A New Yorker artist, the editors of Esquire and Time, a novelist and playwright, and the founding editor of ESPN the Magazine walk into a bar -- no, make that a French restaurant. It starts out as the setup for a joke, but the reality was deadly serious, at least to the men coming together. Long before these men reached such heights in their careers, they were united in their love for baseball.
And, in 1980, they were a part of the first fantasy baseball league.
Today, fantasy sports is undergoing yet another evolution: The rise of daily fantasy games has compressed the life cycle of an entire fantasy season into a single day. Sites like DraftKings and FanDuel let fans start with a fresh slate every day, picking brand-new players and pitting their fantasy lineups against friends, even strangers -- often with money on the line.
In the early 1980s, though, no one referred to this game as "fantasy." To Glen Waggoner, "it was real life." The game was called Rotisserie baseball, named after the French restaurant in New York City where the game got its start. It used a scoring method devised by Daniel Okrent, who invented the system on a flight down from New England to Texas.
The game was simple and ingenious: Participating players would draft their own teams, acting as general managers. Scoring would be done by using the statistics provided in newspaper box scores.
Today, of course, this game is familiar to more than 10 million people around the world who participate in online fantasy baseball leagues. Even more play fantasy basketball and football, the latter of which has become the most popular of all fantasy sports. The rules of today's fantasy baseball are strikingly similar to how it was conducted in the early 1980s, when this group of friends in New York City developed a passion for the game.
And yet, despite the similarities of today's game, it remains strikingly different.
"I would spend three to five hours a day working on it, trying to work out trades and everything," says Waggoner, who at the time was a mid-level administrator at Columbia University. He split the $250 entry fee to co-manage a team with the writer Peter Gethers (left, in photo above with Okrent).
"Peter and I had done a ton of work ranking every player in the National League by position," Waggoner says. "We wanted to be in a good position to get good guys.
"I was trying to put up a brave front, but I was kind of lost."
Waggoner ended up winning that inaugural season, and the game's participants kept at it. The game's popularity slowly started to spread beyond that initial group of people. In 1982, Waggoner taught the game to some undergraduates at Columbia who had heard about the game and were interested in playing themselves. Those undergraduates founded the Roach Motel League, named after a less-than-attractive campus dormitory. Today, it stands at the oldest continuous fantasy sports league in the world.
What made Rotisserie baseball so popular was its grounding solidly in the present -- and, through that, the wrinkle of team owners operating as general managers. Before the 1980s, there were precursors to fantasy sports that used statistics from past seasons to allow for the simulation of games. Rotisserie baseball was totally different in this one regard: It functioned with a similar format but used real-time scoring to decide who won.
Team owners, then, had to make decisions with the future in mind, based on the information at hand -- no different from how baseball executives and managers made their own roster and lineup decisions. It required a more in-depth knowledge of the game, offered unreliable results, and created a new way for baseball fans to find meaning and rooting interest in almost any Major League Baseball game.
"The idea of owning a New York Met here, an Atlanta Brave there, a Pittsburgh Pirate -- it was terrific," Waggoner says. Thirty-five years later, he still remembers the critical choices that lifted his team to victory, but not before other decisions jeopardized success.
"We paid a ton of money for Dave Kingman, who was a washout," Waggoner says. "The key to our success was [New York Mets pitcher] Neil Allen."
Original members of the Rotisserie League don't see much in common between their original league and fantasy sports of today. Waggoner understands that his league spawned a virtual sport now played by tens of millions of people, but to him, the online version of the game -- which he doesn't fully understand, out of indifference -- lacks many of the romantic qualities that made Rotisserie League baseball so great.
For one, Waggoner is appalled by the lukewarm approach many participants take toward managing their teams. For him, the fun was always the strategy, the crazed time investment into the game. When told that some people passively participate by taking a few minutes every week to set their lineups, he scoffs. "I was spending three to five hours a day working on trades. If it's three to five minutes, yes indeed, that's a different experience."
Waggoner sees the game's online iteration as a more distant approach to playing -- participants don't have to engage as deeply with box scores, and the game results are not as intimately known.
If nothing else, the extreme nature of the Rotisserie League is rarely matched by contemporary leagues: Waggoner recalls how his secretary at Columbia would draw the game results from the box scores in the newspaper. When Okrent published the instructional book, "Rotisserie League Baseball," in 1984, the book was dedicated to Waggoner's secretary, Sandy.
Upon its publication, Okrent's book served as the Bible for fantasy baseball -- although no one was calling it by that generic term at the time. In fact, the term "fantasy" came about simply as an alternative to "Rotisserie" -- a way for firms monetizing this new form of gaming to cut out Okrent, Waggoner and the rest of the group.
Waggoner says that while the group tried to maintain ownership of the game and cash in on its fast-rising success, the term "fantasy" was used to evade questions of ownership. While devoted fans of the baseball game did -- and still do -- recognize Rotisserie League Baseball as the genesis of today's fantasy game, the group didn't profit nearly as much as one might expect.
In a feature earlier this month from The New Yorker, Okrent estimates that none of the participants ever earned more than $10,000 to $15,000 from their association with the game. For a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Okrent, Waggoner and others would earn money from appearances at conventions dedicated to the game. But those opportunities quickly dissipated, and Okrent wasn't too enamored with them, anyway.
As the group turned into a cult figure in the history of fantasy sports, the men seemed to withdraw from the spotlight. Both Okrent and Waggoner were among the first people ever elected into the Fantasy Sports Hall of Fame in Orlando, Florida, and neither of them attended the induction ceremony.
Okrent tells The New Yorker: "You couldn't have paid me to go."
Waggoner says that the way fantasy sports took off without the Rotisserie group doesn't make him bitter. "We went into [Rotisserie baseball] for fun, not money, and we succeeded," he says. "We didn’t have any real idea of how to capture that flag and get in on the front end of that money slide.
"I blame Dan Okrent for that," he jokes. "It was his idea in the first place. We would have all been rich if he’d been able to figure it out."
At the same time, fantasy sports is a distant part of Waggoner's past. He hasn't played in a league in about 20 years as other conflicts and opportunities came up. One impressive feat of the Rotisserie League baseball is that it brought many accomplished young professionals together -- and, in several cases, helped them collaborate and further one another's careers.
Thanks to his involvement, and meeting Rotisserie member and then-Esquire editor Lee Eisenberg, Waggoner got out of academia and began writing. What followed was a long career as a journalist, capstoned by his run as the founding editor of ESPN the Magazine. Okrent served as an editor for a number of magazines, wrote a handful of books, and later served as the public editor for The New York Times.
Okrent more recently collaborated on a theater production with Gethers, the novelists who was Waggoner's co-owner. Bruce McCall, an artist often featured on covers of The New Yorker, played one season -- although, Waggoner teases, he wasn't very good at it.
So no, Waggoner doesn't have a bad view of his history with fantasy baseball. The game remains a fun chapter in his life -- but one that, for him, had to be left behind.
"I had other things going on, I was involved in writing and had less free time, and you kind of get [the enjoyment of the game], but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to do that same thing the rest of your life," Waggoner says. "But I had a great run, a great run. It transformed my life."