OAKLAND, Calif. — On a blazing evening earlier last week, members of the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League filed into the back room of an old Italian restaurant for their annual fantasy football draft.
This was not the young, tablet-toting bunch so common in fantasy leagues across the country. “One thing that’s different about this league,” said Stan Heeb, the commissioner and a retired teacher, “is we’re pencil and paper guys.” Some of the silver-haired participants have been involved so long they aren’t sure when they joined.
Which is fitting, because here’s what else is different about this league: GOPPPL, as it’s known, is the granddaddy of all fantasy football leagues.
That’s right. The national phenomenon known as fantasy football traces its roots to Oakland. It was created by Bill Winkenbach, a former minority owner of the Raiders and the driving force behind GOPPPL, which held its first draft in the summer of ’63.
The men gathered here at Francesco’s Restaurant are his direct pigskin prognosticating descendants
For the next three hours, they immerse themselves in the same ritual as 30 million other fantasy football players across the country in the weeks leading to the NFL season. Blue- and white-collar workers, teenagers and retirees, men and women, high school dropouts and college graduates — they all turn into general managers, drafting teams in hopes of earning bragging rights and, of course, cold, hard cash.
GOPPPL bragging rights currently belong to Fred Thomsen, 91, who won $300 last year thanks to the exploits of Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch.
“We still draft the same way we did 40 years ago,” Thomsen said. “And the scoring system is the same.
“I remember Winkenbach said this would never catch on.”
The origins of fantasy sports are subject to debate and interpretation.
Documents uncovered by the Library of Congress and published by sports historian John Thorn indicate a Virginia teenager named Tommy Wilson dabbled in baseball statistics in the early 1870s. Wilson, who kept records for his “Light Foot Base Ball Club,” would later become famous worldwide for accomplishments using his middle name, Woodrow.
Rick Wolf, of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, suggested the invention of Strat-O-Matic, a simulation game developed in 1961 by a Bucknell University math student, could be considered the birth of fantasy baseball.
But those steeped in the history of fantasy football have little doubt about the creation of their game. The Big Bang occurred on a rainy weekend in 1962, in a New York City hotel room.
While killing time before the finale of the Raiders’ three-game eastern swing, Winkenbach sat down with Raiders staffer Bill Tunnell and Oakland Tribune sportswriter Scotty Stirling and sketched out the rules for a game that would involve drafting players and tracking touchdowns.
Upon returning to Oakland, they enlisted the help of Tribune sports editor George Ross and finalized the rules. The following summer, the first draft in fantasy sports history took place in the basement of Winkenbach’s house in East Oakland.
There were eight teams in what was dubbed the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League. Ron Wolf, a Raiders scout who would become a Hall of Fame general manager for the Packers, was an original member. Stirling asked a friend, a local entrepreneur named Andy Mousalimas, to join him. The decision would later change the course of fantasy sports history.
The first pick of the first draft (by Mousalimas) was the Houston Oilers’ George Blanda (later a star with the Raiders), who could earn points as both a quarterback and a kicker. The second pick was a Cleveland running back named Jim Brown.
“We knew it was something special,” said Mousalimas, 90, one of the few surviving members of the original league. “We couldn’t wait for the games. We’d go and root for the opposition, and fans would look at us and say, ‘What the hell are you doing rooting for that guy?’ “
GOPPPL has rolled through the decades with little fanfare and its simple system of awarding points only for touchdowns. But everything changed in 1968 when Mousalimas opened the King’s X bar on Piedmont Ave. and took fantasy football to the masses.
He created six divisions and implemented a scoring system that got him booted out of GOPPPL. Mousalimas, it seems, had the gall to create a component for yardage.
“O.J. Simpson could run wild,” Mousalimas explained, “but he couldn’t score if he was on a bad team.”
This was back before the Internet, before ESPN, before the ubiquity of games on television. Research and data collection were largely based on scouring the out-of-town papers at a local newsstand. Occasionally, Mousalimas would call the papers directly. He was sometimes mistaken for a bookie and hung up on.
