SherCo Baseball -- interview with Dr Steven LeShay

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5:42 PM - Sep 08, 2015 #1

SherCo Baseball

SherCo Baseball -- in its various incarnations as Baseball Simulation, Sherco II, and Sherco's
Grand Slam Baseball Game
-- has been one of the most highly regarded major league replay simulations
on the market since its introduction in 1968. Although it's never quite attained the household-name
star status of APBA or Strat-O-Matic, it's certainly won its share of devotees over the years and it's
currently looking more popular than ever.

The man behind SherCo Baseball is Steven V. LeShay, Ph.D. Dr. LeShay is currently a professor
at Wilmington College, overseeing that school's programs in marketing and sports management. He was
kind enough to take the time last week to answer, via e-mail, every inane question we had to throw his way.

Baseball Games: SherCo Baseball was first produced in 1968, but its production history over the
past 36 years is a little hard to follow -- has it been continuously in production? And could you give us
a little on the title changes, the variations in content or packaging, and so on for those of us less than expert
on its history?

Steven LeShay: The game was first marketed in 1968, a year after I'd graduated college and was working
as Assistant Director of Alumni Affairs at my alma mater in North Carolina for a whopping $4,500./year.
I didn't have too much money to invest in the game that I had invented many years before. However, I decided
to take a risk and produced a very small quantity of games using a board and charts photocopied on cheap
cardstock paper, dice so small that if you dropped them on the floor you might not find them, and "packaged"
everything in a manila envelope. (Keep in mind quick copy centers, computer graphics programs, etc., really
weren't available to the public in the late '60s. So a lot of the artwork was done using press-type, cut-and-paste
photos, and hand-drawn and clip-art). I spent about $400. for a full-page ad in Baseball Digest, and offered
the game for $4.95. I don't remember if that included shipping. Based on the results of sales, however, I was
encouraged to go with a more professional-looking game and a heftier ad budget the next year. From 1968
to 1994 and on until today, SherCo Baseball underwent a number of title, content, and packaging changes.
At first it was called SherCo's Baseball Simulation. The concept that this was not a game but a "simulation"
tied in well, I think, at the time when computers were just starting to reveal to mainstream America their
"simulation" potential. Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about: the college where I was still working
had a mainframe computer that filled an entire room with vacuum tubes, etc., used key-punch cards, and ran
the entire organization on about 16K memory!

After I moved to New Jersey to continue with graduate studies, I came out with a second version of the game
called SherCo II Baseball Simulation (a green and black oak tag game board that my wife and I taped together
so it would fold into a cardboard mailer with a doctored, purposely unrecognizable photo of Carl Yazstremski
swinging a bat wheat-pasted onto it). At that time, SherCo was still operating out of our kitchen. Soon after,
a third version evolved using a board that folded into quarters, rather than halves, and fit into a green and black
and white self-mailer box. In retrospect, this packaging was most economical. I was still struggling with the
decision of whether or not I wanted to go retail rather than 100% mail order. So, I wanted to have a game box
that would look good on a store shelf but also could be used as a mailer for my mail order customers.

Ultimately, SherCo remained 99.9% mail order (although I did get a few games into some very small
hobby chains after attending/showing at the New York Toy Fair in the 1980s).

