Take Me Out to the Games Machine

“Take Me Out to the Games Machine,” New Era, May 1972, 21

Take Me Out to the Games Machine

The Polaradome’s transparent bubble loomed high into the afternoon sky, dwarfing the cityscape on all sides of it. The people thronging the giant entry doors looked like armies of ants converging on an inverted fishbowl.

“My, but it’s big,” said a trim young lady to her escort. “How many does it hold?”

He looked upward at the sweeping curve of the dome. “A quarter of a million.”

She caught her breath. “Tom, you’re kidding!”

He shook his head. “When they designed the Games Machine, they designed the Polaradome to go with it. They have such a huge investment in all this, the only way they can show a profit is to house it in a stadium the size of the Polaradome.” He grinned. “And hope the people come out and fill it up.”

She looked around at the sea of people engulfing them. “I think they’re going to make a profit on today’s game.”

They walked down a wide aisle and took seats very near home plate. She turned to him and said, “You believe in getting close to the game, don’t you?”

He nodded, smiling. “I like to get involved, Marci.”

“What about those people back there in the last rows? As enormous as the Polaradome is, I’d think they’d have some difficulty seeing the plays sometimes.”

“They would, except for these.” He leaned forward and pressed a button on the back of the seat in front of him. A television screen as wide as the seat slid up into view. “If you can’t see the play by looking at the field, you can always see it on the screen.”

Marci looked up at him with innocent blue eyes.

“Then how is this any better than staying at home and watching it on television?”

He looked at her the way he had looked the she’d asked him what good it did to send men into space. “Because,” he said “you’re here! And besides,” he added, adjusting the dials, “you have absolute control of the picture yourself. There are cameras all over the stadium, giving different views of the field, and you can increase the magnification to suit yourself. You can zoom in on the pitcher, the batter, the dugout—anywhere. And you can pick up the sound there, too, through the parabolic listening devices. You even have your own split-screen control; you can put any or all of the pictures on the screen at the same time.”

He demonstrated by showing both dugouts, the outfield, and the pitcher’s mound on the screen at the same time, watching her out of the corner of his eye to see if she were properly impressed. She was. At least she seemed to be, and that was good enough.

“And besides all this,” he said with a grin, “how can you boo the umpire if you stay at home?”

She smiled. “Let’s face it; you’re a fan.”

She looked down at the pregame activity on the field. “Tell me something about the players.”

“Well, there’s Babe Ruth, with his 714 career homers, and Cy Young, who won 509 games as a pitcher. And of course there’s Bob Gibson—”

“No, I mean the players. The robot-men, or whatever you call them, that will actually play the game today. Tell me how that part of it works.”

“Oh, the Games Machine players. They’re just robots that look like men. Once they begin to play ball, you forget they’re not human.”

She shook her head. “But what purpose is there in calling a robot Babe Ruth? That doesn’t give it the ability to hit more home runs than any other robot.”

Tom switched off all the pictures on the screen except one; that one he magnified till it showed a close-up of the Babe Ruth robot warming up. “All right; take a good look at him.”

She looked closely. “He looks just like the pictures I’ve seen. But can he hit home runs?”

Tom nodded. “He can hit home runs. He can hit home runs with just exactly the same ability that the real Babe could hit them. And he can run and field and throw just like the Babe could. If the Babe could do it, this robot can do it. If the Babe couldn’t do it, this robot can’t do it.”

“Remarkable. Then every robot out there has the actual abilities of the man it represents?”

“Right. It has the same body-build, the same strengths—even the same weaknesses. It can feel pain and fatigue just as though it were the real man.”

“Amazing! How do they do it?”

The Games Machine computer has all the data on every player who ever lived, and it programs everything, including intelligence and personality, into the robot that represents the player. So the Games Machine players will play ball out there today just the way the real men would have played it if each one were alive and in his prime.”

She arched an eyebrow. “This is eerie. The Games Machine almost resurrects them from the dead.”

She sat quietly for a while, thinking. “How do they decide which players are going to play?”

“The fans vote on them.”

“Which fans?”

He grinned. “The fans that pay to see the game. That’s the kind of vote that counts the most.”

She laughed. “That sounds logical. People who pay money for something are very sincere.”

She opened her program and glanced at it. “Let me see if I can recognize anyone down there. Babe Ruth is just about the only baseball player I’ve ever heard of.”

He looked at her with infinite patience. “Watch this.” He focused the screen on one of the players and punched a switch; the split screen to the right flashed a still picture with a name below it—“Cy Young.”

Marci looked carefully at both pictures. “Why—it’s the same player! Do you mean that the Games Machine can recognize every player and identify him for you?”

