William Gamson should be in the baseball hall of fame

Opening day of the major league baseball season is almost upon us. Some of you are poring over tables of data, examining the nuances of players’ performance and getting ready for your upcoming fantasy baseball draft. I won’t point fingers. You know who you are.

I recently watched the clever ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the origin of fantasy baseball (or rotisserie baseball, as it was called then) and was surprised to learn that the first fantasy league was inspired by none other than William Gamson.* Many readers of this blog know Gamson for his work on collective action and social movement outcomes or as a past president of the American Sociological Association. But Gamson is also a pioneer in the world of fantasy sports. In 1960  Gamson formed a forerunner of the fantasy baseball league that he called The Baseball Seminar.  The book, Fantasyland, described how it got started:

It was April, 1960. It could have been a weekday or a weekend—hell, it might have been March for all the principals can remember. At  the time it was just three shlumpy guys, all about twenty-six, getting together to try some half-baked contest the host had thought up. If you’d told Bill Gamson he was about to become the Thomas Edison of a worldwide sports movement, he would have assumed you were making fun of him …

Under the rules of Gamson’s game, each player anted up $10, which would translate into an imaginary budget of $100,000 to be used to bid on the services of real major leaguers. Armed with a copy of The Sporting News, Gamson and his friends, Dick Snyder and Marty Greenberg, ran through the rosters of each team until somebody threw a playing card on the coffee table, indicating they wanted to bid. This continued until everyone was out of money. The idea was that during the season, each of the ‘‘teams’’ would be measured by eight handpicked statistics, though Gamson can’t remember them all. By the time they were finished, midnight had come and Zelda, pregnant with the couple’s first child, was feeling sorry for the neighbors. ‘‘The whole thing was pretty raucous,’’ she remembers (59-60).

Anyone who’s played fantasy baseball will recognize its distinctive traits in Gamson’s early game. Moreover, there is a direct connection from Gamson’s game to the rotisserie leagues that took hold in the 1980s. Dan Okrent, who proposed the rules for a league to his friends in a New York City restaurant La Rotisserie Francaise in 1980, came up with the idea after talking to the Michigan historian Robert Sklar, a regular participant in Gamson’s Seminar. Okrent’s league became the model for future leagues and initiated widespread interest in fantasy sports, partly because the league was made up by a bunch of journalists who proselytized fantasy baseball to the nation, but the basic idea and rules stem from Gamson.

Fantasy baseball is now a huge industry. Moreover, it’s the way that many contemporary fans of baseball make their connection to the sport. Millions of fans are also fantasy owners. Fantasy baseball also introduced the world of statistics and analysis to the casual sports fan. Now you can’t really talk about the merits of a pitcher without getting into a discussion of WHIP versus ERA, the first of which was a statistic invented for fantasy baseball. It’s literally changed the language we use to talk about baseball.

Forget the Nobel Prize, I think we have a legitimate reason to get a sociologist into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. William Gamson, along with Okrent and Bill James, deserve to be Hall of Famers.

*Gamson talks about his affinity for games in this fun essay in the Sociological Forum.

Written by brayden king

March 17, 2011 at 4:14 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Nice Blog, Keep it up.

    Jared Winn



    March 17, 2011 at 5:30 pm

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