The earliest known form of fantasy baseball was a computer coded system created in 1960 by John Burgeson at IBM and distributed at that company. This was a head-to-head system where two teams played each other using random number generators and comparing them to player statistics. In essence, this was a mock game using the odds of players doing certain things and randomizing the results. Those who chose the better players were not as important as those who were luckier with the generators. In the fall of 1961, a KDKA radio host named Rege Cordic originated a radio show based on this game.
Commonly called “tabletop baseball”, this early form of fantasy baseball could be mimicked by kids at home with baseball cards. In 1963 the first widely available home version was called Strat-o-Matic, which published a game with customized baseball cards featuring Major League Baseball players, using their stats from the previous season. The system could utilize chosen cards to create “fantasy” teams or games from the previous season could be replicated. Again this was a head to head system. A much more posh version called Pursue the Pennant was published in 1985. In addition to player statistics, this game accounted for home and away stadium effects, clutch hitting and pitching, and other more intangible player details.
The modern and amazingly popular version of Fantasy baseball (and all fantasy sports for that matter) is based on the concept originated in 1980 by Magazine writer/editor Daniel Okrent, who along with several friends innovated the concept of “ownership” where the players would draft baseball players from the active Major League list and then they would follow the statistics during the season to keep track of their scores. The draft was based on who the owner predicted would play the best during the season. This concept was called the Rotisserie League after the restaurant La Rotisserie where Okrent and his friends gathered to eat lunch. Contrary to popular opinion, Okrent did not create the league there and they did not participate in it there either, though Okrent believed the name was catchy and so kept it.
Okrent’s exposure to fans through his publishing, especially during the 1981 baseball strike, gave the hobby a boost and it became very popular quickly. He wrote an article in March 1981 about Rotisserie Baseball for Inside Sports called “The Year George Foster Wasn’t Worth $36”. This article contained a crude set of rules that Okrent and his friends had come up with previously, and it 1984 this founding group published a set of more complete rules. In 1982 Ballantine publishing distributed the first abstract by Bill James, which incited even more interest in the fledgling hobby. From this very humble beginning, fantasy leagues spread to other sports, and there are an estimated million or more people playing various fantasy sports every year.
With the veritable invasion of the Internet by fantasy sports, fantasy baseball is ever increasing in popularity, with millions of adherents playing actively every season, dedicated to their sport and their teams, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. Even in a recessionary economy and with the steroid scandal casting a shadow over the sport itself, nonetheless fandom is still and will almost certainly remain strong. Fantasy baseball is an extreme version of this strong fandom, but it continues to grow, with no end in sight…