August 5th, 2010

Fantasy Sports History: The GOPPPL

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

In the beginning, there was fantasy golf …

That’s right. Back before anyone had played or even heard about fantasy baseball, fantasy football or fantasy American Idol, Bill “Wink” Winkenbach developed a weekly fantasy golf game to be played among friends.

It was just what you would expect such a game to be: Participants selected a group of golfers among the entrants for that weekend’s tournament, submit the lineup to Winkenbach — “He was always the secretary,” says Scotty Stirling, whom you’ll get to know better in a bit — and then score based on the performance of those golfers through the weekend.

It was the late 1950s, and right around that same time, Winkenbach applied his fantasy model - though they certainly weren’t calling it “fantasy” back then, nor anytime soon after — to baseball as well. It’s a story that lives out in the public, though it doesn’t garner much publicity.

Amid a comprehensive recounting of fantasy’s birth with Winkenbach and crew, the 2003 Fantasy Football Pro Forecast told readers about the S.T. SIHRT — a title even longer than its more-famous, the GOPPPL. The Superior Tile (Winkenbach’s tile company) Summer Invitational Home Run Tourney provided a format similar to that for golf.

Entrants put together a team of major-league pitchers and home run hitters and then reaped points for the stats those players amassed each night. (Sound familiar?) Today’s myriad categories, formats and advanced stats might make such a game seem rudimentary by comparison, but it was a much greater undertaking to support a game back then. The person in charge had to pore over every box score for each game involved, tally everything up and disseminate the results to the group.

Nevertheless, the game took hold, with the S.T. SIHRT continuing to run more than 40 years later. Of course, the most significant impact of that and it’s golf-centered sibling just might have been its better-known spin-off.

It was October 1962, and the Oakland Raiders were in the midst of the kind of three-week East Coast trip typical of NFL travel schedules in that day. The schedule would group together games against, say, the Jets, Patriots and Bills to allow the team just two cross-country flights (there and back) instead of six. Settled in New York City for a stretch of five or six days, Scotty Stirling, George Ross and Bill Tunnell joined Winkenbach in their Manhattan hotel (now known as the Milford Plaza) for some drinks and sports talk — just the kind of thing you’d expect a group of guys traveling with a team to do.

Stirling, then the Raiders beat writer for the Oakland Tribune, recalls Winkenbach — who owned a small piece of the Raiders’ franchise — describing to the others the golf and baseball games he’d been running for a few years.

“When he’s telling us about this, the idea occurred: Why don’t we do a football one?” Stirling recently told

Though Stirling doesn’t remember which man spoke up about starting the football contest, it took approximately no convincing for the whole group to get on board. That night, Winkenbach, Stirling, Ross (then sports editor for the Tribune) and Tunnell (then the Raiders’ public relations man) hammered out the rules for the very first edition of the game that now draws around 20 million players a year.

(Most accounts seem to mention three participants in this planning session, with the Forecast writeup quoting Winkenbach as saying Ross and Stirling joined him, whereas this story from Fantasy Index leaves out Ross and includes Tunnell. Stirling told that all four men were present.)

“Everybody was excited,” Stirling said. “It seemed as we put it together there that it was going to be a hell of a game. Everybody thinks they’re a general manager.”

Over about four hours, amid the growing excitement — and another round here and there — the quartet laid the base for the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prediction League, or GOPPPL for those without enough free time to repeat the full name.

(Note: The common display of the league’s full name includes “Prognosticators” in place of “Prediction,” but our copy of the GOPPPL’s “official rules & regulations says otherwise.)

The four sports nuts took their new concept back home at the end of the trip and quickly recruited four more owners: Raiders radio voice Bob Blum, season ticket sellers Phil Carmona and Ralph Casebolt, and ticket manager George Glace. If the connection among all of these participants seems obvious, it should. GOPPPL rules, after all, clearly stated that to be eligible for team ownership, one had to have:

1. Affiliation with an AFL professional football team in an administrative capacity.
2. A direct relationship to professional football in a journalistic capacity.
3. Either have purchased or have sold ten (10) season tickets for the Oakland Raiders.

Now, by today’s standards, an eight-team league is an entry point for novices, the kind of setup you might trip through a draft and still win because of a deep pool of players and an abundance of free information online at any moment. This was a league, though, that centered on the eight-team AFL (the reason for GOPPPL going eight-deep) with a smattering of NFL imports at a time that presented one NFL preview guide, Street & Smith’s, and nearly non-existent injury news. A person had to really know the game, follow it religiously and dig to be able to put together a roster of quality players.

That’s why the GOPPPL owners each selected another person to serve as manager, though each franchise’s tandem worked more like co-managers. Stirling turned to friend and tavern owner Andy Mousalimas, who has described the feeling in that draft room as “euphoric.”

