Commentary

"We had no idea"

The highly improbable story of fantasy baseball's creation 30 years ago

Updated: April 14, 2010, 12:03 PM ET
By Morty Ain | ESPN The Magazine
Glenn WaggonerAll of the members from the first Rotisserie awards ceremony.

This article appears in the March 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

On this, the 30th anniversary of the greatest invention known to mankind -- sorry, travel coffee mug, that'd be Rotisserie Baseball -- there are so many people to thank. The professor who contracted scarlet fever as a young boy. The two Wolverines who shared a love of Strat-O-Matic. The Phillies fanatics who regularly gathered at a New York City bistro. Improbably and magically, they all played a part in creating the game that's now enjoyed by more than 30 million fantasy freaks. In fact, it's such a crazy story of coincidence and inspiration that it can be told only by the characters who lived it.

ROBERT SKLAR -- ORIGINAL ROTISSERIE OWNER
Since I basically began to walk, I was a baseball fan. My father took me to a game at Ebbets Field, and of course I played Strat-O-Matic and APBA. Later, in the 1960s, when I went to the University of Michigan to teach, I had a colleague named Bill Gamson. We were sitting around with other colleagues one day, and someone says, "Hey, you want to join this game?" They were talking about the National Baseball Seminar, a crude forebear of sorts to Rotisserie. I said, "Sure, why not?"


BILL GAMSON -- CREATOR OF THE NATIONAL BASEBALL SEMINAR
I was always tinkering with rules of games. All games can be improved upon, and you don't necessarily have to work within the establishment of the game.


ZELDA GAMSON -- BILL GAMSON'S WIFE
Bill won't tell you this, but when he was a little boy he got scarlet fever. At that time they put infected kids in quarantine, so he didn't go to school for six months when he was 6 or 7 years old. But he had a lot of stuffed animals, and he made a baseball team out of them. He had them swing at marbles with a pencil bat, and he kept their statistics. Maybe he learned that games will save you.


BILL GAMSON
In the spring of 1960 I was in graduate school dealing with a lot of game theory for my work, and I wanted to create the Baseball Seminar as a kind of diversion. So in my apartment for five hours, two buddies and I hashed out the rules for an auction of all MLB players using four statistics: batting average, RBIs, ERA and wins. We felt these statistics reflected productivity, but in truth there wasn't a tremendous availability of statistics back then. We knew these four would be published in all the papers.


SKLAR
I was the academic adviser for a student named Dan Okrent. He was very, very bright. He never joined the Baseball Seminar, but we stayed in contact after graduation, talking various book projects and going to baseball games together.


DAN OKRENT -- ROTISSERIE INVENTOR
As a student, I had heard about Gamson's game from Sklar, but it didn't make an impression on me other than it probably buried itself somewhere deep in my cerebellum and became the germ of my idea. Then, during the mid-'70s, I got more deeply into baseball than I had ever been before. I did The Ultimate Baseball Book, I began writing about baseball, I played Strat-O-Matic.


GLEN WAGGONER -- ORIGINAL ROTISSERIE OWNER
Dan knew more about everything than anyone I had ever met and have ever met since. He knows weird and strange things about history and about sports, although baseball is clearly his first love.


OKRENT
I came up with my idea in the offseason between 1979 and 1980. Not to disparage Gamson's game, but the difference between his game and mine was the difference between a covered wagon and a rocket ship.


SKLAR
In the Gamson game, all you wanted were sluggers and highaverage hitters. There were no trades, you just sat back and watched your numbers. Dan's intent was to make you a virtual GM.


OKRENT
I wanted our league to be an auction because it was a more logical way of forcing people to allocate resources like a real owner. I also wanted the statistics to be meaningful in the context of baseball, and a 22-player roster -- later 23 -- with players at every position. I decided arbitrarily that pitching and offense would be half. It was an NL-only league, and I prototyped various statistical combinations against the actual performance of the NL East over the preceding five or six years. I found that if you had taken those six teams and ranked them by eight categories -- average, home runs, RBIs, steals, wins, saves, ERA and WHIP -- it tracked close to the actual standings. I thought: That's it, I'm done. We just needed owners.