interview with the statis pro baseball creator

it’s with great thanks to the awesome guys at BaseballGames that i’m able to give you the following interview with Jim Barnes (creator of Statis Pro Baseball).  without Jim, none of this would even be here.  we’d probably be touting the ‘greatness’ of strat-o-matic or APBA.  but Jim put together a baseball game forty years ago that has turned into a lifelong passion for many of us.  the great folks at BaseballGames had the chance to interview Jim a few years ago and, with their permission, the interview is replayed below in its entirety.

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[from the archives of BaseballGames]

Over the years, only a handful of tabletop baseball games have demonstrated a combination of sufficient realism and “playability” to have won long-term mass-market success, widespread respect from gamers, and the devotion of fans who continue to play and update the game even after it’s ceased publication. One of those few, inarguably, is Statis Pro Baseball (and its several variant editions), the flagship of the wide-ranging series of Statis Pro tabletop sports games.

Their creator is James Barnes.

A mercurial career as game designer, sportsbook oddsmaker, sports columnist and pundit, not to mention his frequent seeming disappearance from the sports radar screen, have made Jim Barnes a near-mythological figure in gaming.  But the long-inaccessible Mr Barnes recently popped up with his own webpage, and we wasted no time in contacting him.  A few weeks back, he was gracious enough to promptly answer, via e-mail, the usual set of inane questions assembled by the knuckleheads here in the Baseball Games front office.

Without further delay, here is that interview:

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Baseball Games: Let’s start with a little of the history of Statis Pro Baseball. Even some avid fans are unaware the game existed in any form before the Avalon Hill / Sports Illustrated editions that first appeared in the late 1970s.

As far as we’ve been able to tell, the earliest version was actually All-Time Greats Baseball Game, which debuted around 1971, followed a couple of years later by the Major League Baseball Game version, which was produced from 1973 or ’74 through 1976.

The Avalon Hill / Sports Illustrated versions of Statis Pro Baseball and Statis Pro Major League seem to have first been published in 1979, featuring 1978 player stats, but we’ve seen hints of a 1978 AH debut for both editions featuring 1977 player cards.

It looks like Statis Pro Major League ended production in the mid-1980s, but AH and SI continued together with Statis Pro Baseball into 1988, and also published Statis Pro Classic in 1987.  Then it seems SI pulled out, and AH published Statis Pro Baseball from 1988 through 1993 as well as producing the Statis Pro Great Teams edition in 1989.

Please correct us if we’re off on anything there and fill us in on any details we should know.  We’re focussing mainly on the baseball games here, but if there’s something relevant from the Statis Pro football, hockey, or basketball games, jump right in.

Jim Barnes: Your profile on the history of Statis-Pro is fairly accurate.  The change is that the baseball game came out before All-Time Greats but was produced in a green box and called, Midwest Research Baseball Game.  At the time I was an employee of the W. H. Hartman Co., newspaper publisher, and as Marketing Director I worked with malls and did a Highway Economic Corridor study to present to the Iowa Highway Commission.  Very boring and time consuming.  Then came the board games but the first one was actually the USAC Racing Game which was authorized by USAC and the late Henry Banks.  He was a very close friend and took me on a complete national tour in 1970 and I went to the 500 seven straight years and was given a “99” pass for all events, which meant you could go anywhere at anytime.  For more than two years, Henry loaned me the Sprite Special that Wally Dallenbach pushed to the front in 1968 or ’69 for a number of laps. It was built Bobby Unser and I took it around to fairs to promote both USAC, Indy and the Racing Game.

The rest of your background appears to be correct as best I can recall.  SI did not pull out early as the baseball game was discontinued by mutual agreement on my part, SI, and AH.  My refusal to continue updating player cards was based on the overly greedy demands of the MLBPA.  I rebelled and both SI and AH accepted and agreed with the decision.  Hockey went first, then football, then baseball and basketball continued for about five years but I had nothing to do with it.  My gaming interests ceased in 1990.

During the 1985-1990 period I was too busy.  Not only did Statis Pro take a lot of time but I was writing sports annuals for a New York publisher, doing graphics for “ESPN SportsCenter Plus,” and editing a weekly Las Vegas sports betting newsletter.  It reached the point where my day off was Tuesday night from 7 to 10.  Something had to go and MLB was easily the choice when the baseball demand increased from $2,500. in 1970 to more than $50,000. in 1990.