Packaging continued to evolve into another multi-color self-mailer; and then the infamous "jellybean" box
(an actual game box with top and bottom and buildups inside, a heavy duty monopoly-type gameboard, and
nice rulebook, etc. The entire product, but most notably the game box, was predominantly white, light green,
and 10% Rodamine Red (which comes out looking pink). I've never forgiven the artist who recommended
those colors. By this time, I was using professional printers, box makers, etc. to do the work. I was buying
large dice by the thousands from a game supply company, and SherCo was evolving into a much more
professional-looking product. Ultimately, as years passed, and I finished my most recent inventory, I decided
on a complete name change (SherCo Games GrandSlam Baseball) and more new packaging with shrink-wrap,
as well as the most recent "school bus" yellow, black and white color scheme. The game board was still a
quarter fold-up but it was now on a laminated chipboard stock which allowed one to use an erasable marker
to draw different stadiums boundaries on it. Just like the earlier jellybean box, the colors of the most recent
version were not necessarily baseball colors. But think about it: How many games have you seen that come in
a yellow box? I was still struggling over whether or not to pursue retailers and had almost struck a deal with
Toys R Us, but they wanted me to repackage, add a UPC, and cut the price so significantly that I would have
been competing with my successful mail-order sales. Also, they wouldn't commit in writing to a set amount
even if I made their requested changes. I chose not to do business with them. (By the way, Toys R Us
announced today that they are going out of the toy and game business; can't compete with Wal-mart).

Why the name SherCo? The company was named after my first wife, Sherry and Co for "company."
Fortunately, her name wasn't Gertrude or Matilda or the name would have been GertrudeCo or MatildaCo

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 MLB team can count you as a fan?

SL: Growing up in the late forties and early fifties, baseball was every kid's passion -- including mine.
So my experience was primarily sandlot, although I still have my green felt letter "K" from playing on the
sixth grade Kennelly baseball team. Personal stats: 1 time at bat, hit 1 foul ball, and then struck out looking.
Also, 1 hit by a batted ball. I used to follow the old Brooklyn Dodgers but somewhere along the line, after
they'd lost to the Yankees in the World Series for the umpteenth time, I switched loyalties and became a
(shudder) Yankee fan. I think it was Allie Reynolds, affectionately dubbed "the Chief," that helped persuade me.
(I also was big into cowboys and Indians). Anyhow, I remain a Yankee fan to this day and saw my first game
at the stadium on an Old-timers Day probably when I was 12 years old. All I remember is we had great seats
behind home plate: Ryne Duren uncorked a wild pitch that hit right in front of us, and Al Kaline hit a home run
as Detroit won, 4-2. I don't remember the year but as Casey Stengel used to say: "You can look it up."

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

SL: The granddaddy of all baseball games at the time was APBA (well before Strat-O-Matic). Although
I didn't own that game at the time, I had played Ethan Allen's Cadaco [ All-Star ] Baseball game, and a
few others' forgettable products. However, it was a game put out by a company I believe was called RPG
(I may be mistaken) that inspired me to bring my invention to market. I don't remember the name of the
RPG baseball game but it was a firm in South Jersey, as I recall, and I ordered it because of the sensational ad
that touted all of the wonderful features and realism of their game. After I received the game I found it to be
a piece of you know what! The components were extremely cheap, artwork and layout was sloppy, and the
game really didn't play well at all. However, looking at it, I said to myself: "I can do better." Thus, my first foray
into the market with the manila-envelope, small dice game I described earlier.

BG: You are, or have been, an avid collector of board games -- do you collect vintage baseball games at all,
and if so, what do you have that you'd like to tell us about?

SL: I am a game collector (at one time more than 600 titles), as well as inventor; and yes I do have some
vintage baseball games but nothing remarkable. Perhaps my most prized possessions are two earlier versions
of SherCo autographed by Joe DiMaggio. Some day you may see one of them for sale on eBay; perhaps
with my signature, too, to make it a truly collectable item. In the meantime, make me an offer I can't refuse
(just kidding).

BG: Do you play any other tabletop baseball now, and if so, which games?

SL: For several years, my lawyer friend, a couple of college professors, and my wife had a SherCo league
with unique teams and unique parks. My team was the Pioneers, based on Coover's book Universal
Baseball Association: J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor
. My wife Maxine's team was made up of psychoanalysts;
another team was made up of famous accountants (could they even come up with nine?); and my favorite team
was owned and operated by my lawyer friend, Stephen B. Patrick, who also was the league commissioner,
statistician, and historian. His team was the Superbas and included real old-time players who had unusual
nicknames (e.g., William "Boileryard" Clarke, Cecil "Squiz" Pullian, Lorenzo "Battleship" Grenninger, John
"Patchey" Gill, and the fictitious Ruth Ruth, illegitimate daughter of the Babe).

