Banished to the Pen turns the clock back to 1988, as we take a look at some classic baseball video games and collectibles. In Part 1, we cover baseball on the field and on the big screen.
by Ken Maeda
Modern console sports video games have a pretty standard list of features: licenses for leagues and player associations, resemblances to real-life players, a wealth of stats and strategies, and full use of the dozen or so buttons on your controller.
Things were different in 1988, when you were lucky to have the names of actual teams or players (but not both), and two buttons were all you needed. That year saw the release of four baseball titles for home consoles, two of which would endure as popular franchises.
RBI Baseball (video, cover art), developed by Namco of Pac-Man fame, was first found in the US in arcades in 1987, before being ported the next year to the NES. Its biggest draw was probably the fact that it featured actual major league players, if in name only (and even that was limited to 6 letters). Everyone had the same adorably pudgy build, but everyone was also white. A mere 8 teams were available (listed only by city names), along with All-Star teams for each league (“Na” and “Am”). A catchy but repetitive jingle was also prominent.
RBI has such an enduring legacy that gamers have painstakingly used it to recreate the Buckner incident and the Gibson homer. The game went on to have a few sequels on the NES as well as SNES and Genesis. After a ten-year gap, the series has made a comeback on modern consoles and mobile, as a budget- and user-friendly alternative to the more advanced stuff (although Super Mega Baseball is probably the preferred choice among Effectively Wild listeners).
The original Bases Loaded (video) was the other titan of that year, and went on to have 8- and 16-bit sequels, and a version for the Game Boy 1.0. Like RBI, Bases Loaded was a Japanese import (with a title that translates to “Burn!! Pro Baseball“), but this game’s origin is more obvious upon seeing the pitching and hitting animations. Bases Loaded‘s unique feature was a behind-the-pitcher POV, emulating TV broadcasts. The sprites were a step up from RBI‘s cartoony look. There were twelve generic teams, some of which represented cities with no MLB presence at the time (including DC and Miami).
Major League Baseball (video) was a one-off by LJN, a company best known either for their toylines like Wrestling Superstars and Thundercats, or for apparently having a reputation as one of the worst game publishers ever. Major League Baseball owes its simple name to the fact that it boasted an official MLB license, so it featured all 26 teams. It probably didn’t take long for owners of the game to realize it wasn’t that great of a feature anyway, especially considering the limited graphics meant that uniforms and stadiums looked just as generic as those in other games. Players were probably better off saving their money, as was LJN. On the whole, it could probably be summed up as a less pretty, more glitchy RBI Baseball.
Reggie Jackson Baseball (video) was the only new option for Sega Master System owners that year. As previously mentioned here, Jackson had retired after the ’87 season. This title was a follow-up to Great Baseball, and for some reason switched from a pitcher POV to a batter POV. The graphics and animation were notably superior to the NES offerings.
No licenses were featured, though the cities did correspond to all the MLB teams. Strangely, there was enough devotion to include cartoony portraits of the real-life managers. In the video linked above, it’s not hard to recognize a grinning La Russa and crusty Lasorda (the manager of the selected Padres team is apparently Larry Bowa). In another quirk, some ballgames were held on a reddish field, suggesting a surface of either dirt or dead grass (or clay?). But the most memorable feature may have been that getting hit by a pitch not only resulted in benches clearing, but the batter being carried off on a stretcher.
While console baseball games were a crude, quaint bunch in 1988, some of their older PC counterparts boasted richer graphics and, in retrospect, surprisingly high levels of detail. These include Earl Weaver (video) and Hardball! (endorsed by the Wizard).
by Alex Crisafulli
A few good things happened in the baseball card universe in 1988: ’88 Fleer, Score was introduced, and, well, that’s about it.
’88 Donruss is fine. It’s not particularly special like the few years that preceded it, but it’s not terrible like it was the following year. The border is nice and I recall a lot of good candid pictures. Any time you can capture Jose Canseco in what appears to be a pensive mood, you’re probably exceeding expectations.
Fleer produced the best set in 1988 in what would be their last really good one. The virtues of the ’88 set are not immediately obvious as the border looks a bit cartoony and overdone, but they were great cards. For starters, I recall them being more durable than what the other brands were churning out. Around 1989, Donruss started to feel like it might fall apart upon touching it. You know how those new water bottles manufactured from 100% recycled plastic seem like they might crumple in your hand? That was ’89 Donruss. And around this same time a stack of Topps cards basically felt like kindling. Not Fleer though, these were built to last. They did stats well, too. I’ve pointed this out before but I was always enamored with the day/night and home/road splits on the back of ’88 Fleer. For instance, check out Oil Can. He was a night owl! (Comparatively speaking, of course.)
