by Mike Gemme
As the DUD ran it’s first ever breaking news story and simultaneously it’s first ever April Fools hoax article today, I thought I’d revisit one of the greatest sports journalism hoaxes in the history of hoaxes, journalism, or sports.
In the April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, George Plimpton scribed an investigative piece about a mysterious baseball prospect with a loose affiliation to the New York Mets. Plimpton had been given exclusive access to a workout session, and was breaking news that would change baseball forever. The Mets had a pitcher who could fire 168-mph fastballs.
Now in 2012’s cynical, twitter-fed, internet-meme’d techno-world, one may wonder how anyone could believe this. But you have to understand that 1985 was a very different time. Phones all had cords attached. ESPN was basically still a low-budget cable channel, and Reagan had just been re-elected to the White House (there’s a sure sign of national delusion!). America hadn’t yet witnessed the Challenger disaster, or faced the specter of steroids in baseball. Michael Jordan was a rookie and had yet to revolutionize all of sports as the first Mega-Star. Nicole Brown Simpson was alive and well. The World Trade Towers stood tall over New York City.
And so, as I stood in my parent’s kitchen flipping through the latest edition of SI, you can understand my naiveté regarding Mr. Plimpton’s discovery. 168 MPH was a ridiculous number, but Plimpton set it up so well that it wasn’t a gigantic theoretical leap to believe the story.
I probably should have payed a little closer attention to the issue date of the magazine and to the sub-heading of the article, which read “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent lifestyle, Sidd’s deciding about yoga- and his future in baseball.” Take a good look at that sentence. More accurately, look closely at the first letter of each word in that sentence. “H-a-p-p-y-A-p-r-i-l-F-o-o-l-s-D-a-y….”
Hayden Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch was 28 years old, and had grown up an English orphan who’d been adopted by an archeologist. The archeologist was killed in a plane crash in Tibet, and Finch had moved there after the crash for unknown reasons. What was known, though, was that he became deeply involved in Tibetan Buddhism and Yoga. By the time he was discovered by a Mets AAA affiliate in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, he was a Master Yogi and had, in his own words, “learned the art of the pitch”.
Plimpton offered little explanation for the Yogi’s incredible pitch velocity. He was extremely tall and lanky, and threw only after removing one of his worn work boots, revealing a gigantic bare foot. He spoke only in sing-songy chants, and refused all team rules and norms. He lived alone during spring training, and his only furniture was a rug and a bowl he had provided himself. He was a prodigy at the French horn, and was split between pursuing baseball or a career as a musician. He tried to avoid all material things. And he could throw 168.
Of course, SI provided a handful of mysterious photos to go with the article. Most obscured Finch’s face, and one pictured him throwing in the snow, barefoot and all. Lenny Dykstra and Mel Stottlemyre were pictured talking with Finch. Photoshop didn’t exist, so there was no reason to doubt the images. The article included quotes from Mets brass, coaches, and other players. MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth was repeatedly quoted.
So you can understand, I guess, how myself and a large portion of America bought Plimpton’s story, or at least thought it could be true.
The following week SI published a small blurb stating that Finch had retired, ostensibly to pursue that career as a French horn superstar.
And a week after that, SI published an article announcing that it had all been a hoax. Plimpton went on to expand the Sidd Finch story into a complete novel, which was published in 1987. Joe Berton, the junior-high art teacher who had posed for the photos as Finch, still enjoys the mini-stardom that came with the gig and is still pursued for his “Sidd” autograph.
And, sadly, we all aren’t nearly as gullible as we used to be. Here is the link to read the entire Sidd Finch story:
Happy April Fools Day!