McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center to host Rack-O tournament
When Frank Whitehead came home from his accounting job at U.S. Steel's National Works, he did what he enjoyed — he invented games.
One of those games, Rack-O, will take the spotlight on Saturday when the McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center hosts a Rack-O tournament. The goal is to introduce the card game to folks who may not be familiar with it and reintroduce it to those who haven't played in many years.
The tournament begins at 1 p.m. and is open to players 10 and older. Registration can be done that day. There will be a selection of family games up for grabs. The event is sponsored by Winning Moves Games, which is providing copies of Rack-O for the festivities.
“I think my dad would be excited about the tournament,” Celia Whitehead-Horner said during a visit to the heritage center. “He was very proud of the game. But my mother would be over the moon about the tournament. I think she would have been more excited than my dad.”
Whitehead, a 1928 McKeesport High School graduate who passed away in 1978, began inventing games in 1937 and Rack-O was his first commercial success. It was accepted and marketed by the Milton Bradley Company in 1956 and the family continues to receive royalties.
While going through her father's collection of game models, she found a copy of a letter he sent in 1957 to James Shea, the president of Milton Bradley. Thanking him for his first royalty check, his daughter said the letter “adds insight into the kind of person my dad was and the relationship he had with Milton Bradley.”
Whitehead wrote: “I want to say that this is a wonderful country. A country where a complete stranger can walk into a large manufacturing company with nothing but fifteen years of prayer and a suitcase full of dreams, and walk out with hope and renewed faith in his fellowmen. And I want to say that any company that can do that for a man is certainly an integral part of our democratic way of life.”
“He worked with the top people at Milton Bradley,” she said. “Everything was done by handshakes, which would never happen today.”
Whitehead-Horner said that first check was just over $3,000. In the first year, an ad campaign to promote the game resulted in sales totaling $63,616.75.
“It wasn't a lot of money, but it was enough to give my mother (Smyia) a nice life,” she said. “It certainly wasn't over the moon, but it was enough.”
She said her father would take the games to the Springfield, Mass., company in a suitcase. “There were no contracts, just handshakes.”
Rack-O is a card game of strategies as players place 10 cards on their rack. Each player takes turns drawing and discarding cards, replacing cards in their rack in ascending order.
While that game is still around, Whitehead had several other games accepted and sold by Milton Bradley, including the only game authorized as the “official” game of the 1964 New York World's Fair. Not only was there a board game to mark the event, visitors to the World's Fair could purchase the game in a “mail home” souvenir envelope. The mail version was a pop-up game that featured attractions at the fair.
Around the same time, Whitehead had a third game on store shelves, the Carol Burnett Spoof Game and a few years later Stump made its way into stores. Super Rack-O was introduced in 1983. The original version of Rack-O is sold by Winning Moves Games in stores like Barnes & Noble.
Whitehead-Horner — a 1964 McKeesport High School graduate who lives in Arizona with her husband John — has many letters her father received from Milton Bradley, most of which were “round-trippers. Most of them say things like ‘there is not enough appeal,'” she said, adding it never discouraged her father from coming up with new ideas.
Some of the games the Beaver then Lee Street resident developed include Basket-Bounce (“which they showed interest in for years,” his daughter said), Run the Gauntlet, Shuttle, Lily Flip, Jugglette (“that's one of my favorites,” Whitehead-Horner said while demonstrating how it works), Splits, Links, Official Marble Range, Crazy Arrows, Howdy Doody Egg Race, Many Feathers, and Hit the Numbers.
“I remember every table in our house had games on them,” she said. “What's so amazing is that he cut out each piece of wood for the games by hand — and all the games and the pieces were wood. Even Rack-O-Lette, the original name, was wood when he submitted it.”
Admitting she doesn't know how most of the games worked, Whitehead-Horner likes guessing. For instance, she thinks Official Marble Range involved shooting marbles. “He had a lot of white wooden marbles. I think he tried to market and sell that one on his own.”
Many of the games involved color or number patterns. “The fact he came up with the possible combinations and wrote them down is amazing,” she said, looking at the sheets containing all the possible combinations for some of the games.
Whitehead did more than work in the mill and invent games. He was a basketball star in high school and a writer of poetry.
“He wrote a poem when JFK died and he always wrote one for the family Christmas cards,” she said, noting, “The sentiments in those cards were stunning. My brother's son, Frank, put together a bound collection of my dad's poems and gave a copy to the family members in 2002. Unfortunately my mother died before it was done,” she said, holding back tears while reading some of the poems.
Reflecting on her father's accomplishments, she said, “When you're a kid you don't appreciate all those things as much.”
Carol Waterloo Frazier is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1916, or firstname.lastname@example.org.