In several years, we managed to play through 17 1/2 24-game seasons, including world series and all-star
games. What made it so much fun was that we aged the players. So, for instance, my star pitcher Damon
Rutherford, the hero in Coover's book, eventually became too old to play. That happened to everybody's teams
and, as we all got busier in our personal lives, interest started to wane and eventually the league stopped in the
middle of season #18. I still have two massive volumes with all the season statistics, write-ups, etc., and some day,
may resurrect the league in a senior citizens' home. Today, though, my wife and I prefer to play other games
(i.e., Carcassonne, El Grande, Scrabble, etc.) by ourselves or with friends.

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

SL: I think APBA and Strat-O-Matic come to mind for statistical accuracy. The late Jack Kavanaugh's
Extra Innings also had a good mechanic. Avalon Hill's Baseball Strategy eliminated the luck factor.
SherCo was positioned as "most fun to play" (based on consumer feedback, many of whom owned and
played these other games). Just about every game that's come to market has had something going for it.
I was flattered by how many games that came out after SherCo imitated my innovations. For example:
Pursue the Pennant did a nice job with stadiums (but SherCo was first). Other games came out with
freak events (but SherCo was first). Several games came out with a military grid playing board or something
similar (but SherCo was first). I don't know if any have copied my astroturf and automatic umpire rules yet,
but a good game probably should.

When I was a kid, I dreamed about how wonderful it would be to own and play a board game where
little baseball players would somehow come to life in replica stadiums, with crowd yells, the smell of hotdogs, etc.
Well, my dream has come true. Computerized baseball games a la Microsoft and others have done a splendid
job of capturing the realism. But playing a game against a computer or against someone else sitting at a computer
still doesn't create the same tension as a face-to-face beer and pretzels involvement. Hence, my highest ratings
go for strategy tabletop board games, like SherCo!

BG: What was your background in game design at the time you devised Sherco Baseball? If we understand
correctly, it evolved from a boyhood game through your Navy and college days up to the point you put it on the
market. We'd like to hear the story.

SL: I've always been creative. Growing up I would take the cardboard that came in my father's newly purchased
shirt and, using a needle and cut-out arrow, invent spinner games. When I was 12 years old, my dad made a
28-number wooden spinner for a church social event; I asked if I could have it after he was finished. The 28
numbers (1-28) inspired the idea for a 28x28 military grid ballpark. Spin the spinner twice, get the coordinates
(i.e., 3-22, a fair ball down the left field or right field line, depending on how the batter batted). That initial
prototype (I build a game board) was played constantly with my next-door neighbor when we were both in our
teens. A pitcher had as good a chance to get a hit as a slugger. But, despite its immature, awkward, and very
incomplete and unrealistic mechanics, it brought to life Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra,
Phil Rizzuto, et al. And the very fact that the game was immature, awkward, incomplete and unrealistic drove me
to begin "fiddling" with it. Eventually, in the first game published, I had three batter ratings 1, 2, and 3 and three
power ratings, A, B, and C. A 3A batter batted in the .300s and hit lots of home runs, whereas a 1C was
probably your weak-hitting pitcher.

BG: What inspired or motivated you to design and market a tabletop baseball game?

SL: To make lots of money and get filthy rich! Next question, please.

BG: Why a grid, a spinner, and dice, instead of a card-based game, an action game, or any of the other
formats and combinations of game mechanics seen in other baseball games?

SL: I think I answered this in a previous question. If my dad had created cards instead of a 28-number
spinner, then that's the direction I would have taken my creativity. Remember: No one at that time could
easily replicate what APBA was doing with its cards. Richard Seitzer (founder of APBA) had found data
that was hard (or very expensive) to come by. Today, however, you can go on-line and find out all sorts of
statistical info, including the underwear size of any player, if you want. Back in the '50s and '60s not too many
were doing these types of research-based games. Jack (Jim) Barnes of Statis-Pro also helped pave the way
for games to satisfy customers demanding statistical accuracy.

