The Greatest League in the World
March 13, 2007
This offseason, I've received a number of emails asking for a recap of last year's AL Tout Wars race. I actually did start to write something back in November after winning the league for the second time in three years. It was an especially good year to write commentary as last year's finish was the most exciting in league history, setting records for highest point total by a champion and closest margin of victory - a mere half point. But even that doesn't detail how sensational it really was. Had the final game of the season between Red Sox and Orioles not been rain-shortened in the fifth inning, I probably would have lost a point in the RBI category. Another team had four hitters going in that game and needed only one RBI to tie me. Had that happened, we might have seen runner-up Steve Moyer of Baseball Info Solutions on the cover of this year's Bill James Handbook instead of Ryan Howard. Just kidding, of course. For a guy who knows everyone in baseball, Steve is one of the most down-to-earth people you will ever meet.
But this wasn't the first time a league comprised of high-profile industry leaders came down to such a memorable finish. As a matter of fact, the very first fantasy baseball league did. The popular belief is that the first league took place in New York, set up by a bunch of baseball-crazy writers. After several months of research at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Metropolitan Library, I've discovered that's only half true. The actual first league took place long before fantasy baseball was named after rotisserie chicken.
On Saturday, April 13, 1929 in the Presidential Suite of the Plaza Hotel in New York City, the draft day began at 11:06 AM when newly inaugurated US President Herbert Hoover wasted no time in throwing out the game's biggest name: Babe Ruth. The bidding was so fierce for the Roaring 20s version of Barry Bonds that Hoover had to re-iterate several times that each team was given only $260 with which to spend on a 23-man roster. Past the $100 mark... past $125... past $150... past $200... finally, writer Ernest Hemingway, already working on his second mojito of the day, conceded Ruth to physicist Edwin Hubble at $230. Hubble later reasoned that like the real universe, the player universe was constantly and infinitely expanding and that as the season progressed, new stars would come into existence who could help his team. Because of Ruth's price tag, the only other player he ended up actually bidding on was second year starting pitcher Carl Hubbell (no relation) for $8. The rest of his roster was comprised of $1 gimmes at the end of the draft. Hubble's calculations proved flawed as the player universe did not expand as rapidly as he expected. Even with Ruth and Hubbell, the man who found the first evidence for the Big Bang theory would finish last in every category.
Hoover himself was one of the biggest baseball fans in presidential history. He was driven from the moment he took office to find some way of leaving his mark on the game. In 1910, William Howard Taft had been the first president to throw out an Opening Day pitch. Hoover had been Warren Harding's Secretary of Commerce when the president hosted Babe Ruth himself at the White House. Calvin Coolidge's wife Grace was renowned for keeping perfect scorecards of the games they attended. Hoover needed something to identify himself with baseball. As a kid he had dreamed of growing up to one day become a great outfielder but, being a Quaker, he was almost always used at second base. Not the position, the actual base. While attending Stanford on scholarship he considered working in a front office but his uncle convinced him that no one would ever make any money in baseball. “Mining engineering is where the real money is,” he would tell the impressionable Hoover. The rest, as they say, is history. But baseball was still on his mind when he was elected, and with his presidential authority and connections Hoover was able to organize the first fantasy baseball league. On April 1, 1929, he signed the executive order to create the first stat service comprised of a team of accountants from the Treasury Department.
The rest of the owner roster was just as noteworthy and surprising, none moreso than Indian spiritual and political leader Mohandas "Mo" Gandhi. The Mahatma did not have a high opinion of cricket's linear basepath, nor did he applaud the fact that the championship was contested over some ashes. Baseball, however, intrigued him with it's geometry and rhythm, proving to be a stronger metaphor for life's struggles in his opinion. The players he chose for his fantasy roster resembled his own life - players who had encountered tough setbacks, stiff opposition or were in new surroundings but had the talent and, just as importantly, the perseverance to succeed.
