October 17th, 2011
I do not play fantasy baseball, never have. Sometimes I think it is a menace to the game, breaking down civic and regional loyalties to real teams and replacing them with a loyalty to a private team that exists nowhere except on your computer. Such fans have seemed to me straight out of the dice-baseball heaven-hell of Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor.
But other times I reflect on the millions of fans who play the game with an intensity they might never have brought to root, root, rooting for the home team. And this must be a good thing even for the practice of baseball history, as this new breed of baseball fan demands precision, exactitude, and getting the story straight. An analytical bent, dating from Bill James to Billy Beane and beyond, makes today’s fan a mythbuster, and that is a good thing.
Baseball is indeed best played outdoors, in the sunshine. Next best is under the lights, but still outdoors. Baseball in a domed stadium is a very different experience of the game, still weirdly cool. But sometimes it rains, and that’s when fantasy baseball may indeed be the best of all. And its history begins in a distant place, in the realm of board games.
The title “Father of Baseball” has been bestowed variously upon Abner Doubleday, Alexander Cartwright, Doc Adams, Louis F. Wadsworth, and William R. Wheaton; all but the first have a reasonable claim to the honor. But who is the Father of Fantasy Baseball? If you answer Dan Okrent or Glen Waggoner—even if you are crafty enough to offer up Ethan Allen’s landmark game of 1941, “All-Star Baseball”—you’re in for a surprise.
One of two possible answers from long ago is Francis C. Sebring, pitcher for the Empire Base Ball Club of New York (and bowler for the Manhattan Cricket Club) in the mid-1860s. At some time around the conclusion of the Civil War, this enterprising resident of Hoboken designed a mechanical table game; sporting papers of 1867 carried ads for his “Parlour Base-Ball” and the December 8, 1866, issue of Leslie’s carried a woodcut of parents and young’uns playing the game.
No examples of “Parlour Base-Ball” survive, but from the patent application and drawing of February 4, 1868, we see that a spring propelled a coin (“one of the thick nickel coins of the denomination of ‘one cent,’ issued by the United States Government in and about the year 1860”) from pitcher to batter, and another spring activated a bat that propelled the coin into one or another of the cavities in the field. A pinball machine is not very much different.
According to the article in Leslie’s, the idea of making a toy version of the nascent national pastime occurred to Sebring while riding a ferry from Hoboken to New York to visit an ailing teammate. But was his brainchild the first baseball game? There is another game with a prior patent: the “Base-Ball Table” patented by William Buckley of New York on August 20, 1867, which like Sebring’s game operated on the pinball principle. And like Sebring’s game, it too has no remaining example: the earliest surviving baseball table game is a card game from 1869: “Base Ball: The New Parlor Game.” (An enterprising antiquarian might reconstruct both games from their schematic drawings and play them today.) And there are hints—requiring further research—that the McLoughlin Brothers Game Company of New York City may have issued a chromo-lithographic game as early as 1856.
Sebring’s name was not attached to his game. He was not a famous player, and baseball was still an amateur game, only beginning to produce national heroes. But in the remaining years of the nineteenth century, game manufacturers learned that invoking a star’s name—on either the game’s packaging or its components—made for greater sales. Board games of the 1990s, endorsed by Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Jr. et al., descended in a straight line from “Zimmer’s Base Ball Game by Zimmer the Catcher, Cleveland” (1893) and the Tom Barker and Fan Craze card games of the 1910s.
Did Sebring understand that the real game of baseball is similar in concept to the ancient Indian game of Pacheesi, in which a player (or marker) leaves home and makes his way back—stopping at each of three bases—to tally success? No; that’s just art imitating life, the essence of creation for painters, poets, and gamemakers alike.
But today’s fantasy baseball players—those involved in leagues, swapping players, competing for prizes—might look to another father. I believe the seeds of Rotisserie Baseball, the Okrent-Waggoner creation—were planted in 1884 by Thomas W. Lawson’s game, “Base Ball with Cards.” This 1884 card game has lovely if disquieting graphics, but you can’t blame Lawson for the menace that future generations would find in that bodiless, four-ball, four-armed swastika.
Lawson sold candy on trains in the Boston area as a boy, saved his money, and invented a card game that he sold himself, on the trains and at the ballparks. Played by four players, two on each side, its object was “to secure as many tricks, or runs, as possible and by skilful [sic] combinations to destroy the value of opponent’s cards.” A paradigm of Monopoly expressed in miniature, it was an apt metaphorical statement for the course its inventor would ultimately pursue with phenomenal success on Wall Street. But that is a story for another day.
The game was successful, and in 1885 Lawson arranged a tournament of the National League clubs, with prizes he posted himself (“$1,600 in gold and handsome trophies”). Unlike fantasy baseball, however, in which a player contents himself with statistical stand-ins for the players on his team, the “Base Ball with Cards” tournament was played by real members of each of the National League teams, deploying fantasy elements. The St. Louis Maroons defeated the Boston Red Stockings on their first eastern swing, but in September they lost to the Chicago White Stockings, who had such scientific card players as Ned Williamson, a crack whist player, and Fred Pfeffer, an expert at faro. Chicago thus won the right to play the Philadelphia Phillies for the championship, but the results of that match are lost to history.
The success of Lawson’s invention inspired a rival game known as “Parlor Baseball,” played with 125 cards “representing all the features of baseball.” What was interesting about this rival game was that its inventor was Jake Aydelott, a big-league pitcher with Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Fantasy and reality were one in baseball’s Garden of Eden.