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When football was electric, hockey was tabletop and tennis was Pong

Kids of another generation loved their old-school sports games — with one exception.

Michael Landsman of Miggle Toys, a maker of electric football, demonstrates a game in 1996.
Sun-Times file

Every time I see a story about a cutting-edge video baseball game such as “Out of the Park Baseball 22” or “MLB the Show 21,” I envy the kids (and the adult kids) who can master these and other sports video games — but I also think: Yeah, but we had Strat-O-Matic and Atari Home Run and Computer Baseball.

Not to mention Bas-Ket, Sure Shot Hockey, electric football and let’s not forget that little backboard you hung on your bedroom door so you could play a raucous game of one-on-one Nerf hoops with your little brother or your best friend until your mom or dad told you to knock it off and wash your hands because dinner is in five minutes and we’re having pork chops and mashed potatoes and peas so hurry it up.

Some of those old-school games from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s rocked — but some sucked. They were terrible. We just told ourselves they were great.

Case in point: electric football. There was nothing electric about electric football other than the fact you plugged it in. I got an electric football game for Christmas when I was about 10 or 11 and at the time it was the coolest gift I’d ever received this side of a burnt-orange Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle, and I couldn’t wait for my cousins to come over after church so we could set up the game. Bears vs. Vikings!

The metal field, which was scaled in the dimensions of a real football field, was a thing of beauty. The little players with their detailed uniforms were awesome. Each guy was mounted on a green plastic base with prongs, and you could bend and twist the prongs so a lineman would hold his ground or a running back would go to the left; at least that was the idea. Quarterbacks and kickers had movable parts so you could throw passes or attempt field goals; at least that was the idea. The ball itself back in the day was a tiny oval made of felt.

Before each play, you’d line up your 11 players and your opponent would line up their 11 players — and then you’d flick the “ON” switch and the field would begin to vibrate with a mighty roar, and 22 little football men would go this way and that, over here and over there, until one of the defensive guys made contact with the ball carrier, and you’d turn off the switch — and then you’d have to painstakingly line up all those players AGAIN. Did anyone ever finish a game of electric football? I think our limit was about six plays, including one errant pass with the felt football, before we’d break out the Hot Wheels.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Tom Fitzgerald plays tabletop hockey with a hospitalized boy in 2003.
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Other old-school sports were much more satisfying and exciting to play. With tabletop hockey, you got cool metal guys painted with the uniforms of the Chicago Blackhawks or Boston Bruins or New York Rangers, and you had rods to control the defensemen, forwards, center and goalie. Those games would get so violent, the “rink” would move all over the place and the levers would get bent.

Even Sure Shot Hockey, the simplified little sibling to tabletop hockey, was great fun. Unlike standard tabletop hockey, which had room for a full six-man squad on the rink, Sure Shot had just two plastic men on each team. The box copy proclaimed, “Fast Scoring Hockey Excitement. Quick Action for 2 to 4 Young Players.” I don’t know how FOUR users could have crowded around that smallish, blue plastic rink. This was a one-on-one game, with loads of scoring.

Another cool one: Bas-Ket, and yes, it was spelled “Bas-Ket.” That’s the one with the spring-loaded levers placed about a dimpled court, with a ping-pong ball serving as the basketball. When the ball nestled into one of the holes in the court, you had to use just the right touch on your levers to send it through the hoop. I’d say about 60% of my Bas-Ket shots sailed over the backboard and landed somewhere on the shag carpeting in the living room. Still, when you sank a shot, it was pretty cool.

I was also a big fan of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, which was sort of a precursor to Fantasy Baseball in that you could choose your players in a draft. Every major league player had a card with a unique rating tied in to the frequency of certain numbers coming up with a roll of three dice. Basically, if you had Willie Stargell you were much more likely to “roll a homer” than if you had Vic Davalillo. Strat-O-Matic could get very involved and complicated, or you could just pick guys and roll the dice.

Visitors play Pong at a 2019 video game trade fair in Germany.
INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

At some point in the mid-1970s, one of my friends got Pong. We spent a LOT of time that year playing Pong — the tennis-like video arcade game from Atari where you used a two-dimensional “paddle” to volley back and forth with your opponent. It was incredibly simple, and cool as all get out, and somehow you could be really good at Pong, or not so great, which was kind of embarrassing because the score was right there in large numerals on the screen. All I’ll say about my skill set was I am not now nor have I ever been in the Pong Hall of Fame.

Strat-O-Matic, on the other hand … I’ll play you right now.