To tally results from the Sunday games, Mousalimas would leave his bar at 2:15 a.m., head downtown to the Tribune and wait for the first edition to roll off the presses at 3. Sports section in hand, he headed home and worked until dawn. The “boards” (i.e., standings) had to be ready for the Monday lunch crowd.
Soon, public demand exceeded the supply of teams at the King’s X, and Mousalimas created a waiting list. He began fielding calls from bars across the country — and Hawaii — asking for details on the rules.
By this point, Winkenbach and the GOPPPL players had developed a version of fantasy baseball. Exactly how the sports made the jump to the sports-crazed cities of the East Coast is lost to history. So were the origins of the games, at least initially.
In an episode of “30 for 30” that aired in 2010, ESPN attributed the origins to a group of New Yorkers who congregated at La Rotisserie Francaise (hence the name rotisserie baseball). Other media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, did the same.
“ESPN had a big miss with that,” said Wolf, of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. “Bill Winkenbach created fantasy sports.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mousalimas. “Of course, everything starts in New York.”
He dug up a copy of the 1963 draft — the GOPPPL Drafting Score Card — and sent it to ESPN. Halfway down the column marked “Mousalimas,” clear as can be, is one word: Blanda.
“Thank God I squirreled that away,” Mousalimas said.
That year, ESPN made the pilgrimage to Oakland to set the record straight.
Wolf was inducted into the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Hall of Fame in 2011, the same year Winkenbach entered the hall posthumously.
As he sees it, the transformation of fantasy sports into a cultural phenomenon has a handful of seminal moments, not the least of which were decisions by the NFL and Major League Baseball, at the turn of the century, to embrace the movement.
In recent years, service providers like DraftKings and FanDuel have created a market for daily and weekly fantasy players — it doesn’t require a months-long commitment of time and energy.
Fueling the craze, was the internet.
“That’s what put it all together,” Mousalimas said.
Earlier this year, the FSTA commissioned what is believed to be the most comprehensive study of fantasy sports ever undertaken.
It found that the majority of players have at least a bachelor’s degree and 47 percent have household incomes of at least $75,000. Two-thirds are employed full time. One-third are women. The average age is 37.7.
For television networks and advertisers — and for the leagues that do billions of dollars of business with them — fantasy sports are disposable-income heaven.
“The growth is incredible, and the biggest leap has happened in the last 10 or 12 years,” Wolf said. “It’s so much more accessible.
“At its core, fantasy makes the games more fun to watch. Fans have a vested interest in every down.”
The GOPPPL draft is minutes away, and Heeb, the commissioner, explains to the group that one longtime member is ailing and cannot participate.
“We’re going to miss Bob,” he said. “He was always at the bottom of the standings.”
Laughs all around, then it turns serious. Lynch is the first off the board, then Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, then Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
GOPPPL has 10 teams, each with a primary owner, and the scoring system is essentially unchanged from the league’s inception: Points are awarded only for touchdowns.
“We still don’t have yardage,” Heeb explained. “That makes it easier for us old-timers.”
On the walls behind Heeb, the past comes alive. There are two framed jerseys of former A’s manager Billy Martin and dozens of pictures of famous sports and entertainment figures, including a shot of Joe Louis fighting Rocky Marciano. Every few feet is a front page from an old newspaper (Titanic Sinks!, U.S. At War!).
In the eighth round, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is selected, prompting a heated debate about the team’s fortunes for the upcoming season. (The consensus: Not encouraging.)
Then dinner arrives, and the group breaks to chow and strategize.
Jeff Sandoval, a cabinet supplier from San Leandro who joined in 30 years ago, surveys the low-key scene, free of the pomp and circumstance one might expect from a league that traces its history to the beginning of fantasy sports.
“I guess it’s because we’re all used to it, but it feels good,” Sandoval said. “You can’t make too many claims to fame in life. I think I speak for all of us: We’re a little bit proud of it.”