A Roll of the Dice

I ran across this article in today’s New York Times about the annual APBA tournament underway in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

I played APBA from about ten years old all the way up into my late 30s, when adulthood left me little free time. Although it evolved into variations including a “master” game and a computer version, I was always fondest of the original board game (now known as the “basic” game).

It’s quaint by today’s standards, but its simplicity and flexibility were what made it fun. Each player had a card with numbers that worked with a roll of two dice and a set of boards for each possible on-base situation to come up with a result. It didn’t precisely reproduce major league results — “APBAball” generally had better offensive numbers than real life — but it was close enough to be realistic. Playing APBA was a lot of fun and you could whip out a game in about a half-hour.

Mention the number 66 around an APBA player and he’ll smile. If you roll the two dice and each die shows a six, that’s “66” in APBA parlance. On a player’s card, a “66” is almost always a home run (unless the player really stinks as a hitter). Every once in a while I’ll see a fan at a game with a “66” T-shirt, which is the APBA fan’s version of a secret club’s handshake. It’s his way of advertising he’s a member of the APBA family.

Unlike a computer program, you could alter APBA to your heart’s content. Once I wondered what it would be like if you changed baseball from nine innings of three outs each to seven innings of four outs each. No problem. The game doesn’t force you into the “reality” format, it’s just individual plays. Want to have a ten-man lineup with two DHs like they do sometimes in minor league exhibition games? Go ahead, there’s nothing to stop you.

You could even make your own cards if you wanted. Eventually APBA sold an add-in for the computer game that translated your statistical input into a card, but if you wanted to see what happened to the game if you created a card where a player never struck out or hit a homer two-thirds of the time, you could do it.

I still remember some of the more memorable games I had, including a 30-inning contest between the 1988 World Series participants, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s. The game had a triple play and I believe it was the Dodgers’ staff that pitched more than nine consecutive innings of no-hit relief in the contest.

You could, of course, make up your own teams and trade players. I would do a “contraction” draft reducing the major leagues down to sixteen teams, using all the leftovers as a minor league for each team with callups and demotions. But many APBA fans were strict purists, doing their best to reproduce actual seasons, even down to the starting pitching assignments, injuries, and rough innings pitched/at-bats to see how close they could come to replicating reality.

When I was teaching adult computer classes in the late 1980s, my employer sent me to the East Coast. I had a week off between D.C. and Philadelphia, so I took the time to drive to Lancaster where APBA is headquartered. They gave me a tour and I got to see where my cards originated. It was still a very manual process, nothing like today’s computer games.

Most of my free time these days is devoted to “reality baseball” with the Angels minor leagues, but in my heart I do miss APBA a lot. Glad to see it’s still around.

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