“Food for the Sowles” Fantasy Baseball in the Old Days

I started playing FBB (fantasy baseball) in 1981. Our league was based upon the book just released titled “Rotisserie League Baseball” written by Dan Okrent and Glen Waggoner. The concept of Rotisserie (Roto) baseball came to be as a result of a discussion about a “fantasy baseball league concept” between Okrent, Waggoner and some friends in a restaurant in New York City called “La Rotisserie Restaurant”.

Keep in mind these were the “pre-internet” days. Our initial league was a $260 auction league of real money. All money went into the aggregate prize pool. Additional transaction fees were accrued throughout the course of the season, and you could expect to pay anywhere from $350 – $500 for your team. There were 14 teams in our early leagues, so the prize pool was obviously very significant.

We met once a year here at Lake Tahoe for the annual draft, and since I was working at a casino, we were able to utilize a casino penthouse on top of the building to conduct our draft. Everybody showed up with their own “system” of handwritten notes, clipped out magazine articles (Bill Mazeroski’s annual “Baseball Prospectus” was a must have), and hand-crafted draft boards complete with individual team breakdowns by position and money left, position scarcity, etc. I had a friend at a local market, an ex-ballplayer himself, who would call me immediately right around April 1st when the Mazeroski magazine arrived at his store.

These draft instruments were guarded carefully, as nobody wanted anyone else to see their “system”, to the point that when someone left the draft room on a bathroom break or to get something to eat, they would either lock up their collateral in their briefcase or take it with them. Keep in mind that nobody could arbitrarily just leave on a break – breaks were pre-defined “timeouts” so as to not interrupt the continuity of the draft in progress. The draft usually ran from 8 – 10 hours, and we had an auctioneer that we paid with copious amounts of beer. Cocktail service was provided by the waitresses from the Food and Beverage department (and they made a fortune off of some of us). It was not uncommon to buy your “friends” all they could drink during the draft to “help” their draft. A lot of the guys stayed overnight in the hotel after the draft because, frankly, nobody was in any shape to go anywhere after the draft.

We were all intellectually drained after the insanely long, intense drafts that we had. The draft was sort of like a marathon, intense poker game with everybody studying each other’s moves, strategies, constantly updating player scarcity charts, finances, cheat sheets, etc.

After the draft, the team rosters were hand input into a rudimentary PC-based BASIC program we had written. Subsequent to that, after initial rosters were input, stats were hand input weekly into a computer based upon the weekly USA Today stats which came out on Monday and Tuesday for the AL and NL respectively. Weekly transactions were telephoned in to the LM on Sunday nights, prior to stat and transaction entry on Monday and Tuesday. There were no “free agent pickups” in those days. You had to have a “natural opening” (either a D/L’ed player or player sent to the minors) in order to solicit a free agent. If you were stuck with a bum pitcher, like a Sid Monge, you could only hope that he got hurt or sent down, otherwise you were stuck with him and cringed as you read the daily box scores from the previous day’s games. Again, there was no Internet, so you had to make sure you had a reliable daily newspaper that had the previous day’s box scores. Roster sizes were very close to what they are today in traditional Roto leagues, with the exception that you carried 2 catchers. Each manager had to take a rotating turn on Sunday nights fielding and recording the called-in transactions to be forwarded to “The Commissioner”. The Commissioner was paid $400 annually for his services for inputting the stats weekly, running the reports, etc. After the laborious process of data entry of the stats, standings and transaction reports were printed and hand delivered to all league members, which sometimes took several days to distribute. It was particularly interesting at times distributing the stats during times of blizzards, but our resolve was on par with the Post Office: “the stats must get through”. Sometimes, during these heavy snow periods, whoever had a reliable 4-wheel drive was delegated to deliver the stats, and on more than one occasion, we delivered the stat updates by snowmobile.

Over the years a lot of the guys relocated and moved away, but they still all came back for the annual draft. We had one manager who was in the field of education and had taken a teaching job at an institution in Calcutta, India. Believe it or not, he came back to Lake Tahoe for the draft the next season after he had moved overseas. Another fellow flew in annually from Colorado for the live draft.
The league lasted for some 18 years with a core group of original members before it finally ran out of gas. Internal dissention from elaborate and complex rule changes, in conjunction with a series of skeptical trades among new replacement members was the leagues ultimate demise and in retrospect, the large league money pot became the mitigating circumstance which led to internal strife and strained relationships which caused some people to act out of character.

Fantasy baseball sure has come a long, long way in terms of technology and flexibility. The game has evolved from those early days of hand-written charts and sheets of the early 80’s era, to PC-based software applications towards the end of that decade where leagues were solely maintained on a PC, to Internet hosted sites of the 90’s in which various companies like TQ Stats hosted leagues, to it’s present platform of Internet leagues in the new millennium in which players like ESPN, CBS, Yahoo, etc. began to host multitudes of leagues. Where I once purchased numerous periodical baseball magazines prior to each draft, and wrote hand-written notes and cheat sheets, there are now a countless number of online technical references, projection tools, and resources available to all. Nowadays, it takes much less time to play in 10 different leagues than it took to play in just one league in those days. Although these modern tools can be priceless in their execution, a small part of me still misses the “good old days” of paperback magazines, highlighters, and hand-written cheat sheets. Here’s a cheer to “fantasy baseball in the old days”, and good luck to all with your drafts and your teams this upcoming season, fellas!



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4 replies

  1. Great story Bill. Very well said and put together. It makes me think of when I was a kid playing baseball and collecting baseball cards. I could recite the stats of players you never heard of because I was so into it. I had a huge advantage on most people in a discussion because of that but, these days you can just Google it and there it is. I love the new technology because we could not do what we are doing with MLFS now. I still love the “old days” when you had to do your own research to learn everything!

  2. I agree, great story Bill, very well written. I did not get into fantasy sports before the internet, but I was in leagues early on in the dial-up days. I would go to the library a couple times a week to check and change my teams on yahoo because I could not afford a pc back then. The first leagues in which I was the League Manager however I did it all on paper and it took a lot of my time. Writing out rosters and matchups and making sure everyone had a copy, taking phone calls at all hours for changes and trades and add/drops. I also ran a 86 person weekly football pick’em, $10 at beginning of season, winner take all. After a while that got to be too much, but technology advanced enough to the point where I didn’t have to do so much except track everyone down to pay, (a yearly hassle).
    Wow, I have not thought about it until now, but I have been doing fantasy for 17 years, not quite the 30 years Bill has been doing it, but still a long time.

    Thanks for sharing Bill, it’s good to hear those types of timeline stories.

    • Evening, Tobias~

      Thank you for the kind words regarding my blog entry. As I wrote it, it brought back a lot of fond memories as I took the proverbial “trip down memory lane”, so to speak. That was a rather astute observation you made about computing via “dial-up” connections. I had forgotten about the days of modems, and the painfully slow process of watching a webpage load – one line at a time. Yikes! I’m looking forward to getting to know the guys, and ultimately getting into the league full-fledged.

      Thanks again for the reply, and I’m looking forward to yacking with you and talking baseball.

      Bill Sowles Lake Tahoe, Nevada

  3. Reblogged this on Major League Fantasy Sports and commented:

    Anyone who has not read this is cheating yourself.

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