As a local ballplayer dies, his name lives on — in one of the country’s oldest fantasy baseball leagues

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John B. Wockenfuss, former Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies catcher, shown February 24, 1975. (AP Photo/Preston Stroup)

John B. Wockenfuss, former Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies catcher, shown February 24, 1975. (AP Photo/Preston Stroup)

A former major league baseball player named John B. Wockenfuss died last week.

Wockenfuss was not the type of player whose death would normally draw much attention. In the 1970s and 80s he was a utility player — mostly for the Detroit Tigers, a little for the Phillies. He was never a star — or really all that close.

Detroit catcher John B. Wockenfuss (middle) and Kansas City’s George Brett (left) enjoy a humorous moment with home plate umpire Tim McClelland (right) during the first inning of their game with Detroit, July 29, 1983. (AP Photo/Rob Kozloff)

But Wockenfuss punched well above his weight in terms of name recognition.

That’s partly because he had a bizarre batting stance. He started with his back nearly turned to the pitcher. Kids all over Michigan used to imitate it.

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Wockenfuss was also notable because he grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and starred at John Dickinson High School. The First State — thanks to its size — doesn’t produce a ton of pro athletes.

In 1980, Wockenfuss was in the middle of probably his best season. That same year, a couple of Delaware guys named John Corradin and JJ Records had a moment of inspiration.

Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Dave Rozema fires to first, John B. Wockenfuss (14) covering, as the pitchers went through the practice of pickoffs during spring training on Thursday, Feb. 26, 1982 at Lakeland, Florida. Kirk Gibson in the role of the runner, tries to get back to first before the ball arrives. (AP Photo)

The pair were browsing a gaming store in Wilmington when Corradin spotted a copy of Strat-O-Matic Baseball.

Strat-O-Matic baseball is like the original version of fantasy sports. You and your opponent have cards that represent the actual players in the big leagues. And you play a game against each other by rolling dice to determine the outcome of each at bat. It’s like “board game meets ball game”.

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Corradin got excited because he had fond memories playing Strat-O-Matic in college. So Records chimed in with an idea.

“I said, ‘Well, John, we should start a league,” Records recalled. “That’s how it all began.”

Just like that, Corradin and Records decided to start a Strat-O-Matic baseball league. Managers would run their own teams and they’d play a series of in-person games against each other over the course of a 28-week season. There’d be playoffs, a World Series. The whole thing.

They decided to name the league for a local sports star. And one name rose to the top:  John B. Wockenfuss.

Wockenfuss wasn’t a “famous, Hall-of-Famer kind of a guy,” explained Records. “But a guy who … is a little quirky. Famous for a batting stance. [He] just seemed like our kind of guy. Why not?”

Thus began the John B. Wockenfuss Strat-O-Matic baseball league.

The John B. Wockenfuss Strat-O-Matic Baseball League in action. (Photo provided by JJ Records)

What makes the league so remarkable, though, is not its name or its origin story. It’s the fact that the John B. Wockenfuss Strat-o-Matic baseball league still exists.

JJ Records says the league is, as far as he knows, the oldest, continuous Strat-O-Matic baseball league in the country. In other words, the league does not reset after each season. Each team slowly morphs season-to-season — just like a real ball club.

Records’ team, the Kansas City Royals, first took form 40 years ago. Today’s version descends, in a jagged line, from that original version.

Not many things in our lives have that kind of staying power — certainly not things that require more than two-dozen, in-person meet ups a year.

“And you play four or five games a night,” said Records. “So it’s like being in a bowling league. You’re going to commit about three-to-five hours a week.”

Of course the league is not stagnant. Managers come and go. There are births. There are deaths.

Three managers have died from cancer, Records said, including co-founder John Corradin. Records survived his own cancer scare. The John B. Wockenfuss Strat-o-Matic baseball league endures and evolves.

“You know, for me now, I’m going to go as long as I can,” said Records.

He says over the years, the league teaches you stuff. Little life lessons add up.

“Mostly you learn patience,” Records said. “You’re gonna have games and series where the dice just basically look at you and go, ‘Nuh uh. Not happening today.’”

When the dice do tumble in your favor, that patience gets reflected back as compassion.

“Because you know what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table and get pounded,” said Records. “You have no control over it. The dice are just being dice.”

In the early 1980s — when all this started — you couldn’t pull a phone out of your pocket and play fantasy sports with someone halfway across the world. So why does the John B. Wockenfuss Strat-O-Matic baseball league still exist? Why do twenty managers go through the ritual every season?

Mostly it’s habit, said Records.

But there’s also some magic in those weekly, face-to-face interactions. Sitting across the table from someone creates openings that you don’t get looking at a screen.

“Because inevitably it’s not just show up, roll the dice, finish, go home,” said Records. “You show up. You talk about life. You talk about baseball. And then you go home.”

When you reflect on the life of John B. Wockenfuss, you can think about a funny batting stance or a .262 career batting average. But make a little room for that image right there: a handful of folks getting together, rolling some dice, talking some baseball, and going home.

And oh by the way, Records said, they’re always looking for new managers.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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