The Birth of Fantasy Football
This article, written by Luke Esser, appeared in the 1994 edition of Fantasy Football Index magazine. Based on his interviews with George Ross and Scotty Stirling, Luke believes that the game was conceived in the fall of 1962, although the first draft is generally understood to have occurred in 1963.
In 1962 the founding fathers of fantasy football created a game that today inspires, infatuates and confounds millions of players.
After a seemingly endless night of labor pains, the discomfort soothed by a little alcohol for medicinal purposes, the birth of fantasy football finally took place at a hotel in New York City back in the fall of 1962.
History does not record the exact date of birth, but it occurred in obscurity sometime within a dozen days of Halloween that year. America can be forgiven for not noticing at the time, since a little distraction called the Cuban missile crisis had nearly thrust the world into nuclear war in the last week of October.
Now approaching its 32nd birthday, fantasy football was born of three fathers -- the founding fathers of a game that slowly matured into the sports colossus that today inspires, infatuates and confounds millions of players.
At first glance, 1962 may not seem such a long time ago. American Graffiti offers a snapshot of that era, nostalgically asking the question, "Where were you in '62?" But it was the dark ages in football years. We're not simply talking about a time far enough back that the Raiders still played in Oakland. We're talking about a time so distant, so remote, that the Raiders played in Oakland and were absolutely terrible.
Our three founding fathers went on a road trip back East with those terrible 1-13 Raiders, a trip worth remembering only because of the bundle of joy that came bawling into the world one cold, dark fall night.
The man who conceived the idea for fantasy football, and who deserves the most credit for the birth of the game, is the late Wilfred "Bill" Winkenbach, who was a limited partner with the Raiders (he owned a financial stake in the team, but had no say in its operation). Winkenbach devised and played precursor fantasy games involving golf and baseball in the 1950's that later provided the inspiration for fantasy football.
In the mid-fifties Winkenbach developed a PGA golf tour game where every week the players would draft pro golfers and then add up their scores after the weekly tournament was over. In the late 1950's he developed a baseball game where the players drafted home run hitters and pitchers, matching statistics against their opponents.
Fantasy football, the close relative of these two earlier games, was born in a room of the Manhattan Hotel (now the Milford Plaza) on 700 8th Avenue in New York, during the Raiders' 1962 East Coast road swing when Winkenbach met with two writers for the Oakland Tribune -- Scotty Stirling (the beat reporter) and George Ross (the sports editor) -- and threw out his new idea for discussion.
Immediately understanding that they had run across something special, the three worked together all night. Over a few drinks, they created a scheme of organization and a set of rules by which sports fans could draft the skill players from pro football teams onto their own imaginary teams, and play weekly games against their friends in a league that rewarded the team with the best record.
"Though I was involved, Winkenbach deserves the lion's share of the credit for developing the game," Stirling said. "We chipped in with rules, but the germ of inspiration was these earlier games he played with golf and baseball."
"It was Wink's idea," Ross said. "It came out of his having played these other games and out of his interest in football. He threw out the idea and we played around with it."
A prominent figure in the East Bay Area during his life and financially successful in the tile business, Winkenbach died March 7, 1993 at the age of 81.
"He was the ultimate sports fan," Stirling said. "He was always talking about sports, at work, at the health club, everywhere."
"Wink had fun with these other leagues and he convinced us to try it out with football," Ross said. "He was a jovial guy and we expected it would be a lot of fun."
The newborn child took its first steps when, upon their return home, the three founding fathers created the world's first fantasy football league -- the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prediction League (GOPPPL). This original eight-team league included owner-coach combinations gathered from friends at the Tribune and the Raiders, and other sports-minded acquaintances.
The Oakland in which fantasy football grew up was the working class side of the Bay, long sitting in the shadow of its richer and haughtier neighbor to the west, San Francisco. In the pages of the Tribune, and in the community the paper served, a definite booster attitude existed toward the Raiders. Before the A's moved to Oakland, before the Philadelphia Warriors moved to the Bay Area, before the ABA existed, only the Raiders offered any claim to big-league status for a city desperately looking for something uniquely its own to be proud of.
