Food for the Sowles: Fantasy Baseball in the Old Days

by Bill Sowles

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 afterwards.

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 and strategies, and 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 into the LM on Sunday nights, prior to stat and transaction entry on Mondays and Tuesdays. 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 of 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. 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. In retrospect, the large league money pot became the mitigating circumstance that 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, and Yahoo 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. 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!



Categories: Major League Fantasy Sports

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2 replies

  1. Where I live we don’t get to drive snow mobiles during baseball season. That sounds intense, (Early Roto) and somehow I didn’t even know it existed till Yahoo started hosting leagues. My friends and I used to do our own primitive leagues using teams drafted with baseball cards. But the stats we used were the prior season’s stats off the cards. It was a H to H by position scoring system with points for the same major cats we use now, with trading etc. We would usually get through about 3 “seasons” in the summer till we got bored of the far too predictable outcomes. Then came Stratomatic and we were all set. Bill, you have a great way of dredging up fond memories. This time you reminded me of my Sunday ritual of grabbing the Sports Section of the old Bridgeport Post or New Haven Register (Local papers did not have this) and reading EVERY SINGLE box score from late Friday and all of Saturday. Then I would go to the back page which would have the cumulative year to date stats of all the players split by leagues. That is how i learned the players names and positions and who was starting and anything else that now would be in the “player news” section of ESPN. They would only have enough room to list players with enough AB’s to qualify for the batting title and only stretched down to about a .200 average and 5.00 ERA. That is when I learned what the Mendoza line was. The poor guy was the last one listed ever Sunday. Thanks again Bill.

  2. I love reading this story. It has such a great nostalgic view of fantasy baseball.

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