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Fantasy Football: The Early Days

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Fantasy sports have become as ingrained in American culture as baseball and apple pie. And they have spread worldwide. But the millions who play mostly have no idea about the people and events that created this phenomenon. In his new book, The History of Fantasy Sports: And the Stories of the People Who Made It Happen, Amazon bestselling author Larry Schechter provides the first complete telling of how we got from the spontaneous ideas for games years ago, to the multi-billion-dollar industry of today. We’re happy to present an excerpt from this book about the origins of fantasy football.

Schechter spent 18 months researching and interviewing dozens of key players to uncover their stories. This reader-friendly book is ready to take its place alongside some of the best in sports history. You will be entertained and inspired by these stories of humble beginnings turned multi-million-dollar enterprises. Schechter does a great job of capturing the passion, obsession, and love of the game behind these businesses.

Early reviews include:

“Exhaustively researched, this is the most detailed history of the fantasy sports industry. Despite spending my entire career in the industry, I was enlightened by all the interviews and countless stories throughout the book.” – Paul Charchian, President of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 2009-2020

“Larry regales us with colorful accounts, many of them direct from the source. This is a must-read for any passionate fantasy sports fan.” – Tristan Cockcroft, ESPN.com Senior Fantasy Sports Writer

The book is available now on Amazon (paperback and Kindle). It will soon be available elsewhere.

The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, about the origins of fantasy football:

Origins in Oakland

Bill “Wink” Winkenbach was a successful Oakland businessman. He owned a company called Superior Tile, a 10% limited partnership of the Oakland Raiders, and the building that was home to the Raiders offices. In the mid-to-late 1950s, he created a fantasy game based on the PGA Tour. Each week, participants would select a team of pro golfers and whoever had the lowest combined total strokes would win.

Around 1959, Winkenbach created a baseball game, the Superior Tile Summer Invitational Home Run Tourney. Team owners drafted a fixed number of pitchers, catchers, infielders, and outfielders and earned points based on their players’ actual performance. The league continued for more than 40 years.

Fantasy football was born in October of 1962, when the Raiders went to New York for a game against the Titans (now the New York Jets). Information about the details is slightly conflicting. The most reported story is that one night at their Manhattan hotel—what is now the Row NYC —Winkenbach created the game with the help of Bill Tunnell, the Raiders PR director, and Scotty Stirling, who covered the Raiders for the Oakland Tribune.

Stirling said the men got together for drinks, and Winkenbach told them about his golf and baseball games. Someone suggested, “Why don’t we do a football game?” They stayed up all night talking about the game and creating the rules, according to Stirling. “Winkenbach deserves the lion’s share of the credit for developing the game,” he said. “We chipped in with rules, but the germ of inspiration was these earlier games he played with golf and baseball.” When they were back in Oakland, they added George Ross, the Oakland Tribune’s sports editor, to the group.

The slightly different version of events states that on the flight to New York, Wink was sitting with George Ross, told him about his baseball game, and Ross suggested they do one for football. This conversation then led to Winkenbach discussing the idea with Tunnell and Stirling at the hotel. One further discrepancy: In a 2010 article, Stirling said that Ross was also at the hotel with them on the night they created the game. 

Since the 1962 season had already started, they waited until August 1963 to hold their first draft. They called the league the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prediction League (GOPPPL).  (The acronym rhymes with “topple” and is often referred to with the word “Prognosticators” in place of “Prediction,” but that is not correct.)

Their rules dictated that owners must (1) be affiliated with an AFL team in some capacity, (2) be a journalist for pro football, or (3) have bought or sold 10 season tickets for the Raiders’ 1963 season.

They recruited four more owners: Raiders radio voice Bob Blum, ticket manager George Glace, and season-ticket sellers Phil Carmona and Ralph Casebolt. In 1963, there was only one preview guide, Street & Smith’s, and it was difficult to get injury news. An owner had to really follow the AFL and NFL religiously and dig to get information. Because of this difficulty, each owner selected a second person to help as team “coach.” Essentially, they were co-owners.

Stirling asked a friend, local entrepreneur Andy Mousalimas, to be his coach. George Glace asked Ron Wolf, a Raiders scout, to be his coach. (Wolf went on to become a Hall of Fame general manager for the Packers in the mid-1990s. Stirling later became GM of the Raiders, then of the NBA’s New York Knicks; he also served as the NBA’s VP of operations and spent 24 years as the Sacramento Kings’ scouting director.)

The roster requirement was 20 players: four receivers, four halfbacks, two fullbacks, two quarterbacks, two kick returners, two kickers, two defensive backs or linebackers, and two defensive linemen. The owners submitted a weekly starting lineup consisting of about half of their 20 players. If a player was known to be hurt, owners could apply to the commissioner for permission to select a temporary replacement from the undrafted players.

Their scoring system was 50 points for a rushing touchdown, 25 points for a thrown or caught touchdown, 25 points for a field goal, 10 points for an extra point and 200 points for a kick or interception returned for a touchdown.

