The Saga Of The MLB Trivia Challenge, As Told By Tom Merritt And Bob Costas | WAMC

The Saga Of The MLB Trivia Challenge, As Told By Tom Merritt And Bob Costas

Mar 4, 2021

If you’ve ever played the MLB Trivia Challenge board game, you may have wondered, “Where did all of these statistical questions come from?” They were created long before Google, and the game itself is the result of one upstate New York man’s life’s work.

“I think 1975 World Series probably one of the most memorable of all time,” Tom Merritt said. “Great seven-game World Series between the Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds Big Red Machine. Carlton Fisk’s famous sixth game home run sent it to a seventh game where he’s waving furiously for the ball to stay fair making it a game winning home run so…”

Merritt first had the idea to invent a baseball trivia game in 1974, when he was in grad school for Sports Administration at Ohio University.

“We would get together socially, out of class,” Merritt said. “And it seemed like, invariably, if someone had a baseball encyclopedia the men sort of gravitated to a room and they were gathered around that baseball encyclopedia and started, you know, quizzing each other.”

He realized he wanted to make a trivia board game that would play like a sport.

Tom Merritt with his game, MLB Trivia Challenge, at Shamrock Tavern in Cornwall-On-Hudson.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

“So I thought at that point if I could find a way to package sports trivia into a format that actually was a game, not just a quiz, a game that had elements of strategy and luck besides the essential game of knowledge, that I might be able to do something with it,” Merritt said.

Merritt had no idea he was starting a 45-year journey to see it made.

In 1975, Merritt got a job doing publicity for NBC Sports in New York City. During this time his board game dream was on pause. But over a decade later he left NBC to become executive director of Thoroughbred Racing Communications and over the years had been tinkering with an idea to have some sort of grid square, board game, trivia challenge – filled with sports statistics but also requiring strategy. By 1993, after countless pieces of cardboard and construction paper had been cut, Merritt had a playable model.

“And it was just trial and error,” Merritt said. “I didn’t have any mathematical wizardry. I would just plug in these values until all of a sudden I said, ‘Eureka! I’ve got this, you know, format here where they’re all lined up, where it all works.’”

WAMC's Jackie Orchard speaking with Tom Merritt, creator of MLB Trivia Challenge, at Shamrock Tavern in Cornwall-On-Hudson, NY.
Credit Matthew Burton

With a board ready, the next step was to test it out on some sports fans. Merritt called up some old friends from his NBC days to meet up in New York City and take the rough model for a spin.

“I would lay out the game and they would play head to head,” Merritt said. “And those were very important sessions because, you know, they had fun. And it proved to me that I had a game that could entertain sports fans.”

The same artist who designed Pictionary made him a sexier prototype, but Merritt says an unproven game from a novice inventor was a hard sell. Another problem: he had no way to mass produce it.

“Because of all the custom artwork and the question cards and everything of that nature I just said, ‘this is probably going to be the end of the line. I’ve got this nice prototype but I’m not going to be able to produce it.’ I don’t want to have 50,000 boxes in my garage somewhere and a huge bill as a result,” Merritt said.

Looking for any way to get the game made, he developed a software version on CD. Merritt remembers buying all the jewel cases himself, adding barcodes and shrink-wrap, and handing out the game for free at

Merritt first tried getting the game made as a CD computer game called Box Score, which Bob Costas played with his kids.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

sporting events.

“Taking laptops to tastings at breweries, sporting events – I actually demonstrated the game outside the Times Union Center in Albany when the NCAA wrestling championships took place there,” Merritt said.

Merritt says it was rough. He was getting positive feedback, but not making any money.

“I would, like, almost beg stores to take it on consignment,” Merritt said.

Merritt says his greatest stroke of luck came in the form of sportscaster Bob Costas, who enjoyed playing the CD version with his kids. Costas says baseball is a sport that celebrates statistics and memory. He says it’s perfect for a trivia game.

“Everything in baseball, everything, is quantified,” Costas said. “Every at-bat. Every third of an inning pitched. Every ball fielded. Every ball in play. Plus it has the longest history of any of the team sports that we follow in America. Generational comparisons are more apt to come up in conversation regarding baseball than the other sports.”

WAMC's Jackie Orchard quizzing Ian Pickus and Jim Levulis with Merritt's sports trivia questions in the studio.
Credit Ian Pickus / WAMC

Costas says baseball’s rhythm leaves plenty of room for obscure stats and forgotten trivia.

“The pace of the game allows for conversation and comparison,” Costas said. “Whether you’re watching the game on TV, sitting in the ballpark, or up in the broadcast booth talking about it. So, these statistics and little oddities and anecdotes are just more part of the texture of baseball than other sports. They exist in other sports, they just exist to a greater extent and are more important in baseball. So there’s a lot to tap into when it comes to a trivia game.”

Merritt says even with Costas’ endorsement, the game just didn’t sell.

Merritt’s big break came in 2004 when USAopoly, a company that makes custom Monopoly games, needed Q&A content for a board game it planned under a license with ESPN.

“They needed a board game format, and they also needed content,” Merritt said. “And I had both.”

Merritt had over 2,000 questions and answers ready. The game became ESPN All-Sports Trivia Challenge and Merritt, who would receive royalties, was finally done hustling CDs. USAopoly also used Merritt’s format for NFL Gridiron Trivia Challenge.

