The first bad sign took the form of Colonel Mustard, clad in the whole big-game hunter getup. He stepped onto the dais and looked across the sun-soaked atrium of the Strong Museum of Play ⏤ Tetris-patterned carpet, giant-mustachioed Mr. Potato Head, towering statue of Superman, assembled crowd ⏤ like he owned the place.
Every year on the first Thursday after election day, the National Toy Hall of Fame inducts its newest members in a brief 15-minute ceremony that is part press conference, part dinner ⏤ well, breakfast ⏤ theater. Sixty-two iconic toys, including LEGO, Star Wars action figures, G.I. Joe, and the Rubik’s Cube, have been honored since the Hall opened in 1998. Examples of those inductees now sit in glass cases in the institution’s retrospective galleries. Those displays are the ultimate honor in American toydom. There is no display for the Magic 8-Ball.
The Magic 8-Ball has made the 12-toy nomination list for the Hall of Fame seven consecutive times. Having already been passed over for Hot Wheels, Little People, Army Men, Chess, Dominoes, Twister, and the Rubber Duck, it was this year’s darkest horse despite the fact that sand ⏤ just sand ⏤ was also nominated. Did anyone expect it to knock off Matchbox Cars, My Little Pony, PEZ Candy Dispensers, Risk, the Wiffle Ball, Clue, Transformers, or Uno? Partisans and sentimentalists hoped it might. There was, after all, some precedent. Former Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York (140 miles as the crow flies) four months earlier after showing up on his seventh ballot and spending the better part of a decade as sportswriter shorthand for “almost, but not quite.”
So, outlook not so good. And it got worse still when a giant paper airplane swooped over the assembled crowd of media, staff, and the stray family enjoying an early Thursday at the museum. Colonel Mustard, now joined on the dais in front of a faux fireplace by Professor Plum and Miss Scarlet, gasped in surprise.
“The paper airplane!” exclaimed the Strong Museum of Play’s VP of Collections, Christopher Bensch, from his glass podium. “The first inductee into the National Hall of Fame.”
Somewhere outside Cincinnati, Abe Bookman did a 360 in his grave.
The Toy Hall of Fame induction process starts four months before the ceremony in a nondescript conference room inside the museum’s offices. After collecting public nominations for a year (more than 4,000 came in), an internal committee of 10 curators and historians winnowed the list down ⏤ some public nominees are unacceptable, ludicrous, or already in the hall ⏤ to 500 toys and then 12 finalists. That last “and then” took a few weeks of meetings.
“We sit around a table, we talk about it, we compare notes, and assess,” says Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, a curator on the committee who specializes in toys and dolls and who advocated for the inclusion of the simple tea set. “And we all have our personal favorites… Some people do try to bribe each other with treats, just for fun, but it never works.”
The task is, for toy experts especially, Herculean even if the goal is straightforward: choose a mix that best meets the Hall of Fame’s four-part criteria. The selected toys had to be iconic ⏤ that is, “widely recognized, respected, and remembered” ⏤ and popular with kids from multiple generations. Twenty years is the unofficial minimum age, so fidget spinners were not in the mix. The toys should “foster learning and creativity” and be so innovative that they changed an entire area of play or toy design, much as Nintendo’s GameBoy (inducted 2009) did for video games and the Super Soaker (inducted 2015) for water play. Parnett-Dwyer said this year’s debate over the nominees was mostly civil, but others acknowledge that it has over the years ⏤ by curatorial standards ⏤ gotten heated at times.
The Magic 8-Ball was the fifth most popular toy nominated out of 500 and easily made it onto the list of finalists. And it’s easy to understand why. The toy is a classic. Patented as a pocket fortune teller by Ohio businessmen Abe Bookman and Albert C. Carter in 1946, the Magic 8-Ball was, in its original form, a 20-sided die emblazoned with responses (10 positive answers, five negatives, and five non-committal) floating in a tube of blue fluid. Carter’s brainchild, the device was inspired by his supposedly clairvoyant mother, who used this “Syco-Seer” with her clients. When Carter died in 1948, Bookman put the tube inside a hollow plastic “crystal” ball, making it a great deal more marketable. In 1950, the ball caught the attention of Brunswick Billiards, which slapped on the iconic 8 Ball design and sold the product as a paperweight until it became clear that kids wanted to play with it. After that, the 8-Ball rapidly became on icon. Mattel bought the rights in 1997 and has sold millions since.
The Magic 8-Ball had a unique story and a massive fan base. What it didn’t have this year, according to committee members, was a champion.
Clark King did not vote for the Magic 8-Ball. A founding member of the Association for Games & Puzzles International, King sits on the Hall’s 25 member National Selection Advisory Committee and has since the Toy Hall of Fame relocated to The Strong Museum in 2002. (The museum started in Salem, Oregon by the guy who invented the Erector Set. Not surprisingly, that was the first toy inducted.) The committee is made up of historians, educations, and toy experts from across the country, and is tasked with voting on the winning toys. Each member is given one week to rank their top three picks using a weighted system that places a higher value on first-place votes. Their votes aren’t binding, but it’s rare that the toys they choose are vetoed by the Hall.
