Video games were basically available only at arcades, at a quarter a pop. But that didn’t mean we weren’t gamers.
Especially for those of us who enjoyed sports, we wanted competition when we played a game. If we had to play solo, we wanted to have the high score. But head-to-head, we wanted to win.
One quarter-a-play game that stands out in my memory was located at a small arcade near Rose’s Department Store on Eastman Road in Kingsport.
It was so basic and simple, it’s hard to imagine how it captured our attention. But it did.
There was a joystick. There was a train on the screen. There was an oval track. The train would travel around the oval track rather slowly. After one lap, the train would pick up a second car — and get faster. The object was to collect as many cars onto the train before it was going so fast it was impossible to negotiate the turns with the joystick. I don’t remember what the record was — maybe 14? — but for at least one summer it was worth every quarter we spent.
There were plenty of different games in the arcade at the mall. But for a bunch of middle and high school boys, pinball was the bomb.
First, we needed quarters — which were a little scarce in those days. One way to alleviate the problem was to check the coin-return slots in various games at the arcade. It seemed there was always a quarter or two hiding there. Years later it dawned on me the arcade attendant probably put those quarters in the return slots, knowing we would check them and it would keep us coming back. Nice business decision!
The object of playing pinball was to go as long as you could on just one quarter. I don’t know if pushing buttons to cause plastic paddles to whack silver balls into bumpers qualifies as a skill, but we got pretty good at making those quarters go a long way.
Before fantasy baseball
Most of the board games were boring in those days, but there were some exceptions. Included in that mix was Superstar Baseball — and it was the game of choice at 1929 E. Sevier Ave.
It was a fairly simple concept: Take the greatest players of all time and put them in a game where strategy — and a fair amount of luck — ruled.
When we first got Superstar Baseball, we held a draft. Somehow I wound up with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax and Lefty Grove. That was pretty much all I needed, and I never agreed to throwing the cards back in and drafting from scratch. I’m pretty sure I won the league every year we had it (or at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
The original members of the league — if memory serves me, and it probably doesn’t — were my brother Donnie, and my buddies, David Combs and the late Bill Robinson. Somewhere along the way, Doug Lawson replaced Bill as the fourth team “owner.”
To play the game, lineups were submitted and written down on a scoresheet (which we sometimes made by hand with pencil and paper when the originals ran out! Imagine that). We had a season-long schedule, home and away. Pitchers cards were placed in the pitching slot while the current hitter went in the right- or left-handed batter’s box on the board that resembled a playing field.
The owner of the pitcher rolled first with special dice that produced a result between 10 and 39. If the pitcher’s roll produced a blank space, the hitter would roll. The most common number was 34. Sandy Koufax had a strikeout on 34. Babe Ruth had a home run on that number. Ty Cobb had a hit, and the odds favored him stealing bases so a single was a like a triple.
We would play nine-inning games, keeping score of each game, standings, and individual stat leaders. Sometimes we would stay up all night playing an entire four-game series. We even had a cork board to keep the standings available for 24-7 viewing (take that, mlb.com!).
Tempers flared from time to time. It usually occurred when a weak hitter — perhaps a shortstop with no power — would roll a 19, the least-common result, and get an unexpected home run.
It was competitive, and sometimes the best strategy didn’t produce wins. Many times it was weighted on the roll of the dice.
One evening, one of the owners turned the table holding the board upside down after an unfavorable roll for his team. Cards, dice and game pieces went flying. The writer of this column will not publicly admit who did this, choosing instead to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Learning the game
One of the most positive results from playing Superstar Baseball was learning the old-school players.
Sure, we already knew Cobb, Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and other superstars. But the game helped us appreciate guys like Honus Wagner. His defensive rating helped pitchers immensely, and he was a great base stealer.
Other players we came to know and respect included hitters Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Al Simmons, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, and Charlie Gehringer. Pitchers who became famous to us were Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and, of course, Cy Young (not for the award, but for his 511 wins).
We couldn’t know what the gaming world would become, and that’s probably a good thing. We were so amazed by “Pong,” we probably would never have left the house if we had a PlayStation with Madden back in those days.
We were much better off spending a few summer nights playing a board game than a year-round obsession that would have kept us from actually playing sports, riding bikes, or just hanging out with friends.