THE MAIN PLAYERS
BILL GAMSON THE BASEBALL-MAD PROFESSOR
ROBERT SKLAR PLANTER OF THE ROTISSERIE SEED
DAN OKRENT THE POLYMATH INVENTOR
VALERIE SALEMBIER THE FOUNDING MOTHER
GLEN WAGGONER THE BUMPKIN TURNED INAUGURAL CHAMP
STEVE WULF THE BASEBALL WRITER WITH TEAM OF GOLD
ON THIS, THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE GREATEST INVENTION KNOWN TO MANKIND-SORRY, TRAVEL COFFEE MUG, THAT'S BE ROTISSERIE BASEBALL-THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE TO THANK. THE PROFESSOR WHO CONTRACTED SCARLET FEVER AS A YOUNG BUY. 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 wising 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.
SKYLAR 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 off-season 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 high-average 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.
VALERIE SALEMBIER-ORIGINAL ROTISSERIE OWNER Iwas advertising director for Ms. magazine,and one day at 11:30 in the morning I get a phone call from Dan Okrent. I knew Dan a bit because my boyfriend at the time had worked with him at Texas Monthly. Dan said, "Listen, I know you like baseball, but there is something we need to discuss with you. Meet us at such-and-such bar." So I go to this bar, where they promptly quiz me about baseball like I was on a job interview. A couple of days later I get a call that I had been accepted as the only female in the league.
OKRENT There were these fellow Phillies fans I had fairly regular lunches with at La Rotisserie Francaise on 52nd Street in New York. It was an ordinary, affordable, quiet French restaurant. Two of them said yes to joining the league-Lee Eisenberg and Cork Smith-and three said no. Eisenberg brought in Rob Fleder who worked with his at Esquire. Cork brought in Tom Guinsberg, who worked with him at Viking Press. I brought in Bruce McCall, and old friend who would go on to work at The New Yorker. Then I called Sklar, and he called Glen Waggoner and I called my lawyer, Michael Pollet.
WAGGONER Of the 11 owners, I was the last person in. They approached me, and I thought it was interesting, but I couldn't afford it. The entry fee was $250-our budget for the auction. That was serious money back then. But I found a partner through mutual friends in Peter Gethers, who was an editor at Random House, and we formed an ingainly franchise called the Getherswag Goners. I admit: I was intimidated. Sure, I found my way to graduate school at Columbia, and worked these as an administrator, but I was still a well-accented bumpkin from Texas-and here these people worked for Esquire, worked for big publishing houses and did covers for The New Yorker.
OKRENT Collectively we were ironic, amused and amusing. We took great pleasure in the verbal play-by-play at the draft.
SALEMBIER They were animals. We did the first draft in the dining room of Cork Smith's apartment around this big oak table like a conference room, and it was no fun at all. It was dead serious. Everyone was a little anxious, no jokes were thrown around, very intimidating.
OKRENT Two memorable things about the first draft: A number of people who weren't in the league came by to watch because they had heard about it. I thought that was a pretty good sign. The other thing was Bob Sklar's girlfriend told him that if he goes to this thing, their relationship was over. He came, and the relationship was over, and then he married a wonderful woman. So the fact that he has now been married to his wife for more than 20 years I attribute to Rotisserie baseball.
ROB FLEDER-ORIGINAL ROTISSERIE OWNER I had the "$100 outfield"-I bought Dave Kingman, Ron LeFlore and Bobby Bonds for $100, which crippled my pocketbook for the rest of the draft. Nobody knew what players ought to cost; we were all equally ignorant and blind.
SALEMBIER They thought I was an idiot and tried to get me not to bid on certain players. "Oh, Valerie, why would you spend $5 on on Gary Carter, that's really stupid." By the end of the draft I was so exhausted I wanted to cry. But I think I generated a little bit of respect with my performance.
FLEDER Valerie has gone through much of her career showing people who didn't want to lose to a woman what it was like to lose to a woman.
OKRENT That first season was very active in terms of trades.
SALEMBIER They were relentless with trade offers, always bombarding me at work. "Carter is not doing so well, you ought to think about trading him." What do you think I'm an idiot? Usually those phone conversations would end with my telling them to kiss my ass.
FLEDER Guys like Bruce and Tom couldn't get out fast enough because they felt like they were having their pockets picked.
