The other day a man named Bill Lehren came to my office in Manhattan, carrying a large package carefully tied with string. He had called to tell me what he wanted to show me, and I could hardly wait for him to get it unwrapped. He put the package on my desk and went to work, tugging at the knots and removing the paper with slow and almost liturgical motions. Finally the object was revealed: the mechanical baseball game that consumed thousands of hours of my boyhood. I hadn't seen one in more than sixty years.
Bill Lehren's visit closed a circle that had opened on April 6, 1983, when an article I wrote about that game ran in The New York Times. Video games were then a new craze, and there was much ululation in the land about how America's young people were squandering their youth in video arcades. I wanted to point out that my own boyhood addiction to this mechanical baseball game had been no less obsessive and that it didn't seem to have ruined me.
For a boy growing up in the 1930s, I explained, it wasn't easy to gratify a craving for baseball. Television didn't exist, and games on the radio were scarce. Board games tried to cater to the need, but they were dismal products, dependent on some numerical indicator—dice or cards or the spin of a wheel—to determine what was happening on the "field." They didn't convey any sense of the real game, and they didn't even require skill.
Then, one year, I found under the Christmas tree a baseball game that looked and acted like a baseball game. The field was a sheet of green-painted tin, roughly two feet square, enclosed by a low wooden fence. The nine defensive players—little cast-iron men—stood at their positions around the diamond. In front of every player was an indented round pocket. If a ball was hit to a player, it would bounce off him into the pocket for an out. Otherwise it would roll to a part of the field designated "foul," "single," "double," "triple," or "home run."
The bat was powered by a tightly coiled spring. When it was released, it swung fiercely across the plate. The boy who was the batter, kneeling behind home plate, held the bat back, waiting for the pitch. The boy who was the pitcher, kneeling at the opposite end, kept his fingers on two buttons, one on each side, which controlled the pitches. By pressing them in various ways he could pitch a fast ball, a slow ball, or one of several intermediate speeds.
Thus the classic duel between batter and pitcher was preserved with all its rewards and indignities. The batter, anticipating a fast ball, would release the bat before a slow ball arrived. Or, expecting a slow ball, he would hold the bat back and watch the ball shoot past him into the catcher's pocket. But the batter might also guess correctly. That this battle of wits could be replicated in a child's toy struck me as a marvel of invention.
The game gave itself to those who took time to get in tune with its soul. There was no question of my not taking enough time—the game altered the whole concept of leisure for me and my friend Charlie Willis. Nor did it occur to us to play as individuals; Charlie was the New York Yankees, and I was the Detroit Tigers. Thus was born one of the longest rivalries in mechanical sport. Summers turned to winters and then to other summers, and still the series went on. Mountains of paper—box scores, batting averages, team statistics—joined the big-league gum cards and old issues of Baseball Magazine in the rising litter of my room. I still remember one day when Charlie and I played twenty-two consecutive games.
"I sometimes wonder what became of my game," I wrote at the end of my article.
My mother must have thrown it away when I went into the army, assuming I would never want to play it again. I never saw the game in any other boy's home, and I've never seen it at any of those antique shows that sell old mechanical banks and toys. I can't recall who made the game or what it was called. But in the mists of memory I see the word WOLVERINE. What "Rosebud" was to Citizen Kane, "Wolverine" is to me—a clue almost irrecoverably faint. I mention it in case anyone finds the game in an attic or a basement or a garage. I can be there on the next plane—and so can Charlie Willis.
It took only a few days for the letters to start trickling in. "Destiny must have been guiding my actions yesterday as I went to pick up my Philadelphia Inquirer," wrote L. Robert Feitig, of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
I've always been a staunch baseball fan, and each day I must read the Inquirer to see how my beloved Phillies made out. As fate would dictate, the newsstand was out of the Inquirer, so I purchased a New York Times, something I rarely do. Whatever dictated that I should peruse the Living section, and especially page 8, I will never know, but there before my eyes was your article.
I was astounded. I, too, spent many hours on the floor, playing that game with my boyhood chum, Jim Sutch. I still have the game, and have played it with two more generations, my son, John, and now my three grandsons. They are still rather young, and as a result they have trouble hitting the fast ball and complain when I shoot it past them, but they will soon learn how to hit it.
The name and maker of the game were provided by J. M. Pittman, of North Bellmore, New York. He wrote,
You will be pleased to know that at least one of Wolverine Supply & Manufacturing Company's "Pennant Winner" baseball games still exists. My brother and I received our game at Christmas, 1932. It was purchased from the old Frederick Loeser store in Brooklyn. We organized leagues and had pennant winners, an All-Star game each season, and of course a World Series. My notebooks contain line scores and averages and statistics of more than 1,000 games. There are records of pitching duels between Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell, Dizzy Dean and Lon Warneke, as well as games broken up by the bats of Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
Fredric Kolb, of Bernardsville, New Jersey, wrote,
I also went through the experiences you describe, especially all those board games with spinner and dice. Then, in 1929, my dad purchased the Wolverine baseball game at A. G. Spalding in New York. It cost $15, which was a vast sum in those days. I started a league with three other boys, and one of them produced a newspaper each Saturday with reports and averages of all our games. That first year I won the league championship on the final day of the season. The other boys soon realized my "home field" advantage, and two of them received games of their own the next Christmas. As time went on, each of them began to "doctor" his game by adjusting the pitching springs, bat tension, etc., to his own advantage. How much like the real game!
That verisimilitude was also recalled by George Culver, of Massapequa, New York, who wrote,
Just as for you, that game completely captivated me back in 1936 or thereabouts. The amazing thing was that the inventor was able to keep the hits (extra-base hits as well as singles) and the scores to just about what you'd expect in a real, professionally played game.
The largest league was reported by Lou Sanders, of Mineola, New York. He wrote,
In my neighborhood there were twelve fellows, each one representing a major league team and each player keeping his own lineup and batting statistics and win/loss records. I was the 1937 Giants.
Two mothers, like mine, figured in speculation about the disposal of the game. "I, too, had the game you describe," wrote Ian G. MacDonald, of Beacon, New York. "It may be hidden somewhere in my mother's attic." After sealing his letter, MacDonald added a postscript on the envelope: "I just found the game in my mother's house. It was missing the men, but I think they're probably hidden in a 'safe place.' A 'safe place' in my mother's house is equivalent to a black hole."