In my parents’ home in West Pittston, Pa., a small town about 10 miles from Scranton, the dining room is in the middle of the first floor.
This is where my dad, Chet, will post up and occupy half the table for a couple hours at a time — and send the sound of several rapid rattles of a dice shaker bouncing off the walls of the downstairs.
Hundreds of them. Click, click, click, click, click. Then thump, out the dice fall onto his APBA baseball board for him to translate into an out, hit or home run.
Ever since he was a kid, my dad, now 71, has owned the APBA game — which is similar to another popular dice game, Strat-O-Matic. Dad, however, grew up on APBA (pronounced APP-buh). He hasn’t stopped now that he’s still (impressively) fending off gray hair.
As he’s searched for ways to pass the time while under a stay-at-home order, he’s been playing it even more. You might think the sound of the rolls would get annoying, but Dad has played it so much it’s like white noise to anyone else in the house.
The company (short for American Professional Baseball Association) was located near Lancaster, Pa., before moving its headquarters to Alpharetta, Ga., and still sells the game (in other sports, too) and provides an updated set of players cards for every season. Dad still buys them. APBA even has an annual tournament in which diehards can play against each other with their favorite teams, new or old.
APBA is simple, and the rhythms of the game become familiar with repetition. Every player on a team has his own card. On that card is his defensive rating, whether he’s a slow, average or fast runner and numbers that correspond to the 36 different two-dice combinations you can roll when he is up to bat.
Dad has played the game so much he has every possible result memorized. He doesn’t need to look at the result boards. Neither did I back when he and I spent countless hours playing together, hours I’ll always treasure, before I went away to college.
About 12 years ago, Dad set out to do something he never had done before — play an entire season while keeping statistics. As a high school calculus teacher and former high school hoops coach, keeping stats comes naturally to him. All handwritten, of course, since he and computers never got along too well.
The year he chose was 1961, a season that has always had special significance to him. He grew up a Yankees fan, and he was 12 years old that year when Roger Maris chased down Babe Ruth’s home run record. His favorite player growing up, Mickey Mantle, wasn’t too far behind. The Yankees capped it off with a World Series title.
His APBA season was also a success (to him at least) — the Yankees won that World Series, too. My brother Matt and I squared off in the World Series, with me handling the Yankees and Matt the Dodgers. The Yankees won in six.
Maris ended up hitting 65 home runs in Dad’s season — four more than his real-life total. Since then, Dad reports that he has played 11 full seasons. And, will you look at that, the Yankees have won the World Series every time.
When he said that recently, I told him I was suspicious of some shady activity. I’ve played APBA enough that I know how you can cook the books. Maybe he wasn’t outright cheating, but maybe he wasn’t going to another team’s Grade A reliever and sticking with a Grade D starter in the seventh inning of a close game, so as to give the Yankees a chance to come back or extend a lead. When asked for an official statement as to how this could happen, Dad said: “Accidents happen.”
Things have come full circle for him during the coronavirus pandemic. He has started replaying the 1961 season. I understand why. Dad loves baseball, as much as he complains how it has changed for the worst.
His fondest memories involve playing pickup whiffle ball with kids on his block. Playing the 1961 season takes him back to that time. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to be 12 years old that summer. One of the channels that came in to his childhood home in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was WPIX-TV in New York, which used to broadcast Yankees games with Mel Allen on play-by-play.
He got to witness that magical home run duel firsthand and would go out to the park and try to imitate Maris and Mantle — then come home and play as them in APBA. It was a magical summer that you can’t recreate in your best dreams.
But APBA helps him come as close as he possibly can.
I wish I was able to play with him now, but I settle for updates over the phone, like how Maris is hitting bombs and how Norm Cash is hitting. (The former Tiger led the AL in real life 1961 with a .361 average. When Dad first played the ’61 season, Cash hit an ungodly .418).
It’s hard being so far away from Mom and Dad right now. I worry about them constantly given their ages and medical histories, but I’m hopeful we’ll all get through to the other side of this. Real baseball may not come back this summer, but I have some dice baseball to play with Dad.
Chris Hine covers the Timberwolves for the Star Tribune.