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Bill Gamson, Sociologist and Inventor of Games, Dies at 87

Bill Gamson, an eminent sociologist who explored the structure of social movements and whose childhood love of games led him to create one that became an inspiration for the fantasy sports industry, died on March 23 at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 87.

The cause was sarcoma, a type of cancer, his son, Joshua, said.

While a young research associate at Harvard, Professor Gamson indulged his enthusiasm for baseball and his attachment to games by creating what he called the National Baseball Seminar, a simulated game in which each person in his group (originally three) had a budget to draft major leaguers for a team. The players were measured throughout the season based on batting average, runs batted in, earned run average and wins.

“We felt these statistics reflected productivity, but in truth there wasn’t a tremendous availability of statistics back then,” Professor Gamson told ESPN the Magazine in 2010. “We knew these four would be published in all the papers.”

When he moved to the University of Michigan in 1962, he recruited about 25 people to his game, including Robert Sklar, a history professor. In 1968, Professor Sklar mentioned it to Daniel Okrent, a student he was advising. A decade later, Mr. Okrent invented the more complex Rotisserie League Baseball, which lets its “owners” make in-season trades; it’s 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,” Mr. Okrent, a writer and editor who was the first public editor of The New York Times, wrote in an email. “Would something like Rotisserie have happened otherwise? Probably — but it wouldn’t have been started by me.”

Professor 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,” Joshua Gamson, a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco, said in an interview.

The elder Professor Gamson participated in a protest himself in 1965, when he helped lead a teach-in against the Vietnam War at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The teach-in is believed to be the first against the war, 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,” Professor Gamson said in an oral history interview in 2015 by the University of Michigan, 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.”

The Michigan teach-in inspired others at campuses around the country.

Professor Gamson was one of a group of professors who provided a supportive atmosphere for Students for a Democratic Society, the antiwar activist group that was formed on the Michigan campus, said Todd Gitlin, a former president of the S.D.S. who has written extensively about the 1960s.

“They had a kind of intellectual heft the undergraduates and graduates didn’t have,” said Professor Gitlin, who teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and who took Professor Gamson’s political sociology class. “And they were on the left but were not associated with left-wing groups, so they had a refreshing independence.”

Professor Gamson 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.”

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

Bill was influenced early on by his father’s interest in progressive causes like utopian communities. He also developed an early passion for games, making one up when he contracted scarlet fever at age 6 or 7 and was homebound for six months, and organizing a baseball team with his stuffed animals. “He had them swing at marbles with a pencil bat and he kept their statistics,” his wife, Zelda Gamson, told ESPN the Magazine. “Maybe he found that games will save you.”

After graduating from Antioch College in Ohio in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government, he earned a master’s and Ph.D 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, like 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,” Professor 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.”

He left Michigan in 1982 for Boston College, where he and Charlotte Ryan co-founded the Media Research and Action Project. The project helped unions, movements and grass-roots community groups better craft their message to the news media.

Professor Gamson was a past president of the American Sociological Association and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978. He retired from teaching in 2000 but remained with the media project until 2017.

In addition to his son and wife, who taught sociology at the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, he is survived by his daughter, Jenny Gamson; five grandchildren; and his sister, Mary Edda Gamson.

Professor Gamson’s 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.

“He connected it to a movement that had blown up in Israel around the same time, a youth rebellion against economic frustrations with encampments in major cities,” Mr. Sifry said.

“His work was about how people organized themselves,” he continued, “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.”

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