“Not only that; look at this.” He turned a small knob beside the switch. More reading appeared on the screen.

“Cy Young, the starting pitcher today for the American League All-Stars, won a total of 509 games during his 20-year career.” There followed a brief history, loaded with statistics.

“If you have any questions,” said Tom, “just push this other button and speak into the diaphragm. The computer will give you your answer on the screen. Go ahead; ask it a question.”

She pushed the switch for her own screen and leaned forward. “Who will be managing for the American League today?”

A picture flashed on the screen; under it was the name “Casey Stengel.”

“And who’s managing the National League?”

Another picture replaced the first; below it was the name “John McGraw.”

Tom leaned forward. “Show us the won-lost record of each manager, season by season, with asterisks beside pennant-winning teams.”

The requested information flashed on the screen.

“Now place double asterisks beside teams that won World Series.”

Again the computer obeyed.

Marci read the records. “Fabulous! Along with everything else, the Games Machine is a private tutor.”

Tom smiled. “Nothing is too good for the fans in the Polaradome.”

He singled out each American League player on the squad and flashed his picture and information file on the screen. There was Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Tris Speaker, Yogi Berra …

Marci studied the records. When she had finished, she looked at Tom. “What a formidable baseball team! Putting all that home-run power into one lineup doesn’t seem fair; they’ll simply mop up the planet with the poor National Leaguers.”

“Over my dead body,” Tom muttered grimly. “Why, Tom! Don’t tell me you’re rooting for the National League? I know you always stand up for the underdog, but this is ridiculous.”

Tom said nothing. He brought into focus a player who was throwing warm-up pitches on the National League side of the field. He switched to instant replay and showed in slow motion the long, smooth, powerful pitches of the black-skinned athlete.

“Who is he?” asked Marci.

“He’s the reason why nobody is going to mop up any planets with the National League today. His name is Bob Gibson.”

Marci looked more closely at the face on the screen. “Oh, I recognize him now. He’s the one in that picture you have on your living room wall.”

She looked up at him suddenly. “Ah,” she said gently, “I think I see. Your boyhood hero?”

He nodded. “My boyhood hero.”

Marci said nothing more, but her eyes softened. She spent the next several minutes scanning the National League players on the readout screen. There were Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Ralph Kiner, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snyder, Roger Maris, Eddie Mathews, Henry Aaron, Gil Hodges, Richie Allen, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench …

“Just a minute,” she said. “Bench and Campanella are both catchers. Is there some mistake?”

“No. They’re both on the squad. They can’t both be playing catcher at the same time, but one could start in that position and be relieved by the other later on. Or if the manager wanted to keep them both in the game, he could let one catch and the other play another position, like first base or center field. He just can’t have more than nine men on the team at any one time.”

She turned off the screen. “This could be a very interesting game. There’s enough home-run power on both teams to knock down the Polaradome. Pity the pitchers.”

Then she looked at Tom and wished she hadn’t said it.

“You’re right,” he said. “They both have to face some terrible power out there.”

The “Star-Spangled Banner” sounded through the Polaradome; the people rose to their feet.

Then the umpire yelled, “Play ball!”

The game was on.

The National Leaguers came to bat in the top half of the first inning. Cy Young’s pitches cut them down with methodical, errorless precision.

Then the American League All-Stars came to the plate, and Bob Gibson walked out to the mound to face them. His pitches whipped across the plate like will-o-the-wisps, dazzling, deceiving, overpowering the batters. He threw eleven pitches and struck out the side.

The game was power. Power on the mound, power at the plate, power in the field. Cy Young and Bob Gibson matched each other strike for strike, out for out, inning for inning, shutting out the legendary batting kings of the game.

At the end of nine full innings of play, Young and Gibson had pitched a dual no-hit, no-run game.

“Incredible!” said Marci. “I certainly expected to see some hits and runs from all those champions out there.”

Tom grinned. “It’s hard to hit a blur.”

“Nine innings is normally the end of the game, isn’t it? What happens now?”

“They go into extra innings and keep on playing until one team is ahead at the end of a full inning. They call it ‘sudden death.’”

The sun went down and the great lights came on inside the Polaradome, and the duel of the pitching titans continued. At the end of fifteen innings, there were still no hits, no runs, and no errors.

In the top half of the sixteenth, with two men out and none on base, Jackie Robinson came to bat for the National League.

Cy Young’s first pitch was high and hard; Robinson tagged it squarely and drove it into center field just over Tris Speaker’s head. Robinson rounded first base and raced for second as Speaker came up with the ball and fired to second base. Jackie slid for the bag;

Ty Cobb fielded the ball—

“Safe!” yelled the umpire.

“What a runner!” exclaimed Marci. “That looked like a long single to me.”