BG: We’ve seen the Midwest Research “green box” editions of Major League Baseball Game several times, the All-Time Greats “yellow box” edition only once (haven’t had our hands on either of them to actually play them or even examine them, unfortunately). Obviously, we trust your own first-hand involvement and recollection more than we do any information we’ve found in any second-hand source, so could you tell us exactly when Major League was in production and when All-Time Greats appeared?  We’d inferred from other sources that All-Time Greats was a 1971 product, and that Major League was produced from 1973 or 1974 through 1976, but clearly now something there was in error.

JB: If I can recall correctly, and it has been so long now that I might not, but the first season baseball was 1970 and the Indy 500 game came out in 1969.  If someone else has a better set of facts go with them.

BG: This is as personal as we’ll get, but what’s your background in *actual* baseball — as a player and/or as a fan?  And which “real-life” team can count you as a fan?

JB: I played baseball in the military and there was no future.  Fielding was terrible, arm was extremely weak and I could not beat a turtle in a 100 yard dash.  All I could do was hit, both left and right handed.  I turned to fast-pitch softball in my late 20s and played until age 38.  I was better fit for this sport and had a number of memorable highlights.

I was brought up on the Cubs by my late mother and was a staunch fan from 1945 until 1990 when I discarded the sport almost entirely.

BG: What was your experience with tabletop baseball before you designed Statis Pro Baseball — which games did you play, what was your impression of how they performed, what did you like or dislike about them?

JB: My favorite all-time game was BLM [ Big League Manager ].  While it was very slow to play I felt it was the most accurate, and relaxing.  Aboard an aircraft carrier (Korean War era) I purchased APBA (one of its first editions) and my division adopted the game and we played a full season;  trades, statistics, etc.  The game was good but could become very boring as pitching was never much of a factor.  I have played about every board game from Longball (an APBA replica) to Strat-O-Matic but never Statis-Pro. After figuring all the cards, setting the type and getting them camera ready for so many years the last thing I wanted to see was a Statis-Pro card.  The only game that I would occasionally play was basketball.  In my opinion it was the best product I ever created and the invention of Fast Action Cards was the key.  To this date, I feel the Statis Pro NBA game was among the best ever in tabletop gaming.  It actually was fun and moved right along.

BG: What other baseball games, if any — past or current — do you rate highly? or poorly?

JB: Every competing baseball game had something to offer and I could get into any of them when I was much younger.  APBA was definitely the leader although R. Seitz was not the inventor, his product was based on the game National Pastime (out in the 1930’s).  Avalon Hill had a copy of the original game and I was stunned at how much it resembled the first version I had in 1954.  I purchased APBA cards from 1976 to 1996 just as collector items – never played a single game.  When my wife and I moved into a condo I sold all the gaming materials that I had, except for one copy of Statis-Pro Baseball and [ Statis-Pro ] Football which I still have; somewhere.

BG: What inspired or motivated you to design and market a tabletop baseball game — especially given that APBA, Strat-O-Matic, All-Star Baseball and others were already pretty popular and successful?

JB: I created SP baseball (even though outselling APBA, SOM, and Cadaco was impossible) because I wanted to do it.  In fact I had been inventing games for a very long time.  When I was 12, I had my own three-dice baseball game (no players but I made up ones) and then devised a racing game using clay cars on a big cardboard track with two dice.  I had several two-dice games for every sport by age 15. Midwest Research Baseball became Statis-Pro baseball and was on a downhill production course until Tom Shaw (Avalon Hill) talked to me about them taking over the product and paying me a royalty.  It was the only way to go.  Few know that AH actually wanted APBA but Seitz would not sell, so I was second fiddle. Lucky for me as the SI connection really made things happen.

BG: What was your background in game design at the time you devised All-Time Greats / Major League Baseball Game?

JB: During my lifetime I have invented more games that I can remember, always in sports.  Most were for my own entertainment because I was a single child living in neighborhoods where I was always the oldest.

BG: Why a spinner (at the start) and (later) the Fast-Action Cards, and a “split-card” system, instead of dice, or a grid, or any of the other formats and combinations of game mechanics seen in other baseball games? What sparked the transition from the spinner to the FACs, and how involved an undertaking was that revision of the game mechanic?  Walk us through some of the early “conceptual stages” if you can.

JB: I have no idea why I first used a spinner but it simply did not work.  I began to experiment with cards instead of dice as the deck made all chances equal – something that dice really never do.  The cards were first produced for the basketball game as it moved way too slowly.  Naturally, when they worked so well I changed baseball to cards, too.  Having worked with games and numbers for so many years it was not a difficult conversion and everything fell quickly into place.  It changed the nature of Statis-Pro.

BG: What were your priorities in designing the game?  Which elements were most important, and how did you weigh the crucial issue of complexity vs playability (simplicity vs realism)?

