Untold stories of 40 years of fantasy baseball

In 1980, Mike Schmidt became the first-ever player acquired in a rotisserie league auction. AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy, File

"What do you think?"

I am talking with Pierre Becquey, ESPN's deputy editor for fantasy sports. We are discussing the fact that this spring is the 40th anniversary of the original rotisserie league, and Pierre wants me to write about it. My first fantasy baseball article since I retired from writing about the game in 2014.

"It can be about whatever you want," Pierre says, pretending that there's a chance I might write something that wasn't about me. What he wants to know, he tells me, is what does this milestone mean to me?

Obviously, I said yes. I told him that if he wants me to celebrate the 40th anniversary of what we now call fantasy baseball, if he wants me to reflect on the past four decades of all of us getting to play "The Greatest Game for Baseball Fans Since Baseball," then I'm starting in 1981 with John Walsh.

Wait, what?

I can see you screaming at the screen. Maybe I should have stayed retired. What about Daniel Okrent? What about the little green book? What about the Okrent Fenokees, La Rotisserie Française and the Getherswag Goners getting Neil Allen's 22 saves for $2 and winning the first-ever title? What about the fact that 1981 isn't even 40 years ago?

What the hell is a John Walsh?

I know. I get it. Any look back on the start of fantasy baseball has to start with Daniel Okrent, right? His story is the most famous and has been told many times. Every fantasy baseball player worth his or her salt knows the tale by now.

How on a flight from Hartford to Austin, Texas, Okrent came up with idea of collecting real-life Major League Baseball players and counting their real-life statistics for your make-believe team, all the while acting as a general manager. Using an auction to acquire players and then trading, demoting, waiving and claiming players under the exact same roster and salary-cap constraints as everyone else in the league, using a scoring system we now know simply as "roto."

How he took the idea to some New York literary friends that he used to eat lunch with at that now-defunct restaurant called La Rotisserie Française in New York City. How they recruited others and, in the spring of 1980, 10 men and one woman formed 10 teams and held the first-ever auction around a conference table in Cork Smith's spacious New York apartment. How they kept stats by hand in the early days, how they trademarked the word "rotisserie" but not the word "fantasy" and how, despite its insane popularity, they never really made any money from it. And, of course, how Daniel Okrent, the Man Who Invented Fantasy Baseball, has never won his own league.

That's a story that has been told and told often. A Google search of "Daniel Okrent rotisserie baseball" returns 16,700 results and many, many interviews with the founding father himself. Okrent deserves every accolade he has ever gotten and many more. One of the true thrills of my career is that once I got to do an entire fantasy baseball auction with Okrent. Did you know the baseball stat WHIP -- now widely used in baseball -- was actually invented by Okrent for use in the very first fantasy baseball league? Yes, in addition to fantasy baseball, Okrent also invented WHIP. He is as lovely and gracious in person as you could hope and is a legend.

But as the phrase goes, "Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan."

If you want to tell the story of the start of this "silly little game," you could begin in a lot of places. In 1866, the Recreation Club of Brooklyn played an in-home, wooden table-top game called Sebring Parlor Base Ball. And as Baseballhall.org notes, the New York Clipper newspaper ran a story about how the 14 Recreation Club members had gathered, split into teams of seven and began simulating a full nine-inning baseball game and recording statistics.

In 1930, Clifford Van Beek designed an at-home baseball stats game called National Pastime. Jack Kerouac -- yes, the famed novelist and poet -- had a fantasy baseball league he played by himself as a teenager in the 1930s, where he made up all the teams and players, like Gus Texas, catcher of the plucky Pittsburgh Plymouths.

The folks who invented APBA (1951) and Strat-O-Matic (1961) would likely raise their hands for inclusion here, and any story about the creation of fantasy baseball has to have Bill Gamson at the University of Michigan, where his National Baseball Seminar game was created in the 1960s. In 2014, Mike Connors wrote an article for the The Virginian-Pilot about a group of six from Hampton Roads, Virginia, who drafted baseball players and kept track of their stats all season long in 1979, a year before Okrent.