“It was,” laughed Tom. “Except when Jackie Robinson’s running the bases.”

Stan Musial came to the plate.

Robinson danced back and forth along the second base line. Cy Young watched intently. Suddenly he threw to second, and Jackie slid back in, safe.

Young’s first pitch to Musial was low, and Stan swung for a strike. Robinson took an even longer lead off second as Young prepared for the next pitch.

Young whirled and threw to second!

Jackie slid into the bag, safe by inches.

Cy Young stood on the mound and prepared for his second pitch to Musial. Again, Robinson danced up and down the line, taking an ever more daring lead.

Young watched him, turned back to face Musial, and then watched Jackie again.

“Poor man,” said Marci. “He doesn’t know which way to throw the ball.”

“That’s part of the game,” said Tom. “When Jackie Robinson gets on base and starts dancing back and forth along the line, he has a tendency to drive the pitcher crazy.”

Young looked at Robinson, then wheeled and fired a fast pitch to Musial; Musial met it with the bat and laced it over the first baseman’s head and on into short right field. Mickey Mantle fielded it on one hop and threw to Lou Gehrig at first; Musial slid in just ahead of the throw.

And Jackie Robinson rounded third base and pounded down the line for home!

The crowd rose to its feet and screamed; Gehrig fired a strike to the plate; Yogi Berra gloved it.

In time!

But Robinson simply wasn’t there; he was racing back for third; Berra heaved the ball to Jimmie Foxx.

And Jackie reversed again and streaked home!

He slid across the plate inches ahead of the throw!

The fans were in a frenzy; Tom pounded the arm of his seat and yelled incoherently.

“Wow!” said Marci.

Duke Snyder came to bat next and hit a hard line drive to center field; Tris Speaker made a spectacular running catch and the top half of the sixteenth inning was over.

But the National League led now, one to nothing.

Bob Gibson walked out to the mound.

“This is it,” said Tom. “If he can hold them off just one more inning, it’s all over. Sudden death.”

Ty Cobb came to the plate, swinging a bat viciously.

Gibson’s pitch was a low, breakaway curve; Cobb swung and missed.

The next pitch was fast and belt-high; Cobb stepped into it and bunted, laying it down the first base line. Gibson raced for the ball; he fielded it right at the edge of the base path.

And Cobb’s shoulder smashed into his face!

Gibson staggered; the ball rolled to the ground. He brought his hands to his face in agony as Cobb crossed first base and looked back.

Tom was on his feet. “That was deliberate!

But Cobb was safe at first.

And Gibson was hurt. He stood where he was for several moments. Then he picked up the ball and walked heavily back to the mound.

Mickey Mantle was standing in the batter’s box. John McGraw walked out to the mound to talk to Gibson. They talked for a while; then McGraw nodded, looked once at Mantle, and went back to the dugout.

Gibson went through the motions of his pitch; the ball sailed down the strike groove and hung there, with nothing on it. Mantle blasted it all the way to the wall in left center.

Willie Mays raced for it, leaped high in the air, and took in on the carom. He heaved it to the infield in time to keep Cobb from scoring. Cobb scampered back to third base. And Mantle was in at second with a standup double.

McGraw went back out to the mound.

“Take him out, McGraw!” yelled one of the fans.

“Leave him in!” shouted another.

“He’s hurt, Tom,” said Marci. “He can’t pitch anymore. It would be cruel to make him try.”

Then a tall black man with white hair and broad shoulders descended from the stands and walked out to the pitcher’s mound.

McGraw stared at him. “Who do you think you are?” he demanded. “And what do you think you’re doing on the playing field?”

The old man looked at him quietly. “My name is Gibson. I came to pitch.”

“Gibson!” shouted Tom. “The real Gibson!”

Some of the fans began to chant, “We want Gibson! We want Gibson!”

“But he’s an old man now,” said Marci. “What can he do against those—machines?”

“He may be old,” said Tom, “but he’s still a man. And more than that, he’s still Bob Gibson.”

Down on the field, McGraw, player of the Games Machine, appraised Gibson, the man.

He was old.

But he was tall and tough.

“All right, Gibson,” said McGraw. “Go put on a uniform and get back out here. But I want a win!

Gibson’s eyes were dark and steady. “So do I.”

Gibson stood on the mound. The real Gibson, muscle, blood, and bones; old, white-haired, and full of fight.

He faced Lou Gehrig at the plate. The Iron Horse. Tris Speaker knelt in the on-deck circle, and Babe Ruth stood near the dugout. There were three outs to go, and that was the batting order.

And any one of the three could end this game with one swing of the bat.

He checked the runners. Mantle stood quietly just off second base; Ty Cobb jittered up and down along the third base line, chattering incessantly.

