Canada Bill Jones was a con man and riverboat gambler from Yorkshire, England. An 1877 article in the Dallas Times Herald once described him as being, “gentle as a woman and cunning as a fox.” He is not particularly relevant to what follows, except in one regard. There’s a story about Jones and fellow gambler George Devol. It’s said that Jones was playing cards when Devol asked him, “Don’t you know the game you’re playing in is crooked?” Jones looked up and said, “Of course it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town!”
That brings us to Atari’s 1978 title Home Run. While it wasn’t the world’s first baseball video game (a title which belongs to Videocart-12: Baseball) , it was pretty darn close. Intellivision’s Major League Baseball, a decidedly superior game, wasn’t released until 1980. So, for all intents and purposes, Home Run was the only game in town.
Home Run was baseball in its most rudimentary form. You could choose between eight game modes, but the only difference between modes was the number of players on the field and the number of players. Modes one through four were single player and featured one, two, or three fielders respectively. The fourth mode featured three fielders, but they were spread further across the diamond. Modes five through eight were two player, with each option varying the number of ball players on the field.
Fielders all moved in tandem, responding to the joystick. You couldn’t throw the ball from one fielder to another. To get a put out, you had to either step on a base or tag the player. You also couldn’t catch the ball for an out. Every hit was a ground ball, even the home runs.
The rules were those of standard baseball. Games lasted nine innings, there were three outs to each half inning and three strikes were an out. It was possible to get a walk, either through four balls out of the strike zone or by getting hit by a pitch. Players could control the direction of pitches, throwing a fastball, curve, screwball or change up by moving the joystick after throwing the ball. From the offensive side, players swung the bat by moving the joystick. Base runners could be managed by pressing the red button on the controller, which would keep them from continuing to advance on the base paths.
Despite its flaws, the game remains curiously entertaining. It’s no longer the only game in town, but it still draws in players. Perhaps it’s the ineffable charm of the sport. As James Earl Jones said in Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.“