Oh, and there is certainly a delegation from Oakland, California, that would point to "Wink" Winkenbach, who (as I discussed last year on Peyton's Places) invented fantasy football in 1962.

So there are many people and stories that can claim a piece of the start of fantasy baseball.

But the one I want to talk about, the story that hasn't been told before, is about John Walsh.

Let me get three disclosures out of the way right here. First, John Walsh worked at ESPN for 27 years, touching in some way almost everything you have read, watched or heard from ESPN for the past three decades. He retired in 2015 as an executive vice president.

Second, I love the man and consider myself lucky to call him a good friend.

Third, and most importantly, he'll hate this article and the fact that any attention is being paid to him at all. Walsh was -- and still is -- all about promoting others into the spotlight. Making others look good, taking chances on ideas and nurturing talent.

It's those qualities of Walsh that led to the second-ever rotisserie baseball league. And in a way, every league after that.

You see, in 1981, John Walsh was the founding editor in chief of Inside Sports magazine. And Daniel Okrent was broke.

Broke is probably too strong a word. But as Walsh tells it, "Daniel had sold a book where he was going to spend the upcoming season with the Brewers and he needed some money. So he pitched us running two excerpts from the book, and we bought those."

But a couple of weeks later, Walsh said Okrent was back on the phone. And their conversation was a seminal moment in fantasy sports history. Because the book wouldn't be published for quite some time, Okrent told Walsh, "I still can't make the economics work. Would you buy something else?" Walsh asked Okrent what else he has. And then Okrent started telling Walsh about this weird league he had been doing for the past year.

Walsh couldn't say yes fast enough.

And so, only because Daniel Okrent needed money and because John Walsh loved writers and ideas and baseball, the March 31, 1981, issue of Inside Sports magazine featured an article by Okrent titled "The Year George Foster wasn't worth $36."

In it, of course, Okrent wrote, for the very first time, all about the Original Rotisserie League Baseball league.

Now, to be clear, the league had gotten some publicity prior to this. A guy named Fred Ferretti wrote about the league for The New York Times in July 1980, the middle of its first year. And after that article, the league was featured on "CBS Morning News" and then on "The Today Show."

But this article was the first time Okrent had written about the game, and here's the most important piece of it. After the magazine got the article -- and I reread it this week; it's still terrific after all these years -- Walsh's copy editors called Okrent. The piece made no sense unless they could also print the rules.

Which had never been published.

As an original member and co-owner of the Getherswag Goners, Glen Waggoner told Morty Ain in an oral history published on the 30th anniversary of fantasy baseball, "After that New York Times article, what changed was attention. People would contact us all the time: 'How do we get the rules?'"

The little publicity the league received in 1980 was feature stuff: "Isn't this weird and funny and interesting?" But none of it explained how you kept score. None of it explained how you decided who was winning and losing, merely that members collected real baseball players and their stats for their fake teams.

Until Inside Sports and Walsh, who printed the rules alongside the article.

"The Original league continues! I'm the only original founding Rotissarian still in it -- thus, I am the longest continuing fantasy baseball player in history ... a fact of which I am deeply ashamed" Peter Gethers of the original Rotisserie League

And just like that, everyone knew how to play the game, including Walsh and the staff at Inside Sports. Once they got the article in and were proofreading it, Walsh got a call from one of his copy editors. "John, we have got to do a league!" And so, before the issue went to press, Walsh and others formed the second-ever rotisserie baseball league. And on March 22, the Stardust League will hold its 40th consecutive annual auction, with four of the original 10 members still playing this year.

Now over the years, people have come and gone from the league, but one constant has been Jerry Capozzalo, who has run the league and played in it all 39 years, with No. 40 on tap. Walsh wants no credit for himself; instead, he wants everyone to know about Cap, as he is fondly referred to, and how he did all the stats by hand in the early days and has kept the league together for 40 seasons.

In fact, the only person I found who has played fantasy sports longer and in more consecutive seasons is Peter Gethers, the other half of the Getherswag Goners. Gethers tells me, "The Original league continues! I'm the only original founding Rotissarian still in it -- thus, I am the longest continuing fantasy baseball player in history ... a fact of which I am deeply ashamed."

Please, Peter. That's awesome. Congrats to you ... and massive respect to your family for putting up with it for over four decades.

Now, the "Ruby anniversary" of my first fantasy baseball league -- my first fantasy league in any sport -- is four years from now, in 2024. So we've got some time before I write an even more self-serving article about that. But this is the 40th year of a lot of people playing fantasy sports, including, as I mentioned, Capozzalo and Walsh, who along with original Stardust members Terry Cashman and Bob Diskin, have participated in all 39 seasons of the Stardust League.

Certainly, other leagues formed after the Inside Sports article, but because the Stardust League was formed before the issue went to print, I feel fairly confident in declaring it the second-oldest rotisserie baseball league in history, and that Walsh, Cap, Cashman and Diskin have played the second-longest consecutive streak of fantasy baseball seasons, after Gethers. It's them, and then everybody else.

Since that Inside Sports article on March 31, 1981, it has been a wild ride for fantasy baseball. The game continued to grow in popularity. After the success of that article, the league wrote a book in the early spring of 1984. With a weird green cover, Bantam Books was proud to present "Rotisserie League Baseball: The Greatest Game for Baseball Fans Since Baseball." Written by Waggoner and edited by Okrent, it went into more detail about the framework and rules of what we now call fantasy baseball.

There were early conventions in Florida for spring training as the Founding Fathers (the original league) tried to make some money off their invention and a stat service was formed; instead of you doing stats by hand, a service would do your stats for you and fax you the standings, once a week. USA Today started printing weekly stats that were up-to-date the day the paper was printed, an improvement over The Sporting News, in which weekly stats were already a few days old by the time the magazine got mailed to you.

Speaking of USA Today, in 1994, its fantasy baseball columnist, John Hunt, formed the first fantasy sports "expert" league, LABR (League of Alternative Baseball Reality). That league brought even more publicity to the game, as it initially featured celebrities such as Peter Gammons, Keith Olbermann and Bill James.

The internet helped make the game, the draft and statistics much more accessible, of course, and Okrent and his fellow Original leaguemates have done countless interviews and appearances and have been lauded and awarded far and wide for their contributions to the game.

An ill-fated move by MLB to try to force companies to pay for the right to use player names and statistics that were in public domain in their own fantasy games slowed the growth of the game. In 2005, CBC Distribution & Marketing, the parent company of CDM Fantasy Sports, sued MLB Advanced Media. Ultimately, CBC and fantasy players everywhere won when the Supreme Court denied a petition for a writ of certiorari from MLB Advanced Media and upheld the Eighth Circuit's decision in favor of CBC.

Celebrities such as Paul Rudd starting outing themselves as fantasy baseball players. Radio and TV started promoting the game; there was a Baseball Tonight fantasy special in prime time! And I even sang backup to Geddy Lee, of Rush fame, in a fantasy baseball commercial.

It grew the game. It made more fans. And for at least one nerdy 14-year-old, it changed his life.

If you've read my book "Fantasy Life," or just followed me for a long time, you're likely somewhat familiar with the Fat Dog League. But if not, know that I fell in love with the game at my first auction, when I was 14, and played in that league for over 30 years.

Of course, as an awkward sports-loving teenager (and later, awkward sports-loving adult!) I never dreamed that someone like me would ever wind up on TV talking sports, let alone at the largest sports media company in the universe.

But I did.

Rotisserie baseball got me into fantasy sports. Fantasy sports got me to John Walsh. John Walsh (and his friend John Kosner) got me to ESPN. ESPN got me to my wife. Which got me to my kids. Really, when you think about it, almost everything I am and my life stands for has, in some way, been because of Rotisserie League Baseball.

Here's a story I have never told anyone. I was living in Los Angeles, working as a screenwriter while doing my Talented Mr. Roto website on the side and hoping to one day make a full-time living at fantasy sports. A fellow writing friend, the brilliantly funny Les Firestein, introduced me to his friend John Kosner, then running all of ESPN's digital media. After meeting with me, Kosner introduced me to Walsh. They were looking for a fantasy guy, and Kosner thought I might be a fit.

