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April 29, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Fantasy Baseball's Founding Fathers

by R. Emmet Sweeney

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

R. Emmet Sweeney is a film critic and fantasy baseball player who writes a weekly column for the official blog of Turner Classic Movies, Movie Morlocks. He has also contributed to Film Comment, Time Out Chicago, IFC News, The Believer, Moving Image Source and the Village Voice. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and the Ford at Fox box set. You can follow him on twitter at @r_emmet.

Fantasy baseball is a product of childhood solitude, when idle youngsters furtively build sandlot castles in their feverish minds, but it is an obsession that has found fertile ground in adulthood as baseball statistics have grown more complex and expressive. Schoolyard arguments about favorite players are now settled by quoting stats with bewitching acronyms like WARP. Almost every action on the field can be quantified, and fantasy games allow fans to see these magical numbers light up for their own players. This vicarious thrill encourages deeper immersion in the sport, until fake owners know more about 18-year-old prospects than their own mothers. It is a frightening and wonderful addiction.

One of the earliest documented fantasists was Jack Kerouac, who invented his own private ballgame as early as 1933. In his unpublished memoir Memory Babe, he describes his lazy afternoons as a 14-year-old in Lowell, Massachusetts: 

...by myself in the yard with a long new nail and a few ballbearings... I'd kneel there snuffle nosed in cold dusks pitching the little ball bearing towards myself and over the little plate and smacking it with the nail, the 'ball' would go lining over shortstop (which was a rock) and drop 'safe' outside the three huge outfield circles I'd drawn out there... Thus for years, and with my recordsbooks beside me in the mud [...] I carried on enormous pennants and world series [...]

His fantasy world was obsessively detailed and studiously tracked. He created an alter ego, Jack Lewis, who published a weekly newsletter (Jack Lewis' Baseball Chatter) of analysis and gossip. Lewis would banter about the merits of a "husky, raw-boned rookie named Buck Maxfield," while pungent monikers like Wino Love, Go-Go Golian, and Burlingame Jakes would pepper the rest of the rundown. For Kerouac, fantasy baseball was a one-man operation, a further escape into his own head that he played and refined until his death in 1969.

Imaginary baseball owes its transformation into a shared, social passion to a young boy in a West Philadelphia bedroom in the early 1940s. Seven-year-old William Gamson was quarantined with scarlet fever, shut off from the playground and his pals. To pass the days, he forced his menagerie of stuffed animals to play the national pastime in a manner similar to Kerouac’s. Dividing them into teams, he simulated entire seasons using a pen as the bat and a marble as the ball. He pitched with his left hand and batted with his right. If a batted “ball” touched a fielder, the hitter was out. He continued to play after his recovery and recorded all of the game’s statistics for the next few years (anticipating Pablo Sandoval, his Pandy Panda was the batting champion), stoking a lifelong passion for numbers and the games they enrich.

Gamson, however, was also interested in the interpersonal aspect of games. As Sam Walker recounts in his 2006 history Fantasyland, Gamson began looking for an outlet for his interest in game theory shortly after being hired as a research associate at Harvard’s School of Public Health in 1960. He invited two friends over and hashed out the rules for what became known as the Baseball Seminar. It was an auction, with each man spending his (fake) $100,000 budget on a roster of as many (real) baseball players as one could afford, regardless of position, and whose (real) stats were compiled throughout the coming season. The Baseball Seminar’s great innovation was pinning fantasy team points to live MLB games instead of performing re-enactments in bedrooms.

The Seminar tracked the few statistics Gamson could find in The Sporting News, eventually settling on batting average, runs batted in, earned-run average, and wins. At the end of the year, the numbers for each team were manually added up and a winner declared.

This diversion of Gamson’s went nationwide in the 1980s with the help of Robert Sklar. Currently a Cinema Studies professor at NYU, Sklar’s entrée into imitation athletics commenced with physical table-top games like Strat-O-Matic and APBA (American Professional Baseball Association). Strat-O-Matic and APBA are roll-based board games that use statistics from the past to simulate seasons with endless rolls of the dice: the higher a real hitter’s past batting average, the higher the probability that a roll will result in a hit.

Sklar played the game from when he was eight or nine until he hit puberty, using it as a resource to learn baseball history (stats are included for players from all eras, including veterans of the Negro Leagues). These table-top games were ubiquitous in the bedrooms of the baseball-drunka 2002 survey by Baseball America discovered that half of major-league teams' front-office executives played Strat-O-Matic type games as a kid, and that number is undoubtedly higher today. Obsessive stat-hounds are no longer considered awkward shut-ins, but canny careerists.

Memories of these roll-based heroics, accomplished on shag carpets and linoleum floors across the country, never seem to fade. Kevin Goldstein, the managing partner of Baseball Prospectus, once played a full 162-game season as the New York Mets, writing game notes and keeping stats for every play. He still remembers the nervousness he felt before he rolled Sid Fernandez to a no-hitter over the Montreal Expos. 

Sklar learned about the Baseball Seminar from Gamson while both were teaching at the University of Michigan in the 1960s. It brought him back to the game—which in turn led him to Daniel Okrent, “The Founding Father” of fantasy baseball, as dubbed by Sports Illustrated writer and fantasy player Steve Wulf. Okrent was an undergraduate at Michigan, and Sklar was his faculty advisor. Both were huge Strat-O-Matic fans, and a fortuitous friendship was hatched despite the 10-year age difference. (Okrent later became an author and the public editor of the New York Times).

