Sports folklore has thrown up some strange stories over the years, but few stories are as captivating and whimsical as that of Sidd Finch. A name that stirred baseball fans’ imaginations in 1985, Sidd Finch was supposedly a rookie pitcher for the New York Mets, who according to an article in Sports Illustrated was primed to make major waves in the world of major league baseball.
But here’s the twist: Sidd Finch was a complete fabrication, a brilliant April Fools’ Day hoax masterminded by the magazine’s editor and a famous sportswriter. This surreal tale not only fooled countless readers but also went down in history as one of the greatest pranks of all time.
The Man Who Never Was
According to an article in the April 1st, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated Sidd Finch was one of the greatest baseball players to have ever lived. At the time of writing Finch was said to be a remarkably skilled rookie baseball pitcher who was training with the New York Mets (one of the most popular American baseball teams) after being discovered playing ball in Orchard Beach, Maine.
Finch was a remarkable find. The article explained how Finch had been orphaned at an early age and grew up in an English orphanage. He was quickly adopted by an archaeologist but orphaned once again when they died in a plane crash in Nepal.
Despite these setbacks, the gifted young man went on to attend Harvard University but dropped out in favor of traveling to Tibet. There he learned “yogic mastery of mind-body” and was taught by “the great poet-saint Lama Milaraspa”. He decided to use these unique gifts to play baseball but had for a while considered playing the French horn or becoming a golf master instead.
He made the right choice. His time spent in the Tibetan monastery meant he was said to be able to pitch a fastball at a world record-breaking 168 miles per hour (270 km/h).
For the non-baseballs fans amongst us that’s significantly faster than the current official world record, Aroldis Chapman’s 2010 105.8 mph (170.2kmh) pitch. His pitches were also said to be pinpoint accurate, and he was able to pitch at a moment’s notice, no warm-up required.
- Who was LW Wright? The Man who Talked His Way into NASCAR
- A Fortune out of Thin Air? The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872
Some of this may have also been down to his bizarre technique. When playing Finch only worse one shoe, a heavy hiker’s boot, perhaps to give him extra momentum or stability when throwing. His skills were so remarkable that the Met’s scouting report gave Finch a 9. This was particularly impressive since 8 was the highest score on their marking scale.
The Truth Will Out
Of course, it was an April Fool’s joke. The article was full of red flags. The hoax itself was the brainchild of Sports Illustrated’s managing editor at the time, Mark Mulvoy. He happened to notice by chance that the magazine’s next article would fall on April 1 and decided to make the most of it.
He asked George Plimpton, a well-known sportswriter, to commemorate the day with an article on famous April Fