Glenn Guzzo

 

TOM SWANK

Strat-O-Matic Missionary Plays His Final Game

 

By Glenn Guzzo

 

Tom Swank, whose passion for life was seldom more vivid than when he devoted himself to playing Strat-O-Matic, was buried Friday with a Brooklyn Dodgers cap in his coffin and a set of dice in his pocket.

 

Four of his league members attended the funeral in Clifton, N.J., Friday morning, and then drove to Strat-O-Matic’s Opening Day to pick up his new baseball cards, as Swank had done many times.

 

The man with the huge hands and booming voice called himself “The Bear,” which could also describe his mood after losing a close game of Strat-O-Matic baseball. But game-company employees affectionately dubbed him “The Muffin Man.” The nickname fit his role loading trucks for the Thomas English Muffins company and his custom of bringing muffins to office manager Rita Larnaitis on his periodic visits to Strat-O-Matic headquarters. But it also described a softer side to a man who, even in retirement, reached out to teach the game to young children. And who occasionally spent the last dollars in his wallet to buy trophies for the Strat-O-Matic baseball tournaments he loved to convene.

 

Though cancer was his companion and steadily drained his strength for the last year and a half, Swank remained a tireless recruiter for the hobby to the end, eager to find new face-to-face opponents or to link by computer to gamers across the country and overseas.

 

Alan Rowland, who played Strat-O-Matic with Swank for 22 years, said the number of people Swank introduced to the hobby “might have been hundreds.”

 

Even after being told in the past month that there was nothing more doctors could do to stop the cancer’s spread, Swank was planning how to re-tool his team for the forthcoming season. But the cancer became too strong, Swank entered a hospice on Jan. 22 and five days later he was dead at age 60. Son Bryan Swank said his father had been playing Strat-O-Matic since he was a teenager, which would date his gaming to SOM’s earliest days. He played again on the day he entered the hospice, his last full day of lucidity.

 

“He was a wonderful person and a great Strat-O-Matic player. And the game was a big part of his life,” said Strat-O-Matic creator Harold Richman, who spoke to Swank at length last year at the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, N.J.

 

Knowing that others would be coming for Swank’s order on Opening Day, Richman called out Swank’s number first, only to find that Rowland and friends had not yet made it to Glen Head from the funeral.  

 

But Richman told the man’s family this week that Swank “would always be in the company’s Hall of Fame as a special devotee.” 

 

 “He was committed,” Bryan Swank confirmed Friday. Then, in the cheerful spirit that marked the comments of family, old acquaintances and new ones about this high-spirited man, the son added, “There were times we thought he should have been committed.”

 

Cancer progressively forced Tom Swank to sleep more often, yet more than once Bryan discovered him at his computer at three in the morning, with a baseball encyclopedia at his side and the Strat-O-Matic game on the screen.

 

“Dad, what are you doing?” Bryan would call out.

 

“And he would sort of growl that he was putting together a few teams for a new tournament he had thought up.”

 

“Dad wasn’t just a player, he was an innovator,” Bryan Swank said. “He set up a tournament that required gamers to draft 26-man teams made up of players whose last names started with every letter of the alphabet. Another league was of players who had three or four letters in their last name. Another only had players with batting averages below .250. Or he’d take last-place teams and add a Hall-of-Famer to make them better.

 

“His drafts always seemed to last 3-4 months at a time.”

 

In the last week of his life, he was still taking calls for a tournament he hoped would attract 100 gamers to play off the best teams among all the Strat-O-Matic card sets that have “groundball A” chances on pitcher cards.

 

But when it came to playing face-to-face, Swank usually could not wait. Just before Christmas a year ago, Bryan Swank said, his father was pushing a friend towards a new draft. The friend replied, “Tom, it is Christmas, can this draft wait until after the holidays?”

 

“My father was dejected, like a girl told him she didn’t want to go out with him.”

 

            The countless games he played never dulled Swank’s enthusiasm for looking at the cards, finding a new playmate or feeling the emotion of title-clinching wins and losses.

 

            He went to Strat-O-Matic’s Opening Day whenever work did not interfere, Rowland said, because, “Like a kid, he wanted to be first on the block to get the cards.”

 

             Rowland also recalled his misfortune in beating Swank for a league championship 1983, clinched when Rod Carew hit his first home run of the year.

 

“Tom, who always preferred the original split cards, grabs my 20-sided die, pounds the table with those hands of his that were the size of canned hams, cusses and throws all of my dice behind the refrigerator at his house. I only got one of the dice back that day. I had to keep bugging Tom. Finally, about six months later, he returned them, but he hadn’t bothered to clean them – they still had the dust bunnies on them.”

           

            While the tales of Swank’s temper and extreme devotion to the hobby are irresistible, his friends and family most enjoyed telling the stories that showed Swank’s warmth.

 

            In passing, Swank leaves behind his wife, Maria, adult sons Bryan and Eric and adult daughter Helene. But he had a special place in his heart for young children, especially Justin, whom Bryan described as “the grandson he loved more than Strat-O-Matic – the only thing that could keep him from playing.”

 

            Writer Debra Galant tells how Swank befriended her then-10-year-old son, Noah Levinson, when all had gone to meet Richman at the Yogi Berra Museum in mid-2002.

 

            “Tom had overheard me asking Mr. Richman about the ballpark effects at Coors Field. Afterwards, Tom came up to me to recruit me. He always wanted a woman in his league. I was feeling very flattered. I later learned Tom recruited anybody, anywhere under any circumstance. I told him he wanted to talk to Noah – he was the one who knew baseball.”

 

Noah had been playing Strat-O-Matic for just six months, but soon his mother and his father, Warren Levinson, were driving him the half hour to Swank’s house, where he was by far the youngest in Swank’s circle of gamers.

 

“Noah was Tom’s protégé,” Rowland said, and Swank would tutor the boy in Strat-O-Matic. The happy end to the story is told in the Christmas card Swank sent to Noah this past December: Noah would be getting a trophy soon.

 

Other than Noah’s age, there was little new about Swank’s generosity to those who shared his hobby. At his tournaments, Swank regularly provided food and drink, as well as trophies, baseball books and more.

 

“He hated for anyone who put in the time to go away empty-handed,” Rowland said. “He wanted everyone to be a winner.”

 

When league members visited Swank in the hospice on Jan. 22, Swank was pre-occupied with a last wish, a favor to ask of his friends: Get some games done. Then make some deliveries. He had some final trophies to award. He was sorry that, for the first time, he would not be able to deliver them himself.