On one momentous day in the 1970s, Okrent noticed Sklar planning his bids for the Seminar. Okrent's OCD imagination was further stoked in 1978 over his discovery of Bill James, the Kansas City night watchman who had been revolutionizing statistical analysis through his self-published Baseball Abstracts. Okrent’s profile of James in a 1981 issue of Sports Illustrated brought his revolutionary ideas to national attention. One of them was his Runs Created metric, which weighted walks as much as hits, a heretical concept.

With Jamesian analysis singing in his head in the '79-'80 offseason, Okrent set out to build a fantasy game that would more accurately reflect the one on the field. Teams would be selected in an auction format, just like the Seminar, but they would be limited to 23 roster spots; every position on the field had to be filled, including historically light-hitting ones like catcher and second base. In the Seminar, teams could load up on as many slugging first basemen as they wanted. Okrent's system would force fantasy players to do research beyond the well-groomed stars and into the callow rookies and paunchy veterans that fill out pro rosters. Also unlike the Seminar, trades were allowed and encouraged.

Then Okrent expanded the statistics that would be counted for each team, using four for hitting (batting average, home runs, runs batted in, and stolen bases) and four for pitching (earned run average, wins, innings-pitched ratio, and saves). He invented the IPRAT (innings-pitched ratio) stat himself, devising it while playing Strat. It is now more commonly known as WHIP (walks and hits divided by innings pitched), and is a useful shorthand way to track how well a pitcher keeps opponents off the basepaths.

In Okrent's 10-team league, the leader in each statistical category would receive 10 points, second place would get nine, and so on down the list. The team with the most total points would bring home the pennant, and according to the league's tongue-in-cheek constitution, "the owner of the championship team shall have a bottle of Yoo-Hoo poured over his or her head by the preceding year's pennant winner. The Yoo-Hoo Ceremony shall be performed with the dignity and solemnity appropriate to the occasion." 

Okrent recruited his friends to join the league at La Rotisserie Francaise, an old-school French restaurant at which they gathered to talk Phillies baseball, and which ultimately gave their league its name. Gamson was also a Philadelphia fan, and he opined that the Phillie-fantasy nexus is perhaps related to how "hopeless it was rooting for them" at the time. The team was a doormat when Gamson started the seminar in 1960, but was in the midst of a revival led by Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton at the dawn of Okrent’s game. The Phillies won their first World Series in 1980, an inadvertent blessing of the inaugural Rotisserie league, which also crowned its first-ever champion that year, The Getherswag Goners, owned by Pete Gethers and Glen Waggoner.

Fantasy baseball shifted allegiances from the team to the player. To a total Rotisserie convert, there was no such thing as franchise loyalty. All that mattered was transcendent individual feats. Seven years ago, I was wearing the blinders of fandom for my bedraggled New York Mets, ignorant of the league aside from Mike Piazza’s declining skills and robust Fu-Manchu. After my first fantasy draft I started tracking highly-touted prospects and journeyman relief pitchers around the MLB. Talent directed my obsession, so this year I’ll spend as much time watching the Cincinnati RedsJay Bruce and the Cleveland IndiansCarlos Santana as anyone on the Madoff-bilked Mets squad.

The most banal match-ups become charged with meaning when fantasy points are on the line. Sklar, another adoptive Mets fan, ascribes a subversive jolt to cheering for his Sklar Gazers (the Rotisserie manual emphasizes the silliness quotient in team naming) over the pro team, remembering a trip to New York’s Shea Stadium when one of his Gazers, Montreal Expo Jeff Reardon, shut down his formerly beloved Metropolitans with the bases loaded.

No one captured the obsessive, joyous irrelevance of playing fantasy baseball better than Robert Coover, in his 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968)The book follows Henry Waugh, an accountant who has devoted his life to an imaginary baseball league whose games he simulates in a complicated dice game (not unlike Strat, or later iterations of Kerouac’s game). He plays through decades of seasons, charting his players' lives, loves, politics, and deaths in the Book, his official archive and document of his fertile, all-consuming imagination. It's where Hatrack Hines, Long Lew Lydell, Grammercy Locke, and the tragic Damon Rutherford have their myths engraved into fake history. Coover captures the strange joys found in the immutability of statistics, which represent a parade of mini-dramas that will never end because there will always be another game:

American baseball, by luck, trial, and error, and since the famous playing rules council of 1889, had struck an almost perfect balance between offense and defense, and it was that balance, in fact, that and the accountability—the beauty of the records system which found a place to keep forever each least action—that had led Henry to baseball as his final great project.

William Gamson, Robert Sklar, and Daniel Okrent did not intend to pursue fake athletics as their “great project,” but they were drawn to the mystique that Coover lays out. Baseball is unique in team sports in that every play is a one-on-one battle, pitcher and batter, and every inch of that conflict can be measured. There is a hermetic completeness to a single baseball play that appeals to compulsive minds that use Rotisserie gaming to further explore the intricacies of that perfection. Playing fantasy sports does not replace the real game, but burrows further into it, revealing productive unknowns and aging superstars coasting on reputation. It prizes the individual over the group, searching for talent regardless of uniform, and rekindles that youthful wonder of constructing a world within a world.

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