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)?

SL: I've always felt that first and foremost a game should be fun to play. As SherCo Grand Slam Baseball
evolved, it became more complex but never to the extent that it became cumbersome. For some customers,
it never was complex enough. They would argue that my "statistics" were not precise. How could I rate a
.349 batter the same as a .300 batter, or one who hit 20 home runs the same as one who hit 28 in a season?
Yet, for every one complaint (and there were not many), I would get 10 commenting how realistic it was
to see a .200 batter have a good year or watch a .300 batter fall off. Regardless of these statistical anomalies,
several of my customers to this day continue to send me entire 162-game season results (get a life, I say)
that demonstrate that what happens when you play SherCo replicates (or should I say "simulates?") what
happens in real baseball. Barry Bonds may not hit 70 home runs but he sure as heck isn't going to hit only 10,
20, or even 30. And Randy Johnson isn't going to go through a season striking out only two batters a game.

BG: What kind of feedback have you had from people who've played your game? What are some of the
problems you've had and how did you overcome them?

SL: Feedback for my game has consistently been good from day #1. What's really gratifying to me now is
to receive one or two letters a year from old customers who first played SherCo in the late '60s or early '70s
and now want to buy a copy for their kids. I ran the game company for many successful years (1968-1994),
enjoying market share with ABPA and Strat-O-Matic. Eventually, computer games (all types, not just baseball),
as well as Rotisserie Baseball, eroded sales and my product -- despite many new add-ons (new Teams of
Yesteryear, etc.) -- came to the end of its life cycle. Breakeven (when costs are covered and profits begin)
didn't occur until later and later each year as advertising, postage, and other production costs escalated.
The final price for my game when I last sold it in 1994 was $29.95 plus $3. postage and handling, a far cry
from the $4.95 it sold for in the first year. Towards the end of my involvement with SherCo, I was spending
thousands of dollars only to make a few hundred. Also, my wife and I had moved to Europe to teach for
seven years in various countries every 8-16 weeks, and we soon found that we could not effectively run the
company from there. (Note: Since we've returned to the USA, I have granted a five-year license to Taylor
Marketing in West Virginia to produce and sell SherCo Grand Slam on the internet).

Another problem I had early on was getting around the royalty fees that Marvin Miller, head legal counsel
of the MLBPA, wanted for the "use" of players' names in my game. APBA was paying $5,000. or 5% of sales
for the "right" to use the names of players on their cards. This was much more than I could afford at that time
just to be able to have Pete Rose on the Cincinnati Reds in SherCo. My legal way around this was to publish
the ROSTER Newsletter (freedom of the press!) which allowed me to publish all the player stats, as well as
other articles, letters, etc. related to the game.

BG: What other game projects have you worked on or are you working on now?

SL: Recently, I attended the Boardgaming World Championships in Maryland to reestablish connections
with the hobby-industry. I had some good "face" time with Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games, Don
Greenwood formerly of Avalon Hill, and Eric Hautemont of Days of Wonder Games. Part of our discussion
was to see if there would be interest in several new family-type board games I've been working on. It's
too soon to tell what will become of these ideas; if necessary I may take some or all to market myself.
For now, however, I'm looking to connect with an established company that will pay me a small royalty
and publish my game inventions with my name or the name of SherCo.

The rest of my time is spent with my wife, Maxine, adjusting to our return to the States, my new job as
full-time professor and marketing program coordinator at Wilmington College in Delaware, a new home we
just built, our two lovely grandchildren....and, of course, playing games!

BG: Thanks immensely for taking the time to sit down and talk about SherCo Baseball with us.

SL: My pleasure.


file 2004 August: Butch & Co.