Summer 2013 /Baseball/

Putting Bytes into the Old Ball Game

The first interactive baseball computer game was born in Mudd-Blaisdell. Here’s how a would-be playwright and a ballet dancer became video game pioneers.

computer1In his baseball-loving boyhood, Don Daglow ’74 used to get calluses on his fingers from flicking the spinner for the All-Star Baseball board game that he’d play again and again, sometimes eight times a day. Over time, he even reworked the venerable game to allow changes in pitching.

And then, still in love with the old ball game, he arrived at college, where he met his first mainframe computer, the PDP-10, tied in to terminals in Mudd-Blaisdell residence hall. “That one moment,’’ says Daglow, “changed my life pretty dramatically.” He learned programming and in no time he thought, “‘Oh, wait a sec, now I can do baseball.’”

By 1971, English major Daglow had come up with the first computer simulation baseball game in which the player could make choices—moves like sending in a pinch hitter or having the pitcher walk a batter intentionally—with results from each play printed out on paper.

The game was a hit. Daglow was shocked to get his first fan letter, from someone at a college back east. More acclaim was coming down the road, but for now Daglow was busy digging deeper into programming and writing. Over nine years as a student at Pomona and then a grad student and later an instructor at Claremont Graduate University, he would hone his programming skill through his access to then-rare mainframe computers, even as he pursued his plans to become a playwright.

“Baseball,” says Daglow, “is one of the most spectacular pieces of theatre ever invented by human beings.”

One hitch in the script, though: Working on games on the busy mainframes could you get kicked off the system. “That’s why we were always sneaking about at night,” recalls Daglow. “We knew where all the terminals were at the other five campuses.”

All that covert computing paid off. By 1980, Mattel had hired him and Daglow was put to work on a video game called Utopia for the company’s innovative Intellivision video game console. Ever the fan, Daglow was watching a ballgame on TV after completing that first title when he got a thought for a new video baseball game: What if we could make a game that looked like one on TV, with sweeping camera angles? “That would be new,” Daglow recalls thinking. “It would be a blow to Atari.”

But how to deliver the blow?

Enter the dancer.

Daglow put out the call for applicants from his alma mater, and among the Sagehens he wound up hiring was Eddie Dombrower ’80, who turned out to be perfect for the part.

An athlete, programming whiz and math major who had taken up ballet in high school, Dombrower had just completed a Watson Fellowship studying the computer simulation of dance in Europe and Israel after graduation. That led him to create a system for computerized dance notation, with an animated figure repeating the moves. “In those days computers were really, really slow,” recalls Dombrower, noting that the Watson work came in quite handy. He used the tricks he learned in math to make the animation go fast on slow computers.

Daglow crafted the initial specs and statistical simulation design, then Dombrower came through with a prototype for TV-style baseball, bringing the challenging visuals to life. “Most programmers would have crashed and burned,” says Daglow.

Now Daglow had something to show off within the company, and the bigwigs liked it. Maybe a bit too much. “The marketing V.P. looked at it and said, ‘you know we can have TV commercials running for that in three to four weeks, in time for the Christmas selling season,’” Daglow recalls.

Daglow was taken aback: “I looked at him and said ‘we’ve got months to go on this.’” The marketing exec wouldn’t budge: “You have to understand we’re at war with Atari,” he warned. “It’s going to be us or them. If this is what we can do in the future, we want to show it now.”

So the company did just that, with George Plimpton unveiling the baseball game in TV commercials, intoning: “This is the future of video games.”

And it was. But not yet.

The whole industry tumbled, if only temporarily, in the video game crash of 1983. Intellivision World Series Major League Baseball was released during the freefall, hardly any copies were
made and soon enough Intellivision itself went kaput. But the knowledge and experience Daglow and Dombrower gained would still be put to work.

By the late ’80s, the pair had gone on to work for industry powerhouse Electronics Arts, working with legendary Orioles Manager Earl Weaver on the game that became Earl Weaver Baseball. Crafting innovations like customized play for different ball fields such as Boston’s Fenway Park, Dombrower and Daglow created a title that went far beyond the once-futuristic Intellivision game.

First, though, Daglow had to do the statistics and Dombrower had to do the physics. How do the parabolas diminish from bounce to bounce as a ground ball slows down hopping on grass? On artificial turf? With Fenway’s famous, close-in Green Monster, how often would a ball that bounces off the wall wind up as a single instead of the expected double?

With so many variables at work in the game, “you create this really interesting, very natural feel,’’ recalls Dombrower. “It doesn’t feel canned any more. The drama just ratchets up.” So did sales.

Earl Weaver Baseball was a hit, and Dombrower hatched a sequel a few years later. By the ’90s, Daglow, meanwhile, was on to another stat-laden baseball game, this time picking the brain of another standout manager. Tony La Russa Baseball, which carried on in a series of versions from 1991 to 1997, built on the earlier innovations, with more sophisticated stats and better graphics during its long sales run.

Even today, as an accomplished, Emmy-winning game developer, Daglow still can’t believe he got a chance to work with legends like La Russa, with whom he’s now designing a new game title. “How the hell did that happen?,” Daglow asks. “I’m so freakin’ lucky I’m just beyond words.”