Board games and video games have always been an important part of the holiday shopping list at my house.

An annual tradition in recent years has been buying the latest release of the “Madden NFL” series for our PlayStation console. My teenage son and his friends immerse themselves in the game, a simulation of actual teams and players which is updated for each season.

When I was his age, my friends and I played Strat−O−Matic baseball and football, tabletop games with dice and cards to represent the individual players.  (In truth I was always partial to the less popular Statis-Pro sports  games from the Avalon Hill company, but my friends all played SOM.)

These games have a certain appeal for sports fans, helping to extend the excitement beyond our trips to the ballpark or Sunday afternoons in front of the TV. They give us the chance to relive the thrills vicariously and to give us a chance to feel more connected to the teams and players we root for.

Drawing from Graves’ patent

Of course, these sorts of games aren’t a recent invention. I recently stumbled across a board game patent issued to a  resident of my hometown of Rochester, NY in 1949. An inventor named Frank Graves was issued patent No. 2,479,160 for what was described only as “Football Game.”

What makes this particular patent document so interesting is that it contains all of the elements necessary to recreate the game. It includes the detailed rules to play the game, as well as a drawing of the game’s board and the spinner used for each turn.

I wasn’t able to find any evidence that Graves ever marketed this game, or the two others for which he received patents in 1950 and 1951. But the patent helped pique my interest in the origin of these sports games that seek to transform spectators into participants. And for someone who’s curious about the history of board games, there’s probably no better source to turn to than the folks at The Strong’s National Museum of Play, located in my hometown of Rochester.

Nicolas Ricketts, curator at The Strong and an expert in board games, showed me examples from its collection that were endorsed by the biggest baseball stars of their eras, from Babe Ruth in the early 1920s to Jackie Robinson in the late 1950s. Some of these games tested a player’s physical skill –requiring a player to knock a steel ball through a simulated baseball field. Others focused more on the strategy of the game, putting the player into the role of a coach who would set his lineup and decide whether to have a player steal a base.

Jon−Paul Dyson, director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, said that these sports games, which offered a physical representation of reality, were a precursor of more immersive games like Dungeons and Dragons and led to the development of the first−person video games which are so popular today.

Photo by Sean Lahman

Delving deeper into their archives, Dyson and Ricketts showed me dozens of sports−related board games from the 19th century, revealing that our interest in re−creating sports in the comfort of our homes dates back to the earliest days of competitive organized sports.

For example, the sport of basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891, and within a few years one manufacturer had produced a board game version. The cover of the box shows girls in knee length dresses running and throwing a ball into a peach basket.

Photo by Sean Lahman

The Strong museum has one of the oldest surviving examples of baseball board games on display, “The Game of Base−Ball,” which was first sold in 1880. The box and the boards are emblazoned with beautiful color lithography which represented the state of the art in printing at the time.

My friend and former colleague John Thorn, who serves as the official historian for Major League Baseball, told me that baseball board games and card games actually pre−dated that one by several decades. Although no copies are known to survive, he has found advertisements for table top baseball games as early as 1867 – four years before the birth of the first professional baseball league.

“And there are hints, requiring further research, that the McLoughlin Brothers Game Company of New York City may have issued a chromo−lithographic game as early as 1856,” Thorn said.

Patent documents reveal the details of these games which no longer exist, and Thorn pointed to patents for early examples, suggesting that “an enterprising antiquarian might reconstruct these games from their
schematic drawings and play them today.”

And that’s not limited to sports games, of course. One could reconstruct some of the now extinct but once popular games of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, games like Milton Bradley’s “Halma” (patent No. 383,653) or the Parker Brothers’ “Chivalry” (No. 1,780,038).

The patent documents also provide insight into early versions of games we’re still playing today, like Monopoly (No. 2,026,082), Scrabble (No. 2,752,158) or the Game of Life (No. 53,561).

These documents, originally intended to provide legal protection to inventors, now serve as a great historical reference source for the board games – and other inventions – which have long since disappeared.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in March 2012

After this article ran in print,  I received an email from a gentleman name Michael Graves. “I believe that the Frank Graves you referred to in your column today was my uncle, Frank Ralph Graves.  I remember the football game and have a copy of the actual product.  It wound up being called ‘Fireside Football.’.  The address for the company that published the game as seen on the directions was his home address at the time.”

And another blogger, with an interest in table top games added his own comments: