Fantasy Baseball’s Roots

Fantasy Baseball’s Roots

Fantasy Baseball’s Roots

Anyone that enjoys season long fantasy baseball, understands the importance of the draft. It is more than just strategy and roster building, it’s a sense of camaraderie amongst your closest friends and partners in baseball. It’s where you talk smack about the previous season, hype up this year’s prospects, predict that your team will be in the pennant race and, of course, fight over the best players in the game.

I have often wondered, where did this great tradition begin, and who are the men behind it? After digging through countless articles and books on the history of fantasy baseball, I believe we have finally tracked down the godfathers of fantasy baseball and pieced together their story.

Daniel Okrent
Daniel Okrent
Every really good league has one or two members that claim to have played fantasy football when ‘drafted blind, calculated our scores from the box scores, by hand’. Well a man named Daniel Okrent was the first to invent this modern format of fantasy baseball. Okrent, a magazine writer/editor, came up with the idea that team owners would draft a team from a list of active Major League Baseball players, and would follow their statistics as the season went on to calculate each team’s scores. This new format forced owners to make predictions about players future performances, health, playing time, schedule, and replicated decisions and thought process that real managers must make.

Okrent named the game La Rotisserie, after a New York City restaurant where the league members would meet to play and hold their drafts, La Rotisserie Francaise. La Rotisserie would officially become the first known existence of modern fantasy baseball.

Through Okrent’s media connections, the game grew like wildfire. Within just a few years, a new type of business evolved, the fantasy sports expert. These business existed with the sole purpose of providing fantasy team owners with more reliable information, more accurate projections, and a clear drafting strategy.

Through the popularity of his newspaper, USA Today, Okrent was able to popularize fantasy baseball and the USA Today writers and experts that covered it. The first experts on record as having written fantasy baseball articles for USA Today were John Benson, Alex Patton, and Ron Shandler. Of the three, Benson was by far the biggest name in the industry. Over the course of the late 1980’s he built up a reputation as being the expert in fantasy baseball, and in 1989 he published his first book. Later that year Benson developed the industry’s first draft simulation program, software that still exists and is sold today.

As we entered into the 1990’s it was clear this industry would continute to grow in popularity and demand. In 1991 the game had grown to 1 million players and by 1994 there were an estimated 3 million fantasy baseball players world wide. Today that number is 33.5 million, with conservative estimates putting it over 50 million by 2020. The popularity has boomed over the past five years thanks to the rising popularity of daily fantasy sports, which has an estimated 41 million players.

I often think back to that group of men calculating the team’s score each weekend from the previous week’s boxscores, and wonder if in that moment they had any idea or interest in just how popular the game would become, or if they, like the rest of us today, were just caught in the moment with friends talking the game they love.

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