As Oakland was an exclusively AFL town, GOPPPL started out as an exclusively AFL fantasy league. Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and their like need not apply, at least not until the merger. The top AFL fantasy player of 1962 was then-Houston Oiler quarterback George Blanda, who tallied up a phenomenal 1,430 points under GOPPPL's scoring scheme (50 points for a rushing TD, 25 points for a thrown or caught TD, 25 points for a field goal, 10 points for an extra point, and 200 points for a kick or interception returned for a TD). Blanda threw 27 TD passes that year, kicked 11 field goals (out of 26 attempts), and made 48 extra points (out of 49 tries).
In the days before kicking specialists emerged, skill position players who were also kickers often got the opportunity to rack up enormous fantasy point totals. Interestingly, if GOPPPL had been co-ed from the start, Green Bay's rugged Jim Taylor would have led all NFL players with 950 points, though Taylor earned all of his fantasy points on 19 rushing TDs.
The early GOPPPL was a low-tech fantasy league, where information was harder to come by than today. "Our computer software package was a Street & Smith annual, just to make sure a guy was still playing wide receiver somewhere," Ross said.
Nevertheless, the GOPPPL owners and coaches were well-informed sports specialists who took advantage of their ties to the newspaper and the football team.
"The draft meetings were very intense," Stirling said. "There was a lot of thought and expertise that went into it right from the start."
These intense players not only called their league GOPPPL, they called the game they played GOPPPL, which is what they called other leagues playing the same game. To them, someone playing fantasy football 10,000 miles from Oakland was still playing GOPPPL. The term fantasy football did not emerge until many years later.
Though the name eventually changed, fantasy football remained the same because the original all-night birthing project produced a workable scoring scheme that required little or no modification.
"Right off the bat we came up with a pretty good system," Ross said.
"Basically we covered all the bases in that first meeting in New York," Stirling said. "We stayed up all night talking about the game."
That was just the first of many sleepless nights caused by the creation of fantasy football. You can blame the three founding fathers for all those lost hours wasted on fantasy football that you could have spent changing the furnace filters or washing the cat. Instead, denied any semblance of willpower by your addiction to fantasy football, your life goes to hell.
Why? What universal longing does fantasy football satisfy? Or do Americans today simply have too much spare time? The founders have a couple of theories about what makes their baby so attractive.
"The idea that you can draft your own team really turns guys on," Stirling said. "I know in Oakland some guys thought they were really building a football team. In their own minds they were probably another Al Davis."
Ross gives television coverage a great deal of the credit -- or blame.
"T.V. caters to fantasy leagues," he said. "You don't see the game on the screen, you see one guy throwing the ball or one guy running the ball. They focus in on the quarterbacks and running backs way too much."
Soon fantasy football began to spread through three Oakland institutions that took part in its infancy: The Tribune, the Raiders, and the King's X bar in Oakland.
Andy Mousalimas, owner of King's X, and an original GOPPPL member, brought the game back to the bar, where another couple leagues started. When the patrons of other area bars visited for trivia contests and similar competitions, they soon learned of the game and passed the word about it.
"It spread out in concentric waves," Ross said. "Guys in offices and in bars would talk about it, and pretty soon it was all over town, and then it spread to San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area."
Eventually the game spread to every corner of the country, in roughly the same fashion as it had in Oakland and the Bay Area: through bars and offices.
The obsessiveness which has become the hallmark of many fantasy football leagues appeared early in the game's history.
"Bill would sit together with the other limited partners at home Raider games, and for the first couple weeks of the season their big concern was not how the Raiders were doing, but how well their GOPPPL team was playing," Stirling said.
Ross saw many staffers at the Tribune put in extra hours in the sports office, boning up on draft and transaction information to bolster their GOPPPL teams.
And the lighter side of the game emerged early as well.
"Winkenbach had this trophy made with a wooden football face and a dunce cap on top for the guy who came in last each year," Stirling said. "The last-place guy had to keep it on his mantle till the next season, and when you visited his house he damn well better have that trophy up on the mantle or there was trouble."
Winkenbach became the first commissioner of a fantasy football league because, as an independent businessman, he had the phone lines, the typewriters and the mimeograph machine (that also tells you a little about how long ago this was) needed to do the job right.
At a time when electric typewriters were in their infancy (personal computers weren't even a glimmer in a geek's eye yet), Winkenbach prepared weekly reports that were delivered to each GOPPPL owner on Tuesday morning of game week. Soon Winkenbach accomplished another fantasy football first. As the very first commissioner, he was a pioneer in dealing with the same kind of squabbles that plague many leagues to this day. If today you commissioners want to complain about how hard it is to collect money, to get starting lineups or to prevent owners from colluding, get in line. Winkenbach saw it all, long before many of you were born.