OKRENT Even though it's 30 years later, Bruce's trade of Omar Moreno for Dave Goltz and Elliott Maddox still stands out. Maddox had no Rotisserie value, Goltz was medium level at best and Moreno was one of the top basestealers in the NL. The league's reaction was pure rebellion and anger. "What are you doing, you shmuck!" "You fool!" "You ass!"
WAGGONER Yes, we fleeced McCall on that one.Of course, Peter and I then tried to trade Moreno ...
PETER GETHERS-ORIGINAL ROTISSERIE OWNER Yeah, I actually called Michael Pollet, who I didn't know well. He says, "I can't really talk trade because I'm arguing in front of the Supreme Court in and hour." Then I said, "Yeah, but we are talking about Omar Moreno here! Sixty steals!!!" Then there was a pause. "Hold on, maybe I have a few minutes."
WAGGONER We also lucked out big-time on Neil Allen at the draft. Got him for $2.
NEIL ALLEN-FORMER METS PITCHER I was short starter in 1979-probably because I wasn't very good at starting. Coming into 1980, I had no idea what my role would be. I deserved to go for nothing during the first Rotisserie draft. I was a mystery man. Nobody was sure about Neil Allen. Heck, I wasn't sure about Neil Allen.
WAGGONER Turns out, he was the best relief pitcher in baseball that year. And thanks to Neil Allen, Neil Allen and Neil Allen, we won the only championship that really matters, in my opinion.
ALLEN I'm just glad to hear I helped anybody win anything while playing in my early years with the Mets.
WAGGONER At the awards banquet at Cork's place, Peter and I showed up in tuxedos and white tennis shoes. Peter's old girlfriend at the time and my girlfriend-who's now my wife-came in cheerleader costumes. Our team was the Goners, so they had blue sweaters with a big red G and short skirts, and we had big cigars for the team photograph.
SALEMBIER They were shocked that I finished fourth, so I received a round of applause and the honor of pouring the ceremonial can of Yoo-hoo over the winner's head. Very vindicating.
OKRENT I don't remember whose idea it was to pour Yoo-hoo over the winner's head, but it was our perfect, jokey, ironic version of the champagne in the clubhouse.
WAGGONER Let me tell you, there is no greater feeling in the world that one can have with clothes on. I haven't washed my hair since.
OKRENT At first we thought this was just something for the 11 of us. It was our private little thing. We had no idea. But of the 11 of us, eight were in the media, so we talked to other people in the media and people began writing about it.
FRED FERRETTI-FORMER NEW YORK TIMES WRITER One of my friends at the Times was friends with one of these fellows, and I was chatting with him and he mentioned the idea to me. Initially, I thought it was a very odd thing to do, but the more I learned about it, the more it grew on me. So I wrote about it in July 1980, midway through their first season. You could feel that something was going to happen with it. And I was more certain after that piece ran. I was inundated with calls and letters from baseball fans who thought it was the greatest thing since chopped liver.
WAGGONER After that New York Times article, what changed was attention. People would contact us all the time: "How do we get the rules?"
OKRENT We were on the CBS Morning News, then on the Today show. I had a piece in Inside Sports in the March 1981 issue titled "The Year George Foster Wasn't Worth $36." With the article they published the basic rules, which really pissed me off-we thought we might be able to make money off of this. But I always thought the thing that spread the word in the pre-Internet world was the strike. During the 1981 season, there was a Rotisserie League in every press box. Then came the strike, and the baseball writers had nothing to write about-so they wrote about this game.
STEVE WULF-1981 ROTISSERIE LEAGUE CHAMP I was at the baseball winter meetings in 1980 writing for Sports Illustrated when Dan approached me about joining. I loved the idea of an alternate universe of baseball. So I joined in 1981 and won in my first season even though everyone incorrectly thought I had insider information. If I had, why were Stan Bahnsen and Woodie Fryman my closers? I really had nothing to do with the creation of the league. But I did write a lot of the first Rotisserie League book a couple of years later, which helped popularize it. I knew we had arrived one day at the batting cage before a game at Shea ...
