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William Gamson, BC sociologist who created a forerunner of Rotisserie League Baseball, dies at 87

William Gamson
William GamsonGamson Family

What may have been the first lineup for what would evolve into fantasy sports leagues years later was made up of William Gamson’s boyhood toys, when as a child he was quarantined at home with scarlet fever.

“He didn’t go to school for six months when he was 6 or 7 years old,” his wife, Zelda Finkelstein Gamson, told ESPN magazine in 2012. “But he had a lot of stuffed animals, and he made a baseball team out of them. He had them swing at marbles with a pencil bat, and he kept their statistics. Maybe he learned that games will save you.”

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While Dr. Gamson was a Harvard University research associate, he created a simulated game called the National Baseball Seminar, which provided some inspiration for what became the popular Rotisserie League Baseball, though he remained modest about his contribution to what followed his efforts.

“This was stuff I did all the time, keeping statistics and inventing games,” he told the Globe in 2006. “I didn’t think anything of it. I’ve been doing this kind of thing since I was a child.”

Dr. Gamson, an award-winning sociologist who taught at the University of Michigan and Boston College, died March 23 in his Brookline home of sarcoma. He was 87.

After teaching at Michigan for 20 years, he joined BC’s faculty in 1982. Dr. Gamson and Charlotte Ryan cofounded the Media Research and Action Project, which has helped unions, movements, and grass-roots community organizations better craft their messages to the news media.

A past president of the American Sociological Association and a 1978 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Dr. Gamson retired from teaching in 2000 and remained with the media project until 2017.

“Bill Gamson was one of the world’s most influential social scientists,” Andrew Jorgenson, a sociology professor and department chairman at BC, said for the college’s tribute. “He was an incredible mentor for both graduate and undergraduate students as well as for junior faculty, and his lifetime commitment to social justice was inspiring.”

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Among Dr. Gamson’s American Sociological Association honors included the organization’s Distinguished Contributions to Teaching Award and the W.E.B. DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship.

As part of the National Baseball Seminar, which Dr. Gamson created while living in Cambridge, each participant had a budget to draft Major League players for a team.

“In my apartment for five hours, two buddies and I hashed out the rules for an auction of all MLB players using four statistics: batting average, RBIs, ERA, and wins,” he told ESPN magazine. “We felt these statistics reflected productivity, but in truth there wasn’t a tremendous availability of statistics back then. We knew these four would be published in all the papers.”

Upon moving to the University of Michigan in 1962, he recruited about 25 people to his game, including Robert Sklar, a history professor. In 1968, Sklar mentioned it to Daniel Okrent, a student he was advising. A decade later, Okrent invented the more complex Rotisserie League Baseball, which lets its “owners” make in-season trades. It is considered the closest ancestor to today’s billion-dollar fantasy sports industry.

“There’s no question that the flowering of Rotisserie baseball arose from very rough seeds scattered a dozen years earlier by Bill Gamson and Bob Sklar,” Okrent, a writer and editor who was the first public editor of The New York Times, wrote in an e-mail to the Times. “Would something like Rotisserie have happened otherwise? Probably — but it wouldn’t have been started by me.”

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Dr. Gamson thought of his game as a minor part of a career that included authorship of “The Strategy of Social Protest” (1975), a data-driven examination of the success, failures and leadership of 53 social movement organizations from 1800 to 1945.

“What preceded him were studies that saw movements as irrational reactions to stress in society, and his innovation was to flip that and treat the behavior of movements as rational and subject to scientific analysis,” his son, Joshua Gamson of Oakland, Calif., a University of San Francisco sociology professor, told the Times.

As a University of Michigan professor, Dr. Gamson participated in a 1965 protest when he helped lead a teach-in against the Vietnam War.

The teach-in, which was believed to be the first against the war, and which inspired others at campuses nationwide, was staged as American military involvement in Vietnam was accelerating. It began at 8 p.m. on March 24 and lasted for 12 hours as professors and activists gave speeches and seminars to upward of 3,000 students. Bomb threats, reportedly by a pro-war group, twice interrupted it.

“There was a sense of a general mass movement,” Dr. Gamson said in a 2015 oral history interview, adding that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “betrayal” of his promises during the 1964 presidential campaign not to escalate the war “fueled a kind of anger and righteous indignation.”

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William Anthony Gamson was born on Jan. 27, 1934, in Philadelphia to Edward Gamson and Blanche Weintraub. His mother was an actress before becoming a homemaker, and his father owned a company that manufactured women’s coats and suits.

After graduating from Antioch College in Ohio in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government, Dr. Gamson received a master’s and a doctorate in sociology at the University of Michigan. His thesis was about coalition formation.

Soon after arriving at Michigan, he began creating immersive classroom simulation games, such as Simulated Society, in which students dealt with real-world issues of conflict, inequality, injustice, and social order and sought solutions as a group.

“If the society is to be a valuable learning experience, we will need your cooperation,” Dr. Gamson wrote in his book “SIMSOC: Simulated Society, Participant’s Manual” (2000, with Larry Peppers). “Cooperation in this context means taking your objectives in the society seriously. We have tried to create a situation in which each of you has goals that depend on other people in the society for their achievement.”

In 1956, Dr. Gamson married Zelda Finkelstein, a sociology professor who held research and teaching appointments at the University of Michigan for about 17 years and retired after teaching at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she cofounded the higher education doctoral program and was founding director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education.

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In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Gamson leaves his daughter, Jennifer Gamson of Newton; a sister, Mary Edda Gamson of Oakland, Calif.; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be announced.

Dr. Gamson has said his activism, including participating in a hunger strike against military research on the Michigan campus, was inspired in part by Horace Mann’s exhortation “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.”

His interest in social movements never waned. In 2013, he and Micah Sifry, a writer and family friend, edited an issue of The Sociological Quarterly about the Occupy movement.

“His work was about how people organized themselves,” Sifry told the Times, “but what he added to the mix was an awareness of the problems that come when movements don’t have leaders, like Occupy, or a formal structure for making decisions.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.