“I get it cold, look at the whole list, and agonize over it,” says King, who was one of the few advisory members in attendance at the ceremony and whose expertise clearly inclined him toward Clue and Risk. “I have a small collection of board games. Several thousand, in fact. You could say I have a passion for board games.”
The committee decision are made largely in private and largely in the absence of lobbying efforts. Surprisingly, actual toy companies rarely lobby either committee for their toy’s inclusion. In fact, they often don’t even remember until it’s too late and the process is well along. “I wish they were arriving with suitcases of money trying to woo the decision,” says Bensch, “But they do not.”
For all the nominating support the Magic 8-Ball received at the outset, committee members heard nary a peep from its fans or from Mattel. In fact, Mattel declined to even offer a comment on the Magic 8 Ball’s nomination ⏤ not even a boilerplate “We’re honored just to be nominated.” Nothing.
Fans do sometimes get involved. After Raggedy Ann was inducted in 2002, weirdly obsessive zealots put on a big push to correct the perceived injustice of Raggedy Andy’s exclusion. They ultimately succeeded ⏤ he was inducted in 2007. “It was a little odd,” says Nicolas Ricketts, a 26-year veteran curator of the Museum and member of the internal committee. “But in the doll world, these are classics.”
More often than not, though, the largest fan pushes come from school children simply writing good-natured letters as part of a class project. This year, there were no public grassroots campaigns, but there was a big drive by fans of PEZ and Matchbox Cars to tilt the museum’s online poll, which committee members can consider as part of their thinking if they want. King just sat and thought about it. He made his choices. He sent back the ballot.
The Magic 8 Ball’s most obvious rival among this year’s other nominees was another plastic ball: the Wiffle Ball. The slotted projectile had a few things going for it that the 8 Ball did not: It’s something that kids, in massive numbers, play with actively and it has been manufactured by the same family-owned company since its invention by a semi-pro baseball player in 1950s. The Wiffle Ball had a feel-good story and when it was announced as an inductee (“Centerfield” by John Fogerty blared in the background), David Mullaney, the soft-spoken grandson of the inventor who’s also the current president of Wiffle Ball, Inc., adjusted the mic and offered heartfelt and humble gratitude. The applause was loud and sustained.
After that, the inevitable denouement came as Colonel Mustard and company endured a joke about being clueless than lofted a Parker Brothers box. As the ceremony ended, the velvet rope blocking the stairway up to the open-aired gallery was lowered and guests streamed up to nod approvingly at display cases empty of Magic 8 Balls.
The Magic 8 Ball was no longer Jeff Bagwell. It was worse. “It’s Susan Lucci,” joked Bensch, referring to the actress who was nominated 19 times before finally taking home a Daytime Emmy.
But why does the Magic 8-Ball keep falling short? What went wrong again this year? It’s an iconic toy that’s been around for over 60 years, has sold millions, and has a sizable, albeit predictably indecisive fan base. Yet it can’t break through. It would be much easier if we could refer to Clue’s lifetime batting average or home run total, but no one keeps statistics on joy.
The committee members tried to speculate ⏤ the competition is tough, there are just better toys in the mix, it’s too niche, sometimes world events enter the equation ⏤ but nobody could put a finger on the problem with the Magic 8-Ball, the thing making it ever so slightly less great than the greatest toys ever. “I do think that even though it has the longevity we’re looking for, it appeals to a very specific kind of audience that might like the idea that it’s sort of magical in a way,” says Parnett-Dwyer before adding, contemplatively, that “it’s just a matter of we can only put this many in.”
“It’s really difficult to pick two or three out of 12, it’s tough,” says Ricketts. But having been involved in the process for so long, he’s also quick to add some reassurance. “Any good classic toy eventually, if it really deserves it, will make it into the Toy Hall of Fame.”
The committee members hardly seemed worried about its chances moving forward. They agreed, in varying terms and using various turns of phrase, that its induction was likely inevitable. But it’s failure to garner the necessary support to date remains indicative of, well, something about the toy and something about toys more broadly. The Magic 8-Ball is a beloved and iconic product, but it doesn’t seem to trigger the same sentiment as similarly beloved childhood staples. And if anything was evident from the committee members, it’s that those fond childhood memories play a profound role in a toy’s selection.
At its core, it’s an icosahedron reverse engineered by psychologists to offer playful moments of intrigue and vague answers to life’s ‘important’ questions. But intrigue and light occultism don’t trigger the sort of lasting memories that make play more than just fun. Sure, everybody remembers playing with a Magic 8-Ball as a kid. But how many remember it as their favorite toy?
And maybe that’s the difference between a shoo-in inductee and a toy that lingers on the Hall of Fame’s ballot. Maybe the difference is whether people feel genuinely thankful for or merely satisfied by a product. Either way, the Magic 8-Ball is a satisfying enough toy that it will almost certainly make it past the velvet rope at some point.
“I think it’s eventually going to get in,” says Bensch, “To put it in 8 Ball speak, it definitely looks good.”