JB: My guidelines for any game are simple.  First, it has to be fun, and second, not too complicated. Every other factor is third — including pin point accuracy.  APBA and SOM (basic) certainly fit this description.

BG: What was the most difficult element to get right — that is, what gave you the biggest problem in making the game both realistic and playable?

JB: There were never any headaches or serious problems in either the baseball or basketball game. The football game was simple at the start but complicated by AH designers who wanted more variations. I myself did not understand the final version.  Hockey was a disaster as was Classic Baseball, a very easy to play game that was so-so in accuracy but never caught on.  I created the game from start to finish in less than week.

BG: What was the process of creating the game like — were you close with the first try, or was it a lengthy process that saw it change radically along the way and over a long period of time?  How much “game testing” was involved, and how different were the versions of All-Time Greats and Major League Baseball Game that hit the market in the early ’70s from the earliest (design-stage) versions?

JB: There were changes to all the games over a period of time, more to the baseball Fast Action Deck than the player cards.  Basketball went mostly untouched.  Pre-testing was never much of a requirement as my experience told me if something was right or wrong.

BG: Please tell us a little about the Midwest Research operation — design, production, advertising, distribution, and so on.  We’re assuming Midwest Research was basically yourself.  What was it like producing and marketing the games without having a big game manufacturer behind you?

JB: When Midwest Research began the baseball game, I had the assistance of Larry Orth and Dave Zea, both of whom worked for the W. H. Hartman Co.  They are still living in the Waterloo, Iowa area where the games were born.

BG: There are references to “Statis Pro” in the Midwest Research editions — what was the genesis of the name change for the games?

JB: I did not like Midwest Research Baseball as a title and chose Statis-Pro, the name of a sports column I wrote while attending the University of Northern Iowa and working for a Cedar Falls newspaper.

BG: Did you have complete creative control over “your baby,” or were you asked or obligated to make modifications to it at the request of, say, distributors in the Midwest Research days, or, later, by Avalon Hill or Sports Illustrated?  How much of a role did Don Greenwood (or anyone else at AH or SI) have in the AH / SI versions?  Were you always satisfied with the way the game was packaged and promoted?

JB: While Tom Shaw and I were very good friends there was not a lot of love between other members of the AH staff and myself.  Ever hear about Barbara Walters and Starr Jones?

BG: What kind of feedback have you had from people who’ve played Statis Pro Baseball (and its predecessors) — and what’s your reaction to the game’s enduring popularity, as evidenced by the market for fan-made post-’90s player cards?

JB: Most of the reaction to Statis-Pro games was very positive.  The hockey game drew complaints, and rightfully so.  If I had to do it over I never would have published either football or hockey.

BG: Do you collect vintage board games at all, particularly baseball?  What games, in any genre, do you find yourself playing and enjoying these days?  Do you yourself still play Statis Pro?  Do you play any other tabletop baseball now, and if so, which games?

JB: I play absolutely no games now and haven’t for many years.  I have purchased several computer baseball games but they simply were not very accurate and they have been erased.  I spend my days in a semi-retirement mode and my only interest is in sports betting theories (never made personal bets) and horse racing (my only true sports love).  I spent eleven years as a consultant to the Stardust Race and Sportsbook in Las Vegas and when people want to know about my background it ranks right up there with my magazine publications and seminars.  Statis-Pro is barely mentioned in my resume even though it was a major factor in my life for 20 years I do not feel it was my greatest achievement.  For me, being chosen to assist the Stardust in originating the daily sports betting line was an “accomplishment.”  Only four others could make that same claim at the time, and two of them were sportsbooks employees.

And that career, too, came naturally.

BG: Are you still working on any game projects currently?  We’d expect you’d be in substantial demand as a consultant to the hobby and the industry.

JB: I have no interest in gaming nor being a consultant.  In fact I have let others produce Statis-Pro-like products without any obligations.  As far as it is concerned the product is “public domain.”  However, I still own the Statis-Pro trademark which was given to me by Hasbro when they purchased AH. I requested the trademark be in my hands since I created the name of the product. I wanted to control the name, not the products.

If I had to do it all over again, “Would I still produce Statis-Pro games?”  Probably not.  There are too many other things that interested me and I never had time to pursue them.  I began as an broadcast investigative reporter and there are so many pieces to assorted puzzles that I never had a chance to complete.

BG: Thanks immensely for taking the time to sit down and talk to us about Statis Pro Baseball!

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file 2006 August:  Butch & Co.

Posted 08/13/2010 by rick

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