"Right from the start people took it seriously," Stirling said, describing the problem that would develop if a one team inquired about another team's lineup, and it had not been submitted by the deadline. "Our lineups were supposed to be in Thursday and sometimes guys would call and say, '@#%&!!!!, they're supposed to have their lineups in for the @#$%& game today, Bill. Do something about it.'"
Friendly competitiveness appeared almost immediately, too.
"I think George won the first year, and it really pissed me off that I didn't," Stirling said, chuckling.
For all that intensity, the game remained small. Though two of the founding fathers and many players worked at the city's major daily newspaper, they never wrote about it, never consciously publicized it. And why bother, anyway? It was just GOPPPL, just a fun little diversion.
"We had no idea it would explode into the kind of mania that exists today," Stirling said. "Pro football isn't a game. It's a cult. And this stuff (fantasy football) is close to a cult."
"It surprises me," Winkenbach said in a 1991 interview. "We were the first to start it, and it just mushroomed from there. There's a lot of offshoots to fantasy football. Oh yeah, I'm surprised at how big it's gotten."
Ross, a lifelong newspaperman, served as sports editor of the Tribune for more than a decade. Now 77, he is enjoying his retirement in rural Graeagle, California, in the northeastern part of the state. "If you get out this way -- you're lost," Ross said.
Stirling, whose career has spanned sports journalism and sports management, now works as the Director of Scouting for the Sacramento Kings. After leaving journalism, he served as general manager of the Raiders, assistant GM of the Oakland Oaks of the ABA, GM of the San Francisco Warriors, vice president of operations for the NBA and then GM of the New York Knicks, who fired him seven years ago.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," said Stirling, who yearned to return to the Bay Area anyway. He describes his work with the Kings as "the best job of all."
The creators of fantasy football never benefitted financially from their effort. Parker Brothers still makes a mint from Monopoly(R), a game invented in the Great Depression, but our founding fathers get no royalties on the millions of dollars spent on fantasy football every year.
"Wink asked me once to put together a board game or something like that which followed our rules in GOPPPL, but I never had the time to do it," Ross said. "It probably would have made a few bucks if we could have copyrighted or patented it."
"About three years ago I ran into Bill and he told me, 'I told you we should have copyrighted the damn thing,'" Stirling said. That was the last time he ever spoke with Winkenbach.
Unfortunately, not all the friendly relationships fostered by fantasy football lasted forever.
Ross and Winkenbach didn't speak to each other for 15 years after the Tribune published a series of stories in the 1970's which questioned the propriety of some of the Raiders' financial dealings. The two never reconciled before Winkenbach died last year.
An even greater irony involving two of the three creators of the game provides some much-needed perspective about how far fantasy football has, or hasn't, come since 1962.
Though Winkenbach played GOPPPL almost until the end of his life, the two surviving founders of fantasy football walked away from the habit-forming game they brought into the world just a few years after its birth. In a country filled with fantasy football junkies, the fathers of the game gave it up cold turkey.
Ross has not played in more than a quarter-century, and it's been 30 years since Stirling played.
Both pinned the blame for their leaving GOPPPL on hectic work schedules. Ross stuck with the game for six or seven years, Stirling played for only two.
"It got to the point where I was forgetting to phone in lineups and losing games because of it," Ross said. "I was just too busy." "I originally quit because I didn't have the time," Stirling said. "Then when I got out of football, I lost interest in the game. I still have some interest. It's just not nearly as great as it was. Basketball is by far the better game."
Stirling became infatuated with basketball both personally and professionally years ago, though he has never played or been asked to play fantasy basketball. He has been asked to play fantasy football in the years since he quit GOPPPL, but he has declined. As the Kings' director of scouting, he conducts real drafts for a living.
"I've been asked to join, but I just haven't had the interest," he said.
Though Ross hasn't been asked to play recently, he says he'd be willing to give the old game another shot. "I'd probably join if I was asked," he said. "It was a lot of fun."
Ross and Stirling long ago moved on, and so did fantasy football. Though the founding fathers abandoned their child, it did not become an orphan. Instead it gained a whole nation of mothers and fathers.