coded rectangular card: Pennington has hit a soft grounder back to the mound. He’s an easy out at first.
“Sounds about right,” Pennington, 86, says with a chuckle. After all, the player they called “Superman” had more wives -- five -- than hits against Paige in a 22-year baseball career in which he batted well over .300.
That’s the main attraction of Strat-O-Matic, the card-and-dice tabletop baseball simulation game. Authenticity.
Nearly 50 years after it was devised by a college math student, Strat-O-Matic has been far overtaken by computer video games in style, but not in substance. Thanks to a complex and painstaking mathematical formula, the game is nothing if not accurate.
Now, thanks to a former limousine driver and accidental baseball historian, there’s a new version that provides a glimpse into an era of baseball unknown by some and largely romanticized by others.
His name is Scott Simkus, and about a dozen years ago he commandeered a microfilm reader at the offices of a suburban Chicago newspaper searching for the results of a long-ago game his late grandfather, a semipro outfielder, played against the Negro Leagues’ Cuban Stars.
Simkus, 39, never found exactly what he was looking for, but in the archives of the Chicago Tribune and newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier, he found more than 3,000 other box scores, which he parsed and cataloged into what may be the most detailed collection of Negro League statistics ever compiled.
Those numbers allowed Simkus and Hal Richman, founder of Strat-O-Matic, to put together a Negro League version of the game -- no small, or unimportant, feat.
For decades, baseball’s color line kept the game segregated, with African American stars playing in the Negro Leagues and winter circuits in Latin America while their white counterparts played in the major leagues. Statistics in the black leagues were kept so haphazardly -- if at all -- that it was hard to tell exactly how many games the likes of Paige and Pennington played each year, much less how they did or how they would have fared against white big leaguers.
Simkus’ research goes a long way toward answering those questions. His collection contains enough box scores from 1909 through the late 1940s that Richman and Simkus were able to calculate how 103 Negro Leaguers might have fared in a variety of circumstances.
“This is a missing piece of baseball history,” Richman says. “There have been a lot of books written about the Negro Leagues. But it’s not the same as playing a game.
“You can’t put Satchel Paige up against Babe Ruth in a book. You can in Strat-O-Matic.”
Or, as on this particular day, you test the new version by putting the only living player in the set up against Paige to see if he could change history.
Even for Superman, no such luck.
Pennington looks a good bit younger than his birth certificate indicates, his close-cropped hair and thick beard and mustache still more black than gray. And as he flips through the player cards that make up Simkus’ game, the old days come racing back.
Everyone knew Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe could throw hard, Pennington says. What they didn’t know was that he was cutting the ball.
“He’d strike ‘em out like nothing,” Pennington says. “See, we didn’t have balls that they changed, like the majors now. He would put a scratch or something on it and, man, that ball would do the dipsy doodle.”
And although Pennington was fast -- Olympic champion Jesse Owens once challenged him to a match race -- he was no match for teammate Cool Papa Bell. “That sucker could fly,” Superman says. “Cool Papa did practically everything. He would always be talking about how his legs were hurting. But he ran well when he got on base.”
Then there was catcher Josh Gibson, who Pennington says once hit a ball so hard that it went right through the third baseman’s glove, taking the webbing with it into the left-field corner.
“The best I’ve ever seen,” he says of Gibson.
The best pitcher? No contest there, either. It was Paige.
“I think I got three hits off him,” Pennington says. “He would put that big [size] 15 shoe in front of you, you’d be looking at that foot, and he got it by you. He comes from the side and it was like a .45.”
One of the first times the baby-faced Pennington batted against Paige was in Detroit, in front of his family and about 40,000 other people.
“I was wearing these baggy pants and he said, ‘Come on up, little boy. Don’t be afraid,’ ” Pennington recalls. “That made me mad and I said, ‘Throw it and duck.’ ”
Pennington chuckles. “He struck me out three times.”
While Pennington got to know and appreciate the talents of Gibson, Paige, Bell and others as they spent summers barnstorming across the U.S. and winters playing in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, much of America was kept unaware by a “gentleman’s agreement” that banned African Americans from playing in the major leagues until 1947.
“I say y’all missed a hell of a lot of good baseball,” Pennington says. “The ballplayers nowadays, they’re talking about [Alex] Rodriguez and [Ryan] Howard and them hitting the ball. They should have seen these guys I played with hit the ball.”
Over decades of storytelling, some of the Negro League legends have become larger than life. For example, it’s been said that the hard-living Gibson, who died tragically at 35, would have hit 800 home runs in the major leagues.
Simkus’ research has helped separate folklore from fact, though a wild legend or two has proved true. In 1943, for instance, Simkus found that Gibson hit 10 home runs in fewer than 40 games at Washington’s spacious Griffith Stadium. The entire American League didn’t hit that many there in 76 games against the Senators that season.
As for 800 home runs. . . . “No,” Simkus says. “Not as a catcher.”
However, based on research, Simkus has no doubt Gibson would have been a star in the major leagues -- or that Paige would have won more than 300 games, or that Bell would have stolen hundreds of bases. Pennington, he says, may have been an All-Star.
“No one’s identified how good the black teams were,” says Simkus, who is planning a book based on his research. “And I think the best way to do it is to look at them against common opponents. We’ve got [records of] major leaguers versus triple-A teams, double A, single A, semipro. Then look at Negro Leagues versus triple A, double A, single A, semipro.
“I’ve done it. It’s almost an exact match.”
Simkus compares the competition in the Negro Leagues to “a real strong triple-A league,” but says the best players “would have been stars in the major leagues.”
That’s a theory that can be tested now, since Simkus’ Negro League cards were based on the same statistical and probability formulas as Strat-O-Matic’s regular-season and Hall of Fame editions. Therefore, Strat-O-Matic founder Richman says, Gibson’s card will perform against Tim Lincecum just as the player would have in his prime. And Paige will have the same success against Ty Cobb on the top of a card table that he would have had facing him on a ball field.
As for Pennington, he doesn’t need mathematical formulas to tell him how he would have fared against major leaguers. In an exhibition game, he homered against Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean; and in the Mexican League, he homered against Whitey Ford, another Hall of Famer.
After the color line fell, Pennington led the minor league Illinois-Indiana-Iowa circuit in hitting at .349 -- a season remembered on his Iowa license plates, ART 349. Six years later, as a 35-year-old minor leaguer with the Yankees, he hit .339, missing out on the Florida State League batting title by a point.
But each time the big league club called, it wanted another player, not Pennington, who had married a light-complexioned Spanish woman a decade earlier while playing in Mexico.
“The wife. That was the whole thing,” Pennington says. “They actually said, ‘Would you leave your wife?’ I said, ‘Man, I wouldn’t leave my wife for all of baseball.’ ”
Having outlived all of his wives, and with Negro League history enjoying a renaissance, Pennington has become something of a celebrity. He says he gets mail from as far away as Iraq, and three or four times a year fans pull off Interstate 380 in search of his aging frame house, looking for an autograph, a handshake, maybe even a story or two.
“He’s one of three or four guys on the planet with his credentials,” says one of those fans, Billy Valencia, who knocked on Pennington’s door five years ago and now runs his affairs.
“This is part of American history. A lot of people consider baseball to be the catalyst that moved civil rights. And he’s seen the whole thing, from lynching to Barack being the president.”
Says Simkus: “This is archaeology. I’m digging up stuff people haven’t seen. I have to try to piece it together and show them a world they didn’t know.”