“Hey! Hey! Hey! Come on, old man, see if you can throw it this far! You’ll sure never get it as far as home plate!”

Gibson ignored him. He was watching Lou Gehrig in the batter’s box.

He wound up and pitched. His fast ball hopped across the plate and Gehrig cut through empty air.

“Strike one!”

Cobb, who had been coming down the line, ran back to third.

The next pitch was just as fast, but a little low.

“Ball one!”

Cobb trotted back to third. “What’s the matter, Pitch? Blown up after one toss?”

Gibson fired the next one down the middle, hard. Gehrig swung, the bat cracked, and the ball sailed off to the right, foul.

“Strike two!”

“Hey, Gibson!” shouted Cobb. “You look a little older after every pitch! Careful on the next one; it’s going into the bleachers—if you can get it as far as the plate!”

Gibson rested a moment. Then he put everything he had on a pitch down the inside corner; Gehrig swung for the fence—

And missed!

The crowd cheered heartily.

“The Iron Horse!” said Tom. “He struck out the Iron Horse!”

The next batter was Tris Speaker. Gibson whizzed the first pitch past him as he tried to bunt and missed.

Cobb, who had been rushing the plate, turned and dashed back to third.

Marci gasped. “Tom! Do you see what they’re doing? They’re going to make Bob Gibson field another bunt! Only this time he’s an old man! He doesn’t have a chance if one of those machines tramples him!”

She tugged his arm. “Tom! He may be killed!”

But Tom was already on his feet. “Stop the game!” he shouted. “Mr. Gibson! Don’t throw that pitch!”

Too late!

Gibson pitched the ball; Speaker bunted, not down the first base line, but down the third base line, right in the path of the onrushing Ty Cobb!

Gibson raced for the ball as the Games Machine player thundered down on him in a collision course; he scooped the ball up and the robot’s hunched shoulder hammered into his chest with a sickening thud. He went down backwards, a steel knee ramming into his stomach and an elbow grinding into his face.

Man and robot lay tangled together, unmoving.

And then the man stood up.

His face was bleeding and twisted with pain, but he stood tall and straight. And still clenched in his right fist—the ball!

He limped slowly back to the mound. He stood there for a few moments, breathing heavily. Then he ground the ball into his glove and checked the runners.

Tris Speaker had gone all the way to second on the play, but Mantle had held at third, not caring to challenge Bob Gibson’s defense of home plate.

There were two outs now.

But Babe Ruth stood in the batter’s box, waiting.

Gibson went into his windup and pitched; the ball sank lifelessly across the plate just above the ankles.

“Ball one!”

He rested for a few more moments. His next pitch was a little faster and a little higher, but inside.

“Ball two!”

“Take him out McGraw!” someone yelled. “If he ever gets it across, the Babe’ll murder it!”

Marci bit her lip. “It’s too cruel. They shouldn’t let him pitch anymore. He’s hurt. He’s an old man, and he’s hurt.”

Gibson stood unmoving on the mound, looking down the pitching lane at Babe Ruth.

Then he blazed a fast ball across the plate, belt-high; the Babe swung, connected sharply, and dribbled it off to the left, foul.

“Strike one!”

Gibson stood a little easier now, a little taller. He ground the ball into his glove, hauled his arm back, and pitched the fastest ball of the day, straight for the heart of the strike zone.

The Babe swung, and didn’t come close.

“Strike two!”

Blood and sweat streaked Gibson’s face; his white hair shone in the lights of the Polaradome. The crowd hushed, electric with tension, waiting for the pitch.

Gibson stood on the mound like Zeus of Mount Olympus, poised to hurl a world-splitting thunderbolt down through the clouds.

Then he leaned back and let his lightning fly!

It blitzed down the strike lane and thunder-clapped into the catcher’s mitt, and the Babe’s bat met nothing but the wind!

“Strike three!”

The crowd erupted onto the field, shouting jubilantly; the players of the Games Machine converged on Bob Gibson, lifting his human bulk to their steel shoulders, carrying him triumphantly around the diamond.

Tom stood where he was, unable to utter a sound.

Marci cried.

The lights of the Polaradome glowed against the night sky, towering over the other lights of the city.

Tom and Marci climbed into his car near the edge of the parking lot. She leaned her head against his shoulder. “Thank you for bringing me, Tom.” She looked out at the Polaradome. “It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”

“Oh—the Games Machine?”

“No. That magnificent old man.”

He smiled.

“Gibson is tough.”

“But how could a man do more than his own robot image?”

He watched the Polaradome lights wink out, one by one. “I think they didn’t get all of Gibson into the Machine.”

Illustrated by Larry Winborg