Baseball Games

Baseball Games

More than a half-century before anyone would ever know what a video game was, pinball games reigned supreme in the local arcade and enjoyed a long and colorful history that continues today. But another game emerged back in the 30s, one called a “pitch and bat,” which led to a series of wonderful pinball-esque baseball games that are still fondly remembered to this day.

Unlike traditional pinball, these games operated by firing a ball from the center of the machine. Players would hit the ball with the help of some mechanical apparatus and “bat” the ball back towards a plethora of targets and indentations within the playing surface. And, while many different sports were initially used as the basis of these machines, such as golf and football, it seemed only logical that there would also be a representative for America’s favorite pastime, baseball. Few people today have ever played, let alone seen, one of these games, but they competed with pinball in popularity for literally decades and were actually manufactured all the way until the early 90s.

Housed within a large wooden pinball-type cabinet, these games also utilized a backboard, which would display the player’s score. Players used one simple control, whose sole purpose was to propel the “pitched” ball back into the playing area. Depending on how good their aim was, they would strive to hit the “single,” “double,” “triple” or “home run” targets, while trying to avoid such targets as “foul” and “out.” Games were played over the course of three innings, each ending when a player received three outs.

On of the earliest versions of the pitch-and-bat games was called All-Star Baseball, created by Rock-Ola all the way back in 1932. A number of small metallic baseball players actually recreated the action as it unfolded. In addition, metal outfielders would travel back and forth across the playing surface, which made hitting the targets much more difficult. The next notable pitch-and-bat machine was simply called Baseball, and replaced the metallic players from it’s predecessor with more cost-effective lights. As a result, many of these games were manufactured and found their way all across the country.

Few games were created during World War II, as the supplies simply weren’t available to produce them. But as the 50s rolled in, Baseball was enormously popular again and so was the pitch-and-bat machine, this time with plenty of new innovations. Most notable perhaps was the 1951 Super World Series, which added something called “backbox animation” to the mix. This translated into a depiction of a baseball diamond with motorized players that helped one keep track of the action. Changes in the balls were significant as well, as larger plastic balls shot through the air gradually replaced the older metal variety. These changes were evident in games such as High-Fly and Championship Baseball.

And throughout the 50s, the innovations continued. In 1955, for example, Super Slugger gave players the option of choosing a weak, medium or strong swing depending on their particular strategy. Multiplayer play was also introduced, with one game even allowing a total of six players to join in on the fun. Eventually, the standard became two-player versions, some of which even allowed one player to pitch while the other batted.

As the decade came to a close, game manufactures pulled out all the stops, in what is considered the golden era of pitch-and-bat history. 1959’s Pitch Hitter included everything from a game-to-game carryover function, to backbox animation, to even selectable pitches. Official Baseball, on the other hand, offered three-dimensional players and even an umpire who would place the ball in the pitcher’s hand.

Onward to the 60s, where these games showed no signs of slowing in popularity. Soon, extended play options were introduced, allowing gamers to go the whole nine innings. Extra Innings made players earn these innings (up to nine) based on their high scores and how many home runs they achieved. These extra-inning options substantially increased the length of gameplay, sometimes by as much as hours (as long as the coins didn’t run out) and soon became the industry standard.

The next decade saw a marked decline in the popularity of pitch-and-bat games, but that didn’t stop them from being manufactured. In 1971, Williams introduced Action Baseball, which was a tip of the hat to the earlier versions of the game. They also incorporated 8-track sound for the Line Drive and Upper Deck games, which were notable for the wide variety of sound effects, from cheering crowds to an announcer, to fireworks. Still, even the addition of sound effects couldn’t slow the eventual loss of popular appeal and Upper Deck would end up being one of the last long-cabinet games to be manufactured.

The fat lady wasn’t quite ready to sing, however, and in 1984, Williams followed up their earlier successes in the genre with Pennant Fever.

Boasting three distinct pitching options and stereo sound, players also could hear the umpire actually call balls and strikes. Seeing that there was still a market, albeit a limited one, for these machines, Bally gave it another go, introducing an ambitious game called Big Bat. Resembling a batting cage, it allowed the player use a trigger-grip controller to activate a scale-model mechanical batter inside the cage.

With sound effects ranging from food vendors to a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” it was a noble effort that came just a little too late. And finally in 1991, Slug Fest was introduced, a classic pitch-and-bat game at heart, but one that utilized such modern technology as digital sound, electronic scoring and cartoon graphics. It went almost as quickly as it came but was a welcome sight for all who were old enough to remember these classic games. It holds the sad distinction of being the last of an era.

Today, if look hard enough, you might still spot one of these classics in an out of the way game room. And there are still numerous people who appreciate the charm that they provided, an experience unlike that of any simple video game. With a lack of time-limits and the fact that they rely on luck, just as much as strategy and skill, they are simply a reminder that every arcade game in the world needn’t have a video display or a dozen buttons to be a heck of a lot of fun.

And, considering the shelf life of most modern arcade games, it is simply remarkable to look back upon their history and see the impact they made over the course of almost a century. In all honesty, games like Pac-Man and Asteroids, as iconic as they are, were a mere flash in the pan by comparison.

Have you ever tried your hand at one of these vintage baseball games? Tell us what you remember in our comments section, as we pay tribute to these arcade representations of America’s favorite pastime, here at Retroland.

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