“That first night, it was really fun,” Mousalimas recounted for “The more we drafted … it was just exciting.”

The group gathered at Winkenbach’s house for that first event — a venue soon swapped out for restaurant banquet rooms — and put together rosters comprising four offensive ends, four halfbacks, two quarterback, two fullbacks, two kickers, two return men, two defensive backs and two defensive linemen.

According to a 2003 story by Ed Barkowitz of the Philadelphia Daily News, that first first round looked like this:

1. George Blanda, QB, Houston (AFL) — who would later be drafted by a second team as a kicker, per GOPPPL rules.
2. Jim Brown, FB, Cleveland (NFL)
3. Tobin Rote, QB, San Diego (AFL)
4. Cookie Gilchrist, FB, Buffalo (AFL)
5. Jack Kemp, QB, Buffalo (AFL)
6. Y.A. Tittle, QB, N.Y. Giants (NFL)
7. Curtis McClinton, RB, Kansas City (AFL)
8. Jim Taylor, FB, Green Bay (NFL) — selected by Glace and Ron Wolf, the same Ron Wolf who would later serve as Packers general manager.

Just as it is today, the allure for those involved was clear.

“The idea that you can draft your own team really turns guys on,” Stirling told Fantasy Index. “I know in Oakland some guys thought they were really building a football team. In their own minds they were probably another Al Davis.”

It was an evolution of love for the game of football and the connection among friends and associates who reveled in this same love. From the start, it was a way for fans to come together in their common interest and get closer to the game. It was a time-consuming activity that, like today, probably got taken a little too seriously more often than the participants would like to admit.

Take the original set of rules, which outlines “Purpose of League” thusly:

“The purpose of this league is to bring together some of Oakland’s finest Saturday morning gridiron forecasters to pit their respective brains (and cash) against each other. Inasmuch as this league is formed only with owners having a deep interest and affection for the Oakland Raiders Professional Football Team, it is felt that this tournament will automatically increase closer coverage of daily happenings in professional football.

Inasmuch as this test of skill and knowledge of the players in the AFL and NFL leagues will be backed with coin of the realm, it behooves each club owner to study carefully, prior to draft, all available statistics, schedules, weather conditions, player habits, and other factors, so as to preserve one’s prestige and finances.

Lack of skill or study will also afford the heaviest loser the yearly trophy, symbolic of the loser’s ineptness in this grueling contest. This award will be presented by the League Commissioner at the Annual GOPPPL Banquet, held in late January for club owners, coaches and wives.”

That first commissioner was, of course, Winkenbach — not only the universally recognized godfather of the concept but, as the Forecast article pointed out, “as a small business owner, he already had the necessary equipment: i.e. phone lines, typewriters and mimeograph machine.” That, of course, was necessary for collecting and disseminating all league transmissions at a time when people couldn’t easily check their own scores and had to manually submit lineups the Thursday before each week’s games.

As for that last-place trophy — or “Dunce Prize” — Stirling says it was a truly impressive item that Winkenbach made himself, on the wood lathe in his basement. The loser in each season had to take that trophy home from the banquet and display it on his mantle until he could (hopefully) hand it off to the next unlucky individual a year later. If anyone was caught not displaying the dishonor, Stirling says, he was in trouble.

So, 40 full years before we were introduced to concepts such as the World Championship of Fantasy Football, and long before we had racks of glossy magazines from any outlet you can imagine, this visionary group not only created a game that can now be found on the NFL’s website and those of every major sports media outlet, they invented concepts such as the draft, individual defensive players, and a trophy that encourages even the worst teams to play out the season. Did any of them foresee the growth potential that has gotten us to this point?

“We didn’t see any growth in it,” Stirling said. “It was fun for the guys doing it. No one dreamed that it would spread as far as it did. I can remember years later, talking with Wink and saying, ‘Goddamn, we should have copyrighted that thing.’ It never occurred to us.

“I don’t remember 2 seconds of conversation with anyone.”

Winkenbach did try to get a board-game version of GOPPPL into production with George Ross, but the effort never came together. Mousalimas, who would introduce the game to his Kings X patrons and play a key role in its evolution, did see some of the game’s potential and once broached the business subject with Winkenbach. When the godfather shot down any idea of trademarking, though, Mousalimas didn’t push any harder.

So GOPPPL went on for years in relative quiet, as other versions of the game it launched sprouted in various places. No matter whether or how many of those games branched directly from the Oakland activities, GOPPPL and its baseball and golf predecessors started fantasy sports.

More on the origination of fantasy football :

Fantasy Pro Forecast
Fantasy Index
Fantasy Football Guidebook

Any tips, stories, links, etc. related to the history of fantasy sports should be sent to [email protected].