Thanks to a pair of dice (one red, one white), four two-sided master charts made of cardboard and a packet of cards with symbols for 36 different dice rolls, I could be Earl Weaver. Or Casey Stengel. Or even Connie Mack.
APBA Baseball was a great tabletop game when I was growing up, and even 65 years after company founder J. Richard “Dick” Seitz produced the first game set, it still resonates. A fan can play the board game or play it on a computer. I always preferred the board game; it took 15 minutes to a play a game, and it gave me a better insight into every major-league player.
“It’s a game no matter how you pronounce it,” Thomas Nelshoppen says. “Roll the dice and play the game.”
Nelshoppen, 53, runs the APBA Blog, an online site that features stories, chatter, opinions and helpful hints. Since 1975, he has belonged to the Illowa APBA League, a 10-team setup of players who meet at least twice a year to play the APBA basic board game and swap tales. The league’s spring convention was held this year in Moline, Illinois, and the participants played at least 30 games apiece.
“It’s a really intense weekend,” Nelshoppen said (There's a photo of Thomas playing in a tournament-- scroll up). “Some of these guys I’ve known since I was a sophomore in high school. It’s not just a game, it’s a group of us getting together to have fun.”
He’ll be playing in another tournament later this month in Chicago.
In addition to the game boards, Nelshoppen also plays online against fellow APBA fanatics in The Boys of Summer league.
I owned the 1971 set and was immediately enthralled. I never stopped liking the game; in fact, when the baseball strike hit in the summer of 1981, I replayed the 1961 World Series with my sports editor and published the results in a column. I took the Yankees and he took the Reds, but in an upset, Cincinnati won the Series. To this day, I believe my boss played with loaded dice.
Yeah, I’m still bitter.
Nelshoppen, who grew up on a farm in western Illinois near the Quad Cities area, began playing APBA at a young age.
“My older brother played the game and he included me,” he said. “I was 9-10 when I started playing alone.
“Most kids my age knew who Joe Morgan and Pete Rose were. To learn about past seasons was pretty neat.”
“I do feel with dice and cards I have more control over my destiny,” he said.
He’s right. Start rolling some good numbers and it feels like a big payday in Vegas.
Nelshoppen, who lives in Urbana, Illinois, works in the information technology department at the University of Illinois, his alma mater — class of 1986, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He says that APBA steered him toward his current career. “The reason I bought a computer was to try APBA baseball on it,” he said.
Having a computer also inspired him to create the APBA Blog eight years ago.
“I did it because I wanted to talk about the game,” Nelshoppen said. “It started slowly, and then I made adjustments and it took off.”
The blog even has gotten the attention of APBA’s CEO, John Herson. Nelshoppen writes stories and has a network of writers. Scott Fennessy, for example, recently replayed the 1902 season and reported the results.
“He’s my deadball guy,” Nelshoppen said.
Rod Caborn, meanwhile, is “a consummate replayer” who compares his results to the actual season.
All APBA players have a favorite player card or a season. Nelshoppen’s favorite card is the 1999 Mark McGwire, which draws its information from his record-setting 70-homer season.
“He broke our league home run record,” Nelshoppen said. “He did it in his last at-bat of the season.”
Being a dutiful spouse, Joan even tried out the APBA game — once. “She wanted to see what it was like,” Nelshoppen said. “Once was enough for her.”
His 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter are not interested in sports. “I don’t know what happened,” Nelshoppen laughed.
APBA fans are legion and are very protective of their game. Some do not like the game’s closest competitor, Strat-O-Matic. It’s almost like a Coke-Pepsi rivalry, or Yankees-Red Sox. Nelshoppen won’t be lured into the debate.
“I’ve played Strat-O-Matic and I think it’s a fine game,” he said. “If someone enjoys Strat-O-Matic, I’m fine with that.
“I don’t get into religious wars about it.”
It’s all about the game and the roll of the dice. Because the game can be finished quickly, short attention spans are not affected. It’s fast-paced, adheres closely to the team and player results from the previous season, and brings friends together. Even this ad by The Sporting News in 1951 (right) can't help but get a baseball fan excited.
“APBA has a good flow, a good rhythm to it,” Nelshoppen said. “When I look at an APBA card I can see how well a player will do.”
And a good roll of the dice will confirm that.