Tuesday, March 24, 2015
(Now that fantasy/roto leagues are running their drafts and auctions for yet another year, the following is a reprint of a piece we ran at this time last year.)
Rotisserie Baseball dates back to about 1981. You may now know of it as fantasy baseball, but more on that later.
A league called the Universal Baseball Association, or UBA, dates back to 1984.
I have been playing in the UBA since 1986. So while I won’t claim to have been present at the creation, I was just 3 blocks south and 5 years late. There can’t be more than a couple of hundred guys who have played this fanatical game longer than I have. In fact, I do believe that the UBA founder actually has an aging sheet of paper, laced with the requisite faux self-importance, certifying the UBA as one of the first ten, or dozen, or hundred, rotisserie leagues ever formed, and signed by the game’s inventors.
A (very) little history first. The game was named Rotisserie Baseball because it was conceived by a bunch of Manhattan magazine guys (and one woman) at a restaurant called La Rotisserie Francaise. As I recall, it was on Third Avenue at 52nd Street. I worked back then at an advertising agency on Third Avenue and 49th Street. I don’t think most of us can claim to have heard of this game until 1983, when the founders published a very entertaining rulebook that included a history of their first few seasons. These were, remember, magazine writers and editors.
Apart from developing the rules, known now by millions, they also created a legacy involving showering the season’s winner with Yoo Hoo, a watery chocolate drink once hawked by Yogi Berra, and oddly clever team names. These were, remember, magazine guys. They were not, however, clever enough to have figured out a way to monetize this huge, game-changing, world-changing creation. They own the rights to the name Rotisserie Baseball, and apparently not much else. This is why the world at large now plays something called fantasy baseball, no royalties required.
Fast forward, no doubt on a VHS tape, to 1984. One of my ad agency’s music directors, and a great baseball fan, founds the UBA. He was also quite well-read, and those who are similarly well-read will already have noted to themselves that The Universal Baseball Association is the title of a terrific Robert Coover novel about a boy who invents… an imaginary baseball game. The original UBA comprised the founder, a couple of other guys in our agency’s creative department, and a bunch of New York studio musicians who had a lot of time on their hands between gigs and sessions. These were very good music guys. One was in one of the incarnations of Blood, Sweat and Tears. Another was in The Knack, but only after “My Sharona.” Still another was one of the great jazz trombonists in New York – sadly, he passed away a few years ago. And one is still in Conan O’Brien’s band.
None of them are still in the UBA. It is today a league of younger guys whose jobs I’m not really for the most part clear about. I do know that they are ferociously well-informed baseball guys – one is even the editor/director of one of the best fantasy baseball info sites, called Fake Teams. Check it out sometime.
But I digress, because what I want to do now is describe what playing roto ball was like in the prehistoric, pre-web days.
First, stats, because this game is nothing if not stats-driven. The bible, small b, was USA Today. This was where we each turned each morning to see how our team had done. Many of us kept a notebook in which we would update, by hand, our stats for that week. Once a week, we would get a tally of stats from our crack stats service, comprised of standings and roster moves for the week that had actually ended three or four days before this all came in the mail. Or by snail mail as it’s now snidely, snarkily called.
The other important thing about USA Today was that no claim could be made, or roster move approved, until the player’s or players’ own actual movement had been duly noted in the pages of America’s national newspaper. If you simply heard on the radio that the Reds had called up a catcher from Triple A, you couldn’t act on it until USA Today had published that fact.
Another thing to note about no ‘net is that the huge amount of information to be found online was actually hard to dig up back then. The game today is one of making good guesses and sound judgments based on a ton of info that everybody has. Back then, proprietary info could be a huge trading advantage. If you knew that the Padres were thinking of making a change at closer, that was a great piece of intelligence. But how could you get that before it appeared in USA Today or that other key source, The Sporting News? Here’s how: We all surreptitiously hit out-of-town newspaper stands. There was one just north of the main branch of the public library, on 43rd Street just west of Fifth Avenue. Many a rainy night, I dropped ten bucks on papers from places like Cincinnati, Houston, and San Diego.
And weekend box scores? USA Today didn’t publish on weekends, leaving us all to figure out what local papers were most likely to have even west coast box scores. The New York Times was hopeless, The Post was a little better. The Bergen Record was quite good.
So now, say you think you have a trading advantage, or simply a need to unload some spare offense for some pitching. How did we trade without email? By phone, of course. We would close the doors to our offices – yes, we had offices back then – and barter over lunch or between meetings. I would have piles of phone message note sheets with cryptic notations like:
CALLER: The Compozas
MESSAGE: Steve Sax?
It could have been a message from a music production company, a completely legitimate business hours message in an ad agency. But it wasn’t.
And when I speak of phones, of course I mean land lines. I have no idea how much of my phone bill went to roto ball trades, or how many quarters I dropped into pay phones. But I do believe that pay phones were no less important to roto ball players than they were to Superman.
Today, the game is a web-based information extravaganza, and that happy fact is what has kept me playing. It’s also of course why fantasy sports have exploded. There aren’t ten million maniacs willing to walk in the New York rain to buy an Atlanta newspaper.