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Monday, February 24, 2014
Woodrow Wilson, fantasy baseball player

By David Schoenfield

Here is a fascinating piece from the great baseball historian John Thorn, outlining the details and discovery of 28th president Woodrow Wilson's childhood obsession with baseball. Thorn writes:
Like the protagonist in Robert Coover’s 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., the 14-year-old Thomas Woodrow Wilson -- known as Tommy -- created a whole universe of players, statistics, and a pennant race, with or without the aid of dice. But unlike Waugh -- who invented a table game using three dice, a "Stress Chart," and an “Extraordinary Occurrences Chart" -- the young Wilson did not create players or teams. He used only the cast of characters in the real-life National Association of 1871, which he surely read about in the sporting weeklies. And now, from deep in the archives of the Library of Congress, we have come upon Tommy Wilson’s complete handwritten record of that fantasy season. George Wright, Al Spalding, and Cap Anson cavort on an imaginary field, along with all the other worthies of that first year of professional league play.


Thorn guesses Wilson's "fantasy" league was conducted in March and April of 1871, when the National Association -- the first professional league -- was formed. Wilson included players from 1870 in his league, even though some of them never appeared in the National Association that year. Clearly, Wilson was an avid reader of whatever sporting press he had available to him in Augusta, Ga., that spring. (By the way, according to Wilson's Wikipedia page, he didn't learn to read until he was 10 years, perhaps suffering from dyslexia. He later taught himself to write in a form of shorthand, although in the examples provided of Wilson's "newspaper" he was writing in longhand.)

Of course, this is interesting on many fronts. Does this make Wilson the first fantasy baseball player? Did he actually "play" the games he invented, and if so, how? Why did he keep the papers?

(If I ever become president, I'm going to wish I had kept those scoresheets from the 1979 Statis-Pro Baseball season I played as a kid. I still remember Bob Shirley's no-hitter!)