Cory’s Fantasy Evolution Article
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With the first pitch of the 2015 season a mere hours away, be sure to read this article written by Cory on the evolution of fantasy baseball. This is a longer version of a piece that appeared in the MLB.com Fantasy digital magazine.
It’s only appropriate that, like baseball itself, no one knows really when fantasy baseball was born.
It may have been in 1951, when the APBA board game was first introduced, or 10 years later, when Strat-O-Matic baseball made its debut. That same year, a random game generator was programmed into an early supercomputer in the IBM lab in Akron, Ohio.
Or maybe it was in 1968, when Robert Coover’s fantastic novel, “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” described a game with contrived players competing in a league formed of its namesake’s own imagination.
But in reality, fantasy baseball’s Big Bang happened in 1979, when a New York City writer and editor named Daniel Okrent filled his time on a flight from Hartford, Connecticut to Austin, Texas by devising the rules that would forever change baseball fandom.
Jotting down basic rules on a piece of paper, Okrent devised the first 4×4 scoring system, choosing categories based on stats that were easily found in the box scores published in daily newspapers. Remember, this was before the Internet, mobile devices, or even USA Today!
By studying the standings of recent seasons, Okrent determined that seven categories — batting average, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases for batters, along with wins, ERA and saves for pitchers — best correlated with teams’ final division finishes.
For the eighth and final category, Okrent selected a stat he had concocted while playing Strat-O-Matic (there’s that name again) games during his youth, a stat he coined IPRAT, or “Innings Pitched Ratio.” That unfortunate name didn’t stick, as it later became known as “walks and hits divided by innings pitched,” or “WHIP.”
Okrent soon gathered with several friends from the publishing business for their regular lunch at La Rotisserie Francaise restaurant in New York, proposed his new game, and the Rotisserie League — and the modern fantasy baseball industry — was born. Its first draft took place on April 13, 1980, at the Manhattan home of legendary book editor Cork Smith.
“It felt like you were in a men’s club,” recalled Peter Gethers, co-owner, along with Glenn Waggoner, of the leagues’ first champion. “You felt like you should be smoking cigars and sipping brandy. Instead we were drafting overpriced relief pitchers.” Yep, some things never change!
Many early fantasy players were introduced to the game by the well-connected publishing figures who populated that league, particularly after a 1980 article in The New York Times and another the next year, by Okrent himself, for Inside Sports magazine. With little else to write about during the 1981 strike, many baseball writers authored columns about the Rotisserie League, spreading its notoriety even further.
By 1985, this big-city phenomenon had spread sufficiently that this baseball-obsessed teenager from the suburbs earned his first introduction to fantasy baseball, a welcome progression from the solitary seasons I had constructed playing APBA at my desk. My uncle, a New York attorney and fantasy early adapter, shared his roster with me, and I co-opted the name that I’ve used since for most of my teams: “The Schwartzstops.”
By 1988, I had joined my first-ever league, an NL-only keeper league with my best friend Rod, who had joined a league with his college friends at Washington & Lee University. I opened the 1989 season by making my first-ever trade via snail mail — yes, we wrote trade offers in letters delivered by the USPS because, as college students, we couldn’t afford the long-distance phone calls over our dormitory pay phones — when I acquired a mid-tier starting-rotation booster named Bryn Smith in exchange for a little-known outfield prospect named Larry Walker. In a cruel twist of irony, it was Walker from whom I stole the simple axiom “hitters hit,” which has informed much of my fantasy strategy since.
Meanwhile, the popularity of fantasy baseball continued to soar, driven by the early Sabermetric concepts of the Bill James Abstracts, and in 1986 Ron Shandler published the first edition of the Baseball Forecaster, the first publication to apply more sophisticated data analytics to fantasy.
Fantasy baseball eventually infiltrated actual Major League front offices, and I spent the 1992 season working for the Yankees and talking fantasy in the press box with early pioneer John Benson, while the club stumbled to its last losing season before the birth of the dynasty that would win four World Series rings in five years. That was the year I learned the “no cheering in the press box” rule, earning a withering glare on Opening Day from my boss Jeff Idelson after I celebrated too noticeably when my fantasy first baseman — Mo Vaughn of the visiting rival Red Sox — clanged a homer off the right field foul pole.
The concept of the “experts league” was introduced in 1994, as John Hunt of USA Today recruited some of the biggest names in fantasy baseball — including Waggoner, James, Shandler, Greg Ambrosius and then-ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann — to join him in the brand-new Leagues of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR).
Olbermann and ESPN were can’t-miss viewing for fantasy owners in the 90’s, as we eagerly huddled around our televisions at 10 p.m. each night to see which of our hitters earned mention in the “Daily Dinger Diary” on Baseball Tonight.
Hunt, of course, had earned his place among the fantasy baseball founding fathers when, as the head fantasy sports writer at USA Today Baseball Weekly, he led the publication of its annual Fantasy Preview, affectionately known as “The Leviathan.” Now, of course, fantasy preview publications are numerous — available online and in mobile apps — and updated daily.
Shandler departed LABR in 1998 to form Tout Wars, which today pits industry experts in five different competitions, many of them using rules and stats categories that would’ve been completely foreign to Okrent less than 20 years earlier. In recent years, Shandler has launched monthly leagues, enabling fantasy owners to challenge themselves with entirely new teams throughout the season.
By the turn of the century, the growth of the Internet had spurred an explosion of new leagues, and those of us who used to update our league’s standings by copying the AL and NL stats published in USA Today on Mondays and Tuesdays could now choose from a variety of web-based league-hosting and stat services.
In 2001, MLB.com was born, and with it, Beat the Streak was introduced. In this contest, you need only to pick a new player every day, and your streak grows if that player gets a hit. Get a hit every day for 57 straight days to beat Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 record streak of 56 games, and win what has grown to a $5.6 million grand prize. No one has won in the 14-year history of the contest, though one user put together back-to-back streaks of 31 and 27 in 2006, meaning the record would’ve been broken if Joe Crede had managed a hit on June 27 of that year. Michael Karatzia holds the current record with a 49-game streak in 2007.
In the 14 years since the introduction of BTS, fantasy baseball has continued to grow and spread in new directions and new formats, offering nearly unlimited opportunities for competition: high-stakes national competitions, monthly, weekly and daily fantasy sports, and even a survivor-style “pick ‘em” contest on MLB.com. Daniel Okrent’s original 4×4 format has been widely replaced by 5×5, with runs and strikeouts added, and many leagues use customized categories and arcane scoring formats.
But for all of fantasy baseball’s evolution, one aspect has remained constant: all leagues crown champions. At the end of that inaugural season in 1980, the very first Rotisserie League gathered in honor of its triumphant co-owners and introduced another fantasy tradition: the “Yoo-Hoo shower.”
“It was particularly sweet and disgusting and gooey,” said Gethers.
That ritual still occurs today, but — like many other aspects of fantasy baseball — it has been honed. Apparently, the first Yoo-Hoo shower nearly ruined the carpet, so subsequent ceremonies usually take place in bathtubs.