Three great American writers also participated: F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and the aforementioned Hemingway. Hemingway, completely plastered by the second round, constantly taunted the other owners, sometimes challenging them to wrestling or boxing matches or to shoot skeet out the 19th story-window. He was particularly oppressive toward Fitzgerald, bullying him into overbidding on utility players and relief pitchers throughout the proceedings. Had he played today's game with so many super-utility players like Chone Figgins and Billy Hall, as well as the plethora of dominating closers and set-up men, that might not have been a bad strategy for F. Scott. But in 1929, it was doomed as the save statistic wouldn't be invented for another 31 years.
Faulkner swore before the draft that he would only take players from Mississippi. When he found out there were only 8 such active players, he broadened his net to include Louisiana and Alabama. That netted him future Hall of Famers Mel Ott, Joe Sewell, Bill Dickey and Ted Lyons. However, it was because of Faulkner that the draft took nearly 14 hours. With each bid he would think out loud in a seemingly never-ending stream of abstruse personal reflections with each conclusion spawning a new tangent. Fortunately for all involved, Faulkner spent his entire budget in the first four rounds which took up 12 of the 14 hours.
American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh was there as well although after the draft he was pretty much an absentee owner. Just a few weeks before it took place, he had met Anne Morrow, the only girl he had ever asked out on a date. They married in late May and Lindbergh spent the rest of the year teaching her how to fly. He made one transaction during the first week (picking up Alex Gaston as an extra catcher for his reserves) and then another in the final week, dropping him.
Perhaps the greatest painter of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was also an owner. He had been fascinated by baseball cards for years, particularly the color schemes of the early tobacco cards. His draft favored players with exaggerated physical characteristics. He loved Hack Wilson's lack of proportion, Ski Melillo's giant nose, Rabbit Maranville's enormous ears, Willie Kamm's boulevard of black furry eyebrow. With his sizable nose, ears and eyebrows, as well as the large eyes of a sage, Mickey Cochrane was practically Picasso's Holy Grail. It's true that during these years he rediscovered classicism and surrealism, but he often talked about doing a series of baseball cards. Obviously that never came to fruition largely because of his insistence on replacing the bubble gum in the wax packs with paella.
Ostensibly because of his familiarity with cricket, future British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was invited into the league but was later kicked out at the mid-season meeting for making so many lopsided trades with German Nationalist philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was only a casual sports fan, but he did have the brilliant insight to contact Germany's top scientists to generate his player projections. Unfortunately, they did not know much about average points gained or any of the other modern statistical tools for projecting prices. Instead they relied upon German actuarial tables, which at the time were grossly distorted by Germany's runaway inflation. Thus, according to Heidegger's draft cheat sheet, Babe Ruth was worth $13,487,592. Thinking that he would have to bid at least $30 on the likes of Hal Rhyne and Heinie Mueller, he would finish with $194 of his $260 budget unspent, and indisputably the worst fantasy draft ever.
The first Chamberlain/Heidegger deal to raise the ire of his fellow owners was Andy Cohen for Tony Lazzeri. Heidegger explained the deal was "fair because the primordial mode of temporalizing of ecstatic temporality itself must make the ecstatic project of being in general possible". Everyone stared blankly at him, then each other but his reasoning was indisputable. The trade would stand.
Two weeks later, he defended his second trade with Chamberlain - Ossie Bluege and Sheriff Blake for Pie Traynor – by saying that it had nothing to do with a "vicious relativizing of ontological standpoints". But this explanation did not sit well with the others and the league voted that Heidegger would have to pony up a keg of Weihenstephan or the deal would be overturned. Initially, he refused citing that his league mates would never be able to bypass their phenomenological vision of brews to truly apprehend God in the being of the beer, but no one else cared. Eventually a compromise was reached wherein Heidegger bought a case of Yeungling Old German for everyone to share at the All-Star Game party.
The final straw came when Chamberlain agreed to deal Lou Gehrig and Lefty Grove for Jimmie Dykes and Marv Gudat, claiming he needed the positional flexibility and a guy who could help his WHIP. Heidegger remained silent this time but it was clear Chamberlain couldn't stop himself from making concessions to the German thinker. It was later discovered that Chamberlain suffered from a massive inferiority complex which made it impossible for him to deny the request of anyone who sounded angry. As it would later be obvious to the entire world, this naturally made him easy prey for anyone who spoke German. It was at this point the decision was made to kick Chamberlain out of the league.