But Walsh -- the man who made SportsCenter what it was, who helped start ESPN Radio and ESPN The Magazine, who invented the ESPYS, who helped infuse ESPN with its journalistic ethos, who (along with others) discovered and hired Olbermann, Mike Tirico, Robin Roberts, Bill Simmons and countless others, who started Inside Sports and was a key cog in the heyday of Rolling Stone magazine, who was tight with Hunter S. Thompson -- and, oh yeah, did I mention he was the guy who first published the rules of rotisserie baseball -- had to sign off first.

I've never been more nervous for a meeting in my life. If it went well, I was coming to ESPN. It's the stuff dreams are made of. If not, it's back to my little blog and an empty house. So I've talked about this meeting before but never of the substance of it.

The first half-hour is get-to-know-you-type stuff. My background, my thoughts on fantasy, my thoughts on ESPN, on ESPN Fantasy, goals, experience, etc., etc. All fairly standard. But then I ask Walsh how he's doing in his fantasy baseball league. And he tells me he is getting killed in saves. I don't know what possessed me, but I said, well, let's see if we can find you someone. So I went around his desk, and we spent the next 30 minutes of the interview on his computer, scouring the waiver wire for setup men who might emerge as closers, as well as for potential trade partners who had a saves surplus. By the time I left, he had some potential closers on his bench and a couple of trade proposals out the door. I've never asked Walsh about it, but I'm convinced that last 30 minutes of fantasy baseball cramming got me the gig.

And after I got the job, Walsh was the biggest champion of trying to make fantasy baseball, and all fantasy sports, much more prominent at ESPN. On our website, in our magazine, on ESPN radio and on TV and digital video. He wasn't alone. Kosner and Rob King made big pushes. Barry Sacks, Michael "Eppy" Epstein and Jay Levy did what they could to get it on TV. Raphael Poplock and Bimal Kapadia were trying to help it make money, which in turn would get it more resources. And Eric Karabell and Tristan H. Cockcroft had been plugging away, internally and externally, especially with great written work. Many others here, too many to mention, were behind the cause, as well.

And that was just at ESPN. In the industry, I remember guys like John Benson and Peter Kreutzer doing early fantasy analysis. Ron Shandler's statistical work was revolutionary, and his annual Forecaster a must-read. I remember Rick Wolf and Tony Fernandez and the early days of commissioner products such as USA Stats, All Star Stats and Sportsline. I think of Peter Schoenke, Jeff Erickson and the gang at RotoNews (now Rotowire) inventing a new way to consume fantasy baseball news. There's Glenn Colton, who drafted an amicus brief in the CBC case. I remember Matthew Pouliot doing every single player update on Rotoworld for, like, three years straight. I remember Nate Ravitz, who, long before he and I ever did a podcast together, was killing it with RotoTimes. I think of guys like Greg Ambrosius and Charlie Wiegert fighting the good fight for the industry. And of course, the late, great Lawr Michaels. Way too many others in the industry to mention, but I think of Don Smith and Tommy Connell and Woody Thompson and Rick Hill and all my friends from the original Fat Dog League.

I think of them all. Because they are all my friends. And at the end of the day, that's the best part of fantasy baseball. The friendships. The camaraderie, the trash talk, the memories. That's why it has lasted.

Which is why, ultimately, when I think back on 40 years of fantasy baseball, I think of my friend John Walsh. Of the role he played in publicizing the game originally, of the role he had in helping grow the game here at ESPN and of the role he has in my life.

I've been at ESPN for well over a decade, years that have brought me tremendous joy, professional success beyond my wildest dreams and most importantly a wife and five kids. Helluva run. And I have rotisserie league baseball to thank for it.

One last note on Peter Gethers from the original league. You know what Peter told me? His team, now called the Smoked Fish, won the league last year, and he was part of the Getherswag Goners team that won the inaugural season. Winning Year 1 and winning Year 40? We should all be so lucky.

And you can start right now. Go ahead. Jump in a draft. Start a league. When something lasts for 40 years, there's usually a reason for it; and in this case, it's because it is still a helluva lot of fun. See you on the virtual diamond. And may all your setup guys become closers.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- still goes stars and scrubs in an auction, almost 40 years later.