Things were looking up.

But five years later — another bump in the road. USAopoly decided its sports licenses were too costly and the agreement was terminated.

The computer game version of MLB Trivia Challenge: Box Score, which Bob Costas played with his kids.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

Fast forward to 2018, after freelancing for almost a decade, Merritt lost his main media relations account and turned his attention back to his dream. He did some research and found MasterPieces Inc. — a publisher of puzzles and games. And another stroke of luck: Merritt realized the owner, David Rolls, happened to be a former college and minor league baseball player. So, he asked for help from an old friend: Costas.

“I thought his idea for a sports based trivia game, box score, was a really good idea. Like a sports version of Jeopardy,” Costas said. “He had a little bit of trouble finding a home for it but he stayed with it because he believed in it.”

Costas wrote a letter to Rolls backing the game. Not long after, Merritt got a message from Rolls, who wanted to talk.

Merritt sealed a licensing agreement in 2019 to write content for an MLB game.

He spent months preparing 1,000 questions for the game. Merritt hadn’t written trivia questions in about 15 years and he says with new technology, the process was much easier, but still all-consuming.

“It was an ongoing process,” Merritt said. “I used to keep borders notebooks and if I’m reading a newspaper story, I’m reading a Sports Illustrated or something, I would circle it. I’d have all these magazines and things laying around with circles or dog-eared pages meaning there was something on that page that I could make a question out of. And it was a periodic thing. It was ongoing. It was almost like trivia had taken over my life.”

Costas says he knows the feeling, and has embraced it.

“I think being close to the games and being around broadcasting and having access to so much more information just deepened that connection, especially to baseball,” Costas said. “I always was into it when I was 9, 10, 11 years old. But now I just have a deeper knowledge of it and greater access to information should I want it.”

Merritt later wrote another 500 questions for the NFL version. Both games — MLB Trivia Challenge and NFL Gridiron Trivia challenge — are now available at the MasterPieces website and other retailers.

But Merritt says his journey isn’t over.  

“There is one more, you know, break I could get. And that is if someone of influence is playing this game

Tom Merritt's game model and trivia questions have been used for three different games.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

and says, ‘This is a good game, you know, this should be a TV show.’”

Merritt says Costas is the natural choice to host an MLB Trivia Show. And Costas isn’t ruling it out.

“Now that every league has its own network – there’s an MLB network, there’s an NHL, NBA, and NFL network. And they have programming 24/7 365. So that is the natural landing place for a game like this turned into a television show,” Costas said. “Think Jeopardy with just a few little additional wrinkles.”

Costas says he doesn’t have to host it – but he would.

“And I would think that with all the programming slots on these one sport only networks, it’s a natural,” Costas said. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already and I hope it does happen at some point down the line.”

Costas says if you turn on the TV and see him hosting Merritt’s show one day —

“I’ll be able to say, ‘I got the job on Merritt.’ Might’ve been Tom Merritt rather than my own merit, but at least I got the job on merit!” 

Merritt is now 69. He just got trained to give tours at West Point and he’s a part-time teacher at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Speaking recently at a favorite sports bar in Cornwall-on-Hudson, he says the best thing about finishing the game is that it proves you can have a second act in life, and you don’t have to resign yourself to being “put on the shelf.”

Tom Merritt signing his game, MLB Trivia Challenge, for the WAMC newsroom staff.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

“Being able to make a comeback. To not just let it fade away,” Merritt said. “That determination to explore new opportunities.”

Costas says Merritt serves as a reminder of how wholesome sports can be. He says networks have gotten away from that. 

“He’s a throw-back to a time when people regarded sports a little differently,” Costas said. “When it was less… You know talking about sports now and debating sports has almost become a blood sport. You watch these debate shows on the various sports networks and these are not always civil discussions. Whereas before it used to be more genial. Sure people had their preferences. Somebody liked Willie Mays, somebody else liked Mickey Mantle better, blah, blah, blah. But now, we don’t so much critique as condemn. We don’t so much have preferences as out-of-control passions, in some cases. And that’s taken, I think, a lot of the charm out of it. But Tom, because of his age and because of the kind of person he is, comes from a gentler perspective when it comes to sports. And I think this game kind of feeds into that.” 

“I never really thought it was gonna be a path to riches,” Merritt said. “But the evolution and seeing my friends enjoy playing the game and then see total strangers enjoy playing the game –  I just had a good feeling about it. As a sports fan, this was my ambition: Create something that sports fans could enjoy.”

Costas, by the way, has played MLB Trivia Challenge.

“Yeah, I have. Um, and I did pretty well at it,” Costas said.

No surprise.

We couldn’t do a story on a game without playing it ourselves, so our Ian Pickus and Jim Levulis went

WAMC's Ian Pickus (left) and Jim Levulis (right) playing MLB Trivia Challenge in the studio. Listen to the story audio above to hear how they did!
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC

 head-to-head for a few rounds in the studio.

The verdict?

This game has the ability to bring you great pride or great shame. So in that way, it’s perfect for sports fans.

But mostly, it did exactly what Merritt hoped it would for all those years. It brought us all together.

Tom Merritt holding MLB Trivia Challenge at his favorite sports bar, Shamrock Tavern, in Cornwall-On-Hudson.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC