Major League Baseball (MLB) returned to play last week with no fans in the ballparks but plenty of people watching on TV from their living room couches. Some of those fans might have been simultaneously checking their fantasy baseball rosters.
Fantasy sports are incredibly popular. The Washington Post reported in 2017 that an estimated 59.3 million people in the U.S. and Canada played fantasy football, basketball, soccer, baseball, hockey, golf, tennis, and more.
Today, the games are played on websites like Yahoo or ESPN in virtual leagues, usually made up of 10 teams. Participants choose professional players in a sport about to begin its season to play on their “team.” Then, each week, the virtual teams match up against each other, comparing the statistics of their corresponding real-life players. It feels like you are managing an actual professional team.
Before all of this, there was just fantasy baseball. It was called Rotisserie League Baseball, and it was invented in 1980 by historian, author, and editor Dan Okrent. He no longer plays the game, he admitted from his Wellfleet home, but he isn’t yet tired of telling the story of its origins.
“It occurred to me in my early 30s,” Okrent said. “I was living in Western Mass., and I was missing baseball.”
Okrent was an undergraduate in the 1960s at the University of Michigan, where a professor and some colleagues played a rudimentary version of fantasy baseball. Each player would pick five Major League batters and five pitchers and follow their statistics throughout the season to see who had the best roster.
“There was no money involved, no trading,” Okrent said. “It was very simple.”
In the late ’70s, Okrent remembered that game and decided to refine it. His version had 10 players, with each one “owning” one team. Before the MLB season began, the 10 would have an auction draft, where they would select the players they wanted.
Each owner started with $260 to spend on 23 baseball players. They had to be smart with the money, not spending too much on one player but willing to dish out extra for the stars, Okrent said.
The thing is — in 1980, the internet didn’t exist. When the season began, Rotisserie League owners had to track how their players were doing through — oh, mercy! — the newspaper.
Recording player statistics and team standings “was done entirely on paper,” Okrent said.
The players’ complete stats were published a week late in the Sporting News. Okrent would drive 30 minutes each way between his home in Worthington and Northampton to pick up the paper, then compute the standings by hand back at home.
“The standings were sent by fax to everyone in the league,” he said.
Each player put up $250 to play. At the end of the season, the first-place team took half the pot, second place took 25 percent, third place took 15 percent, and fourth place basically got their money back.
“The reason why it caught on was that it got all of us who played involved in more than just our team,” Okrent said. The players on your roster could be playing for all different real-life teams. And you had to track players on other teams to figure out if you wanted to trade for them.
“If you go deep into it, you know every player in the league,” Okrent said. “It’s total immersion into a baseball season.”
The name Rotisserie came from the fact that the game was officially invented at La Rôtisserie Française restaurant in New York City.
Okrent, who was the first public editor at the New York Times, said the game grew in popularity after a story about it appeared in the Times and he was invited on the “Today” show. But the inventor of the game that has turned into a multi-billion-dollar industry hasn’t been able to profit much from his idea.
“We did trademark the word ‘Rotisserie,’ ” he said. “People who did use it would pay a royalty fee.”
But it didn’t take too long for people to come up with another name. Hence the birth of “fantasy baseball” and fantasy sports in general.
There are hints of its origins: the most common scoring format for fantasy baseball is still called Rotisserie scoring.
“The real numbers came with the explosion of the internet,” Okrent said. “It’s brought joy to millions — and agony to millions of spouses and children.”
In the late 1980s, when the program “SportsCenter” was premiering, Okrent spoke with John Walsh, ESPN’s executive director, about featuring Rotisserie League Baseball. “I said, ‘Why don’t you have a segment that gives key numbers for Rotisserie Baseball?’ ”
Walsh told Okrent that market research showed fewer than 2 percent of people watching the program play Rotisserie League.
Fast forward to 2020: there are shows on ESPN and other networks devoted to fantasy sports coverage and analysis. Analysts offer advice to the millions of people playing.
Okrent could not have fathomed such an outcome 40 years ago. But he has no regrets.
“I’ve had a nice life,” he said. “I got no complaints.”
To learn more about the invention of Rotisserie League Baseball, check out the 2010 ESPN documentary Silly Little Game.