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A classic Cardinals roster in a classic arcade cabinet

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VS. Atari RBI Baseball is like the Nintendo game I grew up with, with an important twist.

Photo by the author, after a few Todd the Axe Mans.

I consider myself something of an expert on the baseball video games of the late 80s and early 90s, but this past weekend, I stumbled onto something I had never seen before:

An arcade version of RBI Baseball - featuring a lineup of all-time Cardinal greats.

I was at the original Up/Down (coming soon to St. Louis), and a few Todd the Axe Mans in, when it appeared through the green haze... almost like a dream. If you didn’t grow up with this game, that may not move you. But for those of us who played hundreds of games of RBI Baseball, this is like finding buried treasure.

When I think back to how I really got to know the St. Louis Cardinals, there were occasional games on TV, there were baseball cards, but more than anything, there was RBI Baseball for the Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1988, we might have played a few earlier games like Nintendo Baseball or Atari Baseball, but RBI was the first game most of us had seen which featured REAL ROSTERS.

And if you were a Cardinal fan, you were in luck. Only eight teams were included in the game: The division winners from 1986 & 1987. And that ‘87 Cardinals roster was a blast to play. Vince Coleman’s speed was what the kids today would call “OP.”

Unlike today, when every sports video game franchise launches a new edition with updated rosters every year, RBI was your lone option with real rosters for several years. So as a Cardinal fan, you could continue playing in a world of late Whiteyball excellence while the actual team began its slide into early 90s mediocrity.

Over the years, as RBI Baseball has appeared on various virtual consoles and emulators, I’ve always enjoyed the chance to go back to that moment in time - not just my own childhood, but a great moment in Cardinals history. So that’s exactly what I expected when I stepped up to the arcade cabinet.

The cabinet itself is actually the Nintendo VS. System - a modular unit that was designed to be switched out into any number of games, should the current title underperform. You may have seen one of these same cabinets used for games like Duck Hunt, Top Gun or Dr. Mario.

The first big difference from the classic Nintendo console version came when I got to the team select screen.

The arcade version features 10 teams, with no All-Star teams... and this list includes the Chicago Cubs. Now I’ll admit, it was fun that Cubs fans could not play their team on the original RBI, but every story is better with a villain. So I of course opted to pit the heroic SL against the wicked Ch.

Next came the Starting Pitcher select screen, and alongside the familiar names of Tudor and Worrell were Gibson and Dean. That’s when I realized that the game featured not those same ‘86/’87 rosters I grew up with, but all-time great rosters... supplemented with plenty of those ‘86/’87 players.

So what did an all-time Cardinals roster look like, when compiled by some video game programmers in 1987? It looked like this:

(Credit to this website, which had already compiled the rosters.)

Some interesting things in that lineup. I was a little surprised to see Curt Flood included, but then it’s probably worth noting that this game was licensed by the MLB Player’s Association but not Major League Baseball itself. So, you know... suck it, owners.

The stat lines for each player looks (more or less) like peak years, but I wondered exactly how they determined them. Turns out, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge. Some do represent AVG/HR from a single year. That’s Ken Boyer’s 1961 and Ted Simmons’ 1975, for example.

In other cases, they’ve taken an AVG from one season and a HR total from another. That’s Musial’s 1951 AVG and his 1948 HRs. It’s his highest single season HR total, but his 4th highest single season AVG. Whereas these days, I’m sure such numbers would be derived from a complex formula designed to replicate a player’s median performance over their peak years, I’m guessing these came from a couple guys picking numbers off a stat sheet.

Even more perplexing is the Jack Clark line. He never batted exactly .297, and his career high in HRs was 35... and that came in the year this game was released. But hey, I loved Jack Clark as a kid, and in 1987, it sure felt like he could hit 41 home runs... so maybe they were going with their gut?

I should mention, there is also a bench. Here’s what it looks like:

Tough call putting Joe Medwick’s 1937 Triple Crown season on the bench. Me, I probably start him in left field over Lou Brock. But this was the 80s, and people loved stealing bases. It’s a challenging roster for the manager, what with a bench of four outfielders and one first baseman. Better hope Ted Simmons doesn’t take a foul ball off the nuts.

Any of you ever seen this game before? It was obviously out there, but after taking a cruise around the internet, it seems like it is not well known or remembered today. So may this post rise high in the Google Search Algorithm for all Cardinal fans looking for a fun throwback arcade game to enjoy with or without a beer.