The first draft was held, in August 1963, in the basement recreation room of Winkenbach’s house. Stirling and Mousalimas had the first pick and took Houston Oilers quarterback George Blanda (he was also the Oilers placekicker and could be drafted again separately as a kicker).  The second pick was Cleveland running back Jim Brown. Others taken in that draft included Y.A. Tittle, Mike Ditka, and Frank Gifford.

Winkenbach was the league commissioner because his office had phone lines, typewriters, and a mimeograph machine—especially rare in 1963. He distributed weekly reports to everyone on Tuesdays. 

Stirling has said, “Winkenbach would sit with other limited partners at home Raider games, and their big concern wasn’t how the Raiders were doing, but how their GOPPPL team was playing.”

“We’d go and root for the opposition,” Mousalimas recalled, “and fans would look at us and say, ‘Why the hell are you rooting against the Raiders?’” 

With no internet and no ESPN, they did much of their research by reading out-of-town newspapers at their local newsstand. Mousalimas would call newspapers for information— sometimes he got it and sometimes they hung up thinking he was a bookie.

GOPPPL held a banquet in January for the club owners, coaches, and wives. Winkenbach personally made a trophy for the last-place team with a wooden football face and a dunce cap on top. Stirling and Mousalimas, with the first pick, finished last. Every year, the person who placed last was required to display the trophy at his home until handing it off to the following year’s loser.

Although GOPPPL was mentioned in a 1965 San Francisco Examiner article, through 1968, very few people heard about the game. The original members only shared it with a small number of friends and some co-workers at the Raiders and at the Tribune. Per their own rules, they only allowed football journalists, Raiders season-ticket sellers or buyers, or those affiliated with an AFL team. Only a few other leagues sprouted from the small number of friends and co-workers who were told about it. Ross said he noticed many Tribune staffers putting in extra hours in the sports department, studying information to help their personal GOPPPL teams. He said GOPPPL made his sportswriters better at their jobs, as they all became NFL and AFL experts.

At some point, Tribune staff also started GOPPPL baseball and basketball leagues.

Tribune columnist Dave Newhouse said the leagues were great for morale, giving people something to talk about and needle each other over.

In 1969, John Madden was hired as the Raiders’ coach, and Wink had lunch with him often. According to Winkenbach’s daughter, her dad used this friendship with Madden to “pick his mind about who to draft.” Wink was also a good friend of owner Al Davis. On game day, Wink would set up radios around the family TV so he could watch one game and listen to others.

The phrase “fantasy football” didn’t yet exist. Instead, people referred to this game as GOPPPL, both for Wink’s original league and for anyone else who created a league. It would be many years before “fantasy football” became the common name.

Andy Mousalimas and the Kings X

Bill Winkenbach is the man credited with inventing fantasy football, but Andy “Sam” Mousalimas was the guy who spread the word. Yet this was far from Mousalimas’ biggest accomplishment in life. Born to Greek immigrants, he was a 17-year-old high school senior when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. One year later, he volunteered for the Army and soon became a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner of the CIA. Mousalimas later recalled, “The recruiting officer said 97% of you will probably not return.”

Fluent in Greek, he was assigned to a group that secretly parachuted behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Greece. They blended in with the Greek resistance and raised havoc among the German forces, destroying infrastructure and incredibly pinning down 31 German divisions that otherwise would have been sent to France to stop the Allied invasion on D-Day. He always had a cyanide pill in case he was captured.

The activities of the OSS were not declassified until 45 years after their last mission. Mousalimas never spoke of it until that happened, even to his own family. He was awarded a Purple Heart and the Congressional Gold Medal.

After the war, he came home, got married, and was the manager of a bar on Telegraph Avenue, in Oakland, called the Lamp Post. He was known as one of the few bartenders who would serve African Americans. He became friends with Scotty Stirling, a regular customer, leading to Stirling asking Mousalimas to be “coach” of his GOPPPL team.

In 1968, Mousalimas left the Lamp Post and bought the Kings X bar on Piedmont Avenue, in North Oakland, turning it into what was probably the Bay Area’s first sports bar. To attract customers, he offered competitions such as gin rummy, backgammon, and trivia contests. One day, in 1969, he decided it would be fun, and good for business, to offer fantasy football to the public. He started his own 10-team Kings League and invited his regulars to join. He had no problem filling it.

Demand required Mousalimas start a second league for the 1970 season. He called it the X League. He altered the scoring system to include points for yardage gained and an escalating reward scale for length of TDs. “The rules were terrible,” he said. “They were great to begin with, but when you got 25 points for a rushing touchdown—whether for a yard or up to 74 yards—then it was double after 74 yards. How many times you score from 75 out? And then you got 200 points for a defensive player score or a return player. So, we changed a lot of that. In those days, O.J. Simpson was running wild, while Pete Banaszak was scoring one-yard touchdowns. You got points for the one-yard touchdowns, but no points for the guy rushing for 100 yards.”

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