DALE MURPHY-FORMER BRAVES OUTFIELDER I was in New York on a Sunday to play the Mets in an afternoon game in the early 1980s. That morning I took a cab to a church in Manhattan, and as I paid the cabbie, he asks, "You Dale Murphy?" I said, "Yeah." He says, "I just traded for you. Have a good game today."
WULF ... This shadow came over me from behind my back at Shea, and I hear a voice. "How is your Rotisserie team doing?" And it was Dale Murphy. That was the first official acknowledgement that real players knew about Rotisserie baseball. I said, "Well, why don't you play?" He says, "I'm a Mormon, can't gamble."
OKRENT I was once quoted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal saying, "I now know what J. Robert Oppenheimer felt like having invented the atomic bomb." It's not necessarily that I've done a great thing for the world.
GETHERS It was just so much fun at the beginning because we didn't know what we were doing. All the fun stuff of calling the Phillies' front office and pretending to work for The New York Times and asking about Mike Schmidt's hamstring. Within two years there were millions of peopl doing the same thing. By then, teams figured out that it was Rotisserie jerks calling.
FLEDER I remember the spring-training trips to Florida those first few years, and the first time we had a convention as one of our misguided efforts to subsidize our flowering addiction to this thing. Our wives were there, and these Rotisserie geeks came down to mingle with us. They would approach our wives and start bragging to them about who they got for a dollar. It wasn't bad enough that their husbands were involved in this thing, but now our wives had to mingle with people who wanted to be around the original owner of the "Fleder Mice."
SALEMBIER I called it quits at the end of the fourth year. I was so exhausted. I'd stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning to get scores from the West Coast and to see who was put on the DL, then get up at 6 to go to work.
WAGGONER We never exactly made a fortune off this. We copy righted the name of course, but you can't copyright fantasy. So once fantasy came along, in the early 1990s, that pretty much stole the basic idea, which is fine. But then the Internet came along, and our hopes of making a fortune were blown completely out of the water.
OKRENT. I was in Poland in 1997, and there was a newspaper promotion game, but it was really Rotisserie soccer. I've seen Rotisserie cricket in the Caribbean. In Hong Kong in 2001, there was Rotisserie horse racing.
WAGGONER I think my brethen will agree that we officially despise the word "fantasy." But the thing I'm proudest about in all the years that I've played Rotisserie is that we're in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.
JOANNE DESPRES-SENIOR EDITOR AT MERRIAM-WEBSTER A new word is entered when there is enough evidence of its use in what we collect of published prose. And generally speaking, there has to be evidence of at least five years' worth of use. In the case of Rotisserie, evidence was shown that the term had enough currency across a wide enough cross section of the population.
WAGGONER One problem with the definition is "imaginary teams." Those teams were by no means imaginary; they were ultrareal to us. In fact, I would say three or four of the closest friendships in my world today came from that first season.
OKRENT The game turned us into a merry band of brothers and one sister. I knew Glen a little bit, but within four years he was my daughter's godfather. I didn't know Peter, and now he and I are business partners. It cemented some very deep friendships.
SALEMBIER I'm sure right now they are trying to make it seem like it was all peaches and cream. But oh, no, it was war. I would say they would screw their own mothers if it gave them good statistics. Still, the whole thing was probably the the most intellectually stimulating thing I've ever done.
OKRENT Eventually the novelty wore off. People got older and developed other interests: kids, jobs. I got tired of it too; I quit in '96, having never won the league. There was a six-column article in The New York Times: "Okrent quits Rotisserie baseball." It was bizarre. But then in '01 or '02, I started playing a slow-pitch, or AARP, version: no waiver wires, one-week trading period, really tamped down. Of course, every year another person drops out.
WAGGONER In 2005 we took ourselves up to Cooperstown with spouses and significant others in tow-reluctantly in some cases-and we had a banquet in the Hall of Fame. It wasn't exactly putting our plaques up on the wall, but it was putting the plaques up on the walls of our own minds.
TOM SHIEBER-SENIOR CURATOR AT THE HALL OF FAME There aren't any Rotisserie baseball exhibits in Cooperstown yet. But in 2008 we had an exhibit about the history of statistics-based baseball board games, from the first games in the 1860s to Strat-O-Matic in 1961, before our mention of Dan Okrent's creating Rotisserie baseball in 1980.
OKRENT This all makes me feel less rich than I would otherwise be. Oh ... and I've still never won.