SPORT July 2001

Field of Tin

A rediscovered baseball toy gets a retired player back in the game
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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."

Frank E. Darnulc, of Suffern, New York, wrote,

I also was the happy owner of that game, and I regret that I didn't keep it. My mother was great on getting rid of things not used every day, and I suppose the game went down the dumbwaiter.

The last letter was postmarked Booneville, Arkansas, and I could hardly believe the name on the envelope: Wolverine Toy Company. It was from William W. Lehren, the vice-president of sales. He wrote,

By the time I reached the third paragraph of your article, I couldn't help thinking, "If only he had seen our Pennant Winner baseball game." I was covered with gooseflesh as I read the remainder of the piece.
Wolverine is a medium-sized toy manufacturer with a low profile. We made the Pennant Winner from 1929 to 1950. When I joined the company in 1948 it was considered a rather high-priced carriage-trade item. Anyone who liked baseball loved this game, but unfortunately it required demonstration, and the product was dropped. After reading your article we dug around in our museum and found that we had one game in our inventory. Needless to say, it will not be allowed off the premises. However, if you or Charlie Willis ever happen to be wandering around the South, I'd love to take you on for a few games.

That was the same game that the same Bill Lehren had just unwrapped in my office; he had bought it from the company when he retired and moved back home to Connecticut. He told me that Wolverine was founded in 1903, in Pittsburgh, by Benjamin Franklin Bain, a die maker and metal fabricator from Michigan, who named his company for the University of Michigan football team. The business thrived by making products such as pie tins and stovetop toasters for America's kitchens.

Around 1910 Bain was asked to make dies for a gravity-action toy to be called Sandy Andy. It consisted of a cart that was pulled by a counterweight to the top of an incline, where it received a load of sand from a hopper. Its weight then took it back down, and it dumped its load. After Bain's dies were made, the inventor went broke. Bain decided he might as well go ahead and manufacture Sandy Andy in his own factory—a decision that would result in one of the most enduring American toys. Wolverine made Sandy Andy well into the 1950s and even sold a box of sand to go with it—an accessory that parents may not have appreciated having around the house.

In 1914 Bill Lehren's father, James Lehren, a young immigrant from Holland, got part-time work as a demonstrator of Sandy Andy at Gimbel's department store, in New York. He did so well that he was hired by the company to come to Pittsburgh as its only salesman. After Bain died, the company faltered and was near collapse in 1928, when James Lehren took over as president. He steered Wolverine through the Depression and World War II, when the factory was converted to making military equipment.

"I joined Wolverine as a salesman— and became vice-president in the mid-1960s," Bill Lehren told me. "At that time it was called the Wolverine Toy Company. In 1968 it was sold to a private conglomerate and moved to Booneville, Arkansas. I remember that we shipped a whole bargeload of punch presses and other metalworking machinery there from Pittsburgh—down the Ohio and the Mississippi and up the Arkansas River. Later the woman who was president of Wolverine decided it was improper for a toy company to be named for such a vicious animal and changed it to Today's Kids. Of course, they're completely out of metal now. Today everything is plastic."

As for who invented the Pennant Winner, nobody seems to know. Obviously the inventor was both a baseball nut and a mechanical genius. Possibly he worked for Wolverine. More probably—in the grand tradition of industrial America—he was a lone tinkerer who took his patent to Wolverine around 1928. Just how skillfully the company realized that inventor's dream I was now reminded as Bill Lehren placed the game on my desk. It was a thing of beauty, its shiny metal field in perfect condition, without a dent or a scratch.

Lehren unwrapped the nine blue defensive players and put them in their slots. (The three base runners were red.) Then he unwrapped the ball and placed it against the pitching prong. I could still feel in my fingertips the fast and slow buttons that controlled that ball. I could also still feel the bat as I used to hold it back, waiting for the pitch, trying not to release it too soon or too late. Two fingers were best—one was too weak, three lacked finesse.

"Do you want to play a game?" Lehren asked me. Of course I did. We took our positions on opposite sides of my desk and tried a few practice pitches and swings. But something was wrong—the ball rolled just a little unevenly. There was only one thing to do, and we both knew it. Lehren lifted the game down onto the rug.

The office where I write is in a commercial building on Lexington Avenue. I rent space along with other freelancers, in fields such as advertising and fashion and graphic design. I've never closed my door, and I wasn't going to start now. Anyone who happened to pass my office that afternoon would have seen two men in their seventies down on all fours—not an everyday spectacle in the American workplace.

Lehren batted first, and I positioned my fingers against the two control buttons. He said he was ready, and I fired a fast ball. The bat swung and the ball shot into the outfield, beyond the center fielder and into the slot marked "home run." I tried a slow ball. Boom! Another home run. I tried to mix my pitches. They all came rocketing back: double, triple, home run. Finally a ball landed in the pocket in front of the left fielder with a satisfying plonk. One out. But it was a disastrous start. The decades had left their residue of rust.

After two more outs we switched sides. As I held the bat back, I felt as if my brain and my two fingertips were in perfect neurological rapport. Suddenly I heard the familiar click of the pitching prong being released and the equally familiar thomp of the ball in the catcher's metal pocket. I hardly saw it go by. Priming myself for another fast pitch, I released the bat quickly and saw the ball dawdle toward the plate. The moment had lost none of its ignominy.

That was a bad inning. But then the old reflexes began to return, and we settled into a game that stayed close, obedient to the odds and probabilities of real baseball. Outside, the sun went down and the sky over Manhattan turned dark. We didn't notice; we were twelve-year-old boys again, getting up and down from the rug every few minutes to change sides. Finally Lehren said he had to catch his train back to the suburbs, and he packed up the game.

When we said good-bye at the elevator, I had one last question for him: "Can you come back tomorrow?"

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