Baseball's second-greatest inventor shyly edges his long body into a small, cramped room of his Tucson apartment and tells you which Ethan Allen he's not. "I'm not the Ethan Allen who hawks Early American furniture," says Ethan Allen. "And I may be 87, but I'm still too young to have led the Green Mountain Boys." This is the Ethan Allen who lectured young George Bush on the importance of a strong defense and created Ethan Allen's All-Star Baseball, once billed as "the only scientific baseball game on the market."
Scientific, All-Star Baseball may be. Complex, it is not. The board game has been fairly simple since its inception in 1941. The current set contains performance discs for 62 ballplayers, from Honus Wagner to Don Mattingly. Each disc is a kind of pie chart on which a player's career stats are broken into various hit and out categories. You place the disc on a spinner in a cardboard stadium full of cardboard spectators. The number that comes up after a spin corresponds to a situation chart behind home plate. Remove the disc and whirl again for defense. "At my age," says Allen, "it's about the only way to take a spin around the bases."
Allen still has a lot of mobility in those long legs, and he uses it to lurch forward, head thrust out, while hunting around for a chair for his guest. His face is ruddy and smooth-skinned. His step is firm and his eyes are bright, clear and pleased when they wink at his wife, Doris. He's an affable fellow who speaks of his 13 major league seasons in sudden, sharp explosions of tongue.
He didn't play a day in the minors. The Reds signed Allen straight out of the University of Cincinnati. He spent his rookie year on the Reds bench. "They gave me $600 a year," he says. "I stayed up because I stayed cheap."
A lifetime .300 hitter, he played outfield for half a dozen teams. Allen's best season was 1934: He batted .330 with the Philadelphia Phillies and led the league in doubles. The following year, at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, he played centerfield during the very first night game. "The strange thing was that you could see your shadow in every direction," he says. "You could see the ball well, but it seemed to come in on you quicker."
His roomies included two Hall of Famers, Dizzy Dean and Hack Wilson. Dean not only bunked with Allen, but also bathed with him. Dean burst in on Allen while he was soaking in a hotel tub.
"Don't pull the plug!" shouted Dean. "I'm going to join you."
"No way!" Allen protested.
"I've got a date," said Dean, then plunged in.
"Dizzy was always an oddball," Allen says by way of explanation.
By the time the boozy Wilson roomed with Allen—in 1934—the only hacking he did was in his sleep. "Hack kept me up all night," Allen grumbles. "It was as much the stench as the noise. He coughed beer fumes!"
Allen dreamed up All-Star Baseball toward the end of his playing days. He peddled his spinning wheel of fortune all over toyland. Everyone passed. Finally, he got an audience with Don Mazer, the president of Cadaco, a Chicago-based toy-maker. Mazer pounded a fist on his desk. "That's an idea!" he said. "Let's do it." They've been doing it now for 50 years, updating the player discs every season. The first version sold for $1.25. It's up to $13 now and almost a million have been sold. Allen says he earns about $5,000 a year in royalties.
Allen got another chance to advise a president in 1947, when he coached Yale to the semifinals of the first NCAA College World Series. The Bulldog first baseman was a 23-year-old war vet named George (Poppy) Bush. Allen counseled Bush to lay off inside fastballs until he had two strikes. "I taught George the virtues of waiting," Allen says. Bush may have found that comforting during his eight years as Ronald Reagan's backup. The pre-Desert Storm Bush was renowned for his defense. "He caught all sorts of throws," Allen recalls.
Though Bush sends his old coach a card every Christmas, Allen refuses to vote for him. "No way!" he snarls. "I'm a Democrat, and George knows it." Which is not to say Allen thinks Bush is unqualified for government work. Back when the Senate was debating whether to confirm Bush as head of the CIA, someone telephoned Allen.
"If George could fathom my sign system at Yale," Allen told the caller, "he knows enough to be a spy."
An all-star trio: Allen (right), Yale first baseman Bush (left) and Babe in 1948.