Throwback Thursday: When Innovation Bros Were Software Ballplayers

Back in 1985, techies duked it out not in Twitter beefs, but on the baseball diamond.

East Coast Softball Software League

Photo by Paul Fortin for “Floppy Disks and Floppy Gloves”

Back in 1985, the South Boston Waterfront was Whitey Bulger’s twisted playground, not the glimmering hodgepodge of luxury high-rises and Legal Seafoods spinoffs it is today. It had yet to be rechristened the Innovation District by the late Mayor Tom Menino, and filled with countless startups, seemingly all with “-ly” tacked on to the ends of their names.

Back then, Boston’s techies weren’t fussing over the next Uber-but-for-ingrown-toenails. They were floppy disk hawkers, pushing everything from office solutions to Ghostbusters video games. In Boston magazine’s July 1985 issue, Art Jahnke (now of BU Today) waded into the strange, cutthroat world of the East Coast Software Softball League, where these code monkeys did battle:

Its season runs from May to August. There are nerds in the infield, geeks in the batter’s box. Entire squads (which by league rule must include at least three women) of semi spastic entrepreneurs from the new frontier of American business. They are 30-year-olds who have made millions creating games for 12-year-olds; 35-year-olds who have made tens of millions publishing computer programs for business. It is an industry of laid-back excellence and cool competition that often heats up on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, when the software softball warriors meet at Tufts athletic fields for several innings of “sport.”

With names reminiscent of Office Space companies, teams faced off—some in Hawaiian shirts, others in jerseys with binary numbers on the back—in contests that too often served as proxy wars between industry competitors. The number of teams in the league would change from season to season, as some companies, like Acorn Computer and Softrend, were acquired. Business and Professional Software, two months into the league’s first season, took out an ad in the Boston Globe for a third baseman.

Last year, when Softrend dropped a play-off game to Miller Communications, the losing pitcher was reduced to tears. When Spinnaker Software Corporation lost to Lotus Development Corportation, Spinnaker CEO Bill Bowman drove back to his office and fired off a telegram chastising Lotus CEO Mitch Kapor for his conspicuous absence from the field of play.

If only Drake and Meek Mill settled their tiff over telegram.

Most of the companies mentioned in Jahnke’s piece are long gone. Lotus, the team everyone wanted to beat, was acquired by IBM in 1995 for $3.5 billion. After going public on the NASDAQ in 1991, Spinnaker was acquired by The Learning Company in 1994, and subsequently swallowed up by bigger fish Mattel in 1998. So it goes.