The other highlight in ’88 was Score being introduced. There was nothing inherently special about Score, save for a color portrait on the back and tiny-print bios. Besides that, it was just another option on the table and they played by the rules. The rules were this: 1) baseball cards must have stats; 2) baseball cards must have an MLB license (this was not tolerated); and 3) baseball cards must cost $0.50 a pack. Upper Deck debuted the very next year and they didn’t abide by Rule #3 and they eventually ruined everything.
Sportflics cards were still a thing in 1988 (and would actually last until 1994), but, like most lenticular items from the ’80s, they were always a novelty item at best. I’m not at liberty to go on at length about them because I only had a few Ozzie Smith Sportflics – I have no idea how or when I acquired them – and I thought they were more annoying than cool. The pictures were not that clear and they were too bulky to store well with other cards. And they had really sharp edges! If you were determined you could probably hurt someone with a Sportsflic. They should not be allowed on airplanes.
1988 is bookended by two really good years for baseball cards which doesn’t help its cause. 1987 had great issues from Donruss, Fleer, and Topps, and was fortunate to be stacked with rookie cards from the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Greg Maddux.
Upper Deck, as mentioned, debuted in 1989 and so was one of the greatest baseball cards of all time right along with it. And let’s not sleep on the Dale Murphy reverse negative either. 1989 also had the Billy Ripken card. 1988 had none of that.
You were happy if you went home with a Chris Sabo (pictured here on his Topps Big card), or a white triangle by Mark McGwire’s foot (yes, that is an error card). Frankly, I can’t think of a single memorable or iconic card from ’88, whether it be a very hot rookie or error card or whatever. Maybe the ’88 Mark Grace Donruss Rated Rookie comes close but that’s a damn strong maybe.
Panini Sticker Album
by Ken Maeda
Breakthroughs in sticker technology helped popularize a wide variety which included puffy, scratch-n-sniff, and holographic. Sticker albums were a kid-friendly alternative (or gateway) to actual trading cards. Some versions were basically storybooks retelling TV episodes, or a movie (such as the Transformers one… the good one). You’d buy packs that included a few stickers, and place them in the designated spaces.
But unlike with cards, where there was likely a point where you felt you had enough, blank spots in albums would be a constant reminder of how much further you had to go. Which meant you had to go ask for more — quite the racket.
For sports-themed lines like Panini’s, you’d collect players and group them by teams (as shown in this barren 1990 edition). Like with trading cards, sets were padded out with superfluous subsets like All-Stars and highlights. But long before the days of SportsLogos.net, the ’88 line had a subset of foil cards displaying uniforms — complete with stirrups and jackets. While Topps continues to produce their MLB line, Panini ended this particular one in 1996. They currently focus on other sports, particularly soccer, perhaps owing to their Italian origins.
by Alex Crisafulli
Starting Lineups (vintage commercial), originally produced by Kenner, debuted when I was nine years old, which was perfect timing because I had just gotten into baseball cards, but I was also still down for playing with toys. Old-timey crusty collectors may have tried to convince you otherwise but make no mistake about it: Starting Lineups were first and foremost toys. Each came with a baseball card – they were good cards, too – but also an approximately 4-inch figurine often (but not always) depicting the player in an action shot.
I had the Ozzie Smith Starting Lineup from the inaugural set. The old-timey crusty collectors kept Starting Lineups sealed in the package to preserve their mint condition status because they were lame. I was not lame. I ripped Ozzie open the day I got it and played with it until one day his right arm fell off. It was worth it. The fact that the figurines’ arms could usually move was further proof they weren’t intended for a lifetime sealed in plastic. I have no idea what happened to that figurine, but it lived a good life. A toy’s life. It was survived by the card.
By the time 1999 rolled around, I, too, was lame. Fresh off the 1998 great home run chase, I purchased a dual starting lineup with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for $20 and kept it unopened and stashed away in my closet. This was not a wise investment. Sometime around 2007, I opened it and gave Sosa to my Cubs-loving nephew. McGwire currently sits unplayed with on a shelf near my newborn son’s crib. I look forward to the day when he’s a bit older and rips Big Mac’s arms off.
In May, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation included an episode (#1.25: “The Neutral Zone“) in which late-20th-century humans are found in a cryogenic state. After awakening, a Southern gent asks if a viewscreen could show the Braves in action, though he laments that they’re “probably still findin’ ways to lose.” Not only is baseball all but extinct by the mid-24th century, but Data informs a confused Riker that “television” is also, having died out after 2040. With that bleak look into the future in mind, here are some assorted links to the past for your retro enjoyment:
TV Highlights Clip Compilation
May 7 episode of This Week in Baseball
Bob Uecker and Ron Cey, for Miller Lite
Brief promo for ABC Monday Night Baseball
NBC Game of the Week Theme
ABC MLB Theme (LCS)
NBC MLB Theme (World Series)
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