An argument over the rights of owners escalated to the point that Picasso assaulted Faulkner with an olive loaf, but Gandhi interceded. "Sir," addressing Chamberlain, "it seems to me that matters have gone beyond debate. Despite your best intentions you must, in the nature of things, admit that your trades have been humiliating. This latest trade is but an extreme example. It is time you left."
Chamberlain replied, "With respect, Mr. Gandhi, you don't think I'm just going to walk out of this league?"
Gandhi replied, "Yes. In the end, you will walk out. Because one Englishman simply can't do anything in a league if the other 11 participants refuse to cooperate with him and that is what we intend to achieve: peaceful, non-violent non-cooperation until you yourself see the wisdom of leaving."
Chamberlain's successor, coincidentally, would be his eventual successor to the Prime Ministership, Winston Churchill, despite Churchill’s extremely vocal opposition to mustaches.Electric energy genius Nikoli Tesla also participated. He was very personable at the draft, even playful, shocking the other owners with a hidden high voltage joy buzzer with each handshake and backslap. Unfortunately his team got out of the gate slowly and when they fell out of the race by June he became dour and aloof, even once threatening to use his death ray on Chamberlain’s players if he didn't accept a trade offer.
The final member of the league was supposed to be Ty Cobb, but he backed out just the day before the draft when he discovered that fantasy baseball did not involve scantily clad women. Frantically, Hoover used his presidential powers to commandeer the entire guest list for the hotel and lucked into finding another legendary athlete who just so happened to be on the premises: Johnny Weismuller. He was a bit of an odd candidate to be sure, particularly whenever Weismuller won the bidding on players. With each successful bid he would let out with his now famous Tarzan call. This proved rather awkward each instance as his first movie in that role wouldn't come until three years later.
The race for the prize was like most leagues: one team leading one week, a new leader the next. On the final day of the season, the champion was determined when St. Louis Cardinal Fred Frankhouse got a 2-1 win over Cincinnati Red Marv Gudat giving Gandhi a full one point lead in atop the wins category and a half point margin of victory. "The Rajah" Rogers Hornsby led his offense, finishing third in each of the Triple Crown categories but leading the majors in total bases on his way to a second MVP award.
Six months of glorious competition between the best and brightest finally came to an end. But the aftermath was not so glowing.
Churchill, depressed that Gandhi and his mustache had won at his expense, projected his frustrations onto all people of India, bitterly opposing all legislation in favor of Indian Home Rule. He was even quoted as calling Gandhi "a half-naked fakir" who "ought to be laid, bound hand and foot, at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back". Churchill's mood became so foul that not only was he not picked by his Conservative Party to serve in the Cabinet in 1931, but he was also suspended from his local lawn bowling league "for general rudeness". It would not be until after World War 2 that some of his fellow Conservatives would finally invite him for a game of canasta.
Churchill wasn't the only one who fell on hard times. It turned out that the team of accountants that served as the league stat service was also the same group of analysts whose primary job was to monitor the world markets, particularly the American stock market. Distracted by the task of compiling the daily baseball statistics, they missed numerous signs of an upcoming financial disaster. On October 29, 1929, only a couple of weeks after the World Series concluded, the stock market crashed and sent the US and eventually the world into a Great Depression. Needless to say, Hoover refocused on his country's plight and without his leadership, the league dissolved that winter. In no small part, the league he formed in 1929 would cost him the 1932 presidential election.
The only thing that survived this league of shining individuals after it's epic but turbulent year was Weismuller's legendary yell.
What should we take from this? Maybe that even the greatest men have their frailties. Perhaps it's that we must not carry our frustrations beyond the end of the season. Several of these men did and because they could not learn from their mistakes in the microcosm of a pastime, they repeated their mistakes on a much grander scale. It's time to move on to new challenges with lessons learned and the renewed energies that spring (and spring training) brings. Good luck and may your season exceed your expectations.
(Disclaimer: the historical characters in this story in no way metaphorically resemble actual people I know)
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