Pennant Winner (Wolverine) -- review, Zinsser

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THE NEW YORK TIMES
April 6, 1983 Wednesday Late City Final Edition
Section C Page 8 Column 3 Desk: Living Desk Length: 1308 words

9 TIN MEN, 200 INNINGS, 400 TIMES AT BAT
by William Zinsser

I can't bring myself to join the ululation over how many hours America's
young people spend playing video games. I was a protoaddict myself -- long
before the games went electronic.

Baseball was my obsession, and at an early age I ran out of ways to
gratify it. My boyhood room was so full of baseball cards that it smelled
faintly of grape - the flavor of the terrible gum that came with the cards.
By sending 100 gum wrappers to the Goudey Gum Company, in Boston, I could
get a large sepia photograph of one of my favorite ballplayers, and my walls
were covered with these pictures. My shelves were piled high with back issues
of Baseball magazine, to which I subscribed.

But my outlets were limited. There was no television, and games weren't
even broadcast on the radio. Inevitably, the makers of board games tried to
cater to the need, but theirs were dismal products, hardly any nearer than
Parcheesi to what baseball was all about. They depended on some numerical
indicator -- dice, cards, the spin of a wheel -- to determine what was happening
on the "field." They had no sense of the physical game and its rhythms, and
they didn't even require skill. Who wanted to lose a tight game in the ninth
inning to a throw of the dice that represented "home run"?

Then, one year, when I was about 12, a miracle happened. Under the
Christmas tree I found a baseball game that looked and acted like a baseball
game. The field was a sheet of green tin about two feet square. The infield
was painted to look like a diamond, and nine small metal players were stationed
at their nine proper positions. The ball was a white marble. In front of every
player was a pocket indented in the metal. If a ball was hit at a player it
would bounce back off him into the pocket for an out. A ball that wasn't
caught would roll into parts of the field that signified a single, a double,
a triple or a home run.

The bat was made of wood and was powered by a spring. The "batter"
held the bat back, waiting for the pitch; when the bat was released it swung
fiercely across the plate. The ball was fired from a mechanism controlled by
two buttons. One of them threw a fast ball; the two buttons together threw a
slow ball, and with practice the mechanism could be induced to throw at
intermediate speeds.

Thus the classic duel between pitcher and batter was preserved with all
its indignities and pleasures. The batter, anticipating a fast ball, would
release the high-speed bat long before the arrival of the low-speed ball. Or,
anticipating "junk," he would hold the bat back and hear the pitch whopping
into the catcher's glove. But he might also guess right. That this ancient
battle of wits could be replicated in a mechanical game struck me as a triumph
of technology.

None of these nuances was obvious at first. The game, like a good
pinball machine, gave itself to those who took the time to get in tune with
its soul. There was never any question of my not giving the machine enough
time. In fact, it altered the entire concept of leisure for me and my friend
Charlie Willis. It would have been unthinkable, of course, to play the game
on a one-to-one basis. Charlie was the New York Yankees and I was the Detroit
Tigers. So began one of the longest continuous series in the history of
baseball.

Winters turned to summers and back to winters and other summers, and
still the series stretched on. Mountains of paper -- batting averages, pitching
records, team statistics -- joined the gum cards and Baseball magazines in
the rising litter of my room. The sounds of the game were pure music: the
ball rattling across the metallic playing field of Yankee Stadium and Briggs
Stadium, the pitcher firing its "smoke" into the catcher's glove, the bat
meeting the ball with an authentic crack, the bat missing the ball and making
a sharp SPLAT on the little peg that stopped its ferocious swing.

Was ever a spring coiled so tightly? Was ever a bat so laden with power
ready to explode? I still remember the intense concentration that went into
trying not to release the bat too soon. It was best to hold the bat with two
fingers. With one finger there wasn't enough control; with three there was a
subtle loss of delicacy.

One day still lingers in my memory. It's the day when Charlie and I
played 22 consecutive games. Assuming that several games went into extra
innings -- inevitable in such a close rivalry -- those figures add up to more
than 200 innings and 400 times at bat. Presumably we had Cokes and sandwiches
to keep ourselves going, but we didn't even consider calling a halt. One game
just yielded to another with the inevitability of the tides.

Nor do I remember any adult coming to chase us out into "the good fresh
air" or to tell us that we were stunting our intellect. Possibly the weather
was bad. But what the adults in our families probably felt was gratitude that
Charlie and I had each other. Having a "best friend" in childhood is worth
any amount of intellect stunted for adulthood by mindless games.

I'd like to think, in fact, that my addiction didn't do anything more
harmful than load my memory grooves with information that has no use. I'm not
often asked, for instance, to name the Detroit Tiger infield of 1937. But
what would I have put into those grooves instead? Today I wouldn't trade Hank
Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Billy Rogell and Marvin Owen for all the dreary
information that other American males lug through life and foist on social
gatherings. Marvin Owen could hold 11 baseballs in one hand. Who else
remembers important stuff like that?

Nor do I think the video games of today will be the ruination of
American youth. That's the Calvinist notion that play is useless. But most
play is also to some extent work, especially in childhood: something gets
learned. And I don't believe that young people who play video games will
never read. They will read when something comes along that they want to read.
I didn't read with pleasure about anything except baseball almost until I
went to college.

Who was the man who invented the game that consumed so much of my
boyhood? He was a genius ahead of his time, for the video baseball games of
the 1980s are based on the same principles that he caught with mere springs
and wires half a century ago. Today's electronic games are played on a screen,
not on a board, and the players and the ball and the bat are flickers of
light, not little metal men who can be invested with humanity -- who can
even, in feverish moments, be thought to look like Hank Greenberg or Charlie
Gehringer.

But it's still necessary to hold the bat back, to release the
controlling lever at just the right moment, to outthink the wily pitcher.
True, the video games require the player to perform feats of motor
coordination that were beyond our imagining in the precomputer age: to
catch a moving ball and to throw a player out. But these are improvements
only in the state of the art; the inventor of my boyhood game captured the
essential dream.

I sometimes wonder what became of my game. My mother must have thrown
it away when I went into the Army, naively assuming that I wouldn't want to
play it again. As a boy I never saw it in any other home; I never met anyone
else who played it, and I've never come across it at any of those antiques
shows where dealers sell mechanical banks and other ingenious playthings of
what is called yesteryear. I can't remember whether the game had a name --
I like to think it was "Baseball" -- or who its manufacturer was. 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 anybody finds the game stored away in an attic or a basement or a
garage. I can be there on the next plane -- and so can Charlie Willis.
_____________________________________________________________________

William Zinsser is author of "Writing With a Work Processor,"
just published by Harper & Row.

Copyright 1983 The New York Times Company

_____________________________________________________________________
_____________________________________________________________________

THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
July/August 2001

Pursuits & Retreats

FIELD OF TIN
A rediscovered baseball toy gets a retired player back in the game
by William Zinsser

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?"

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001; Field of Tin; Volume 288, No. 1; 140-142.
_____________________________________________________________________

Pennant Winner [Wolverine Supply, 1929] Description: review 83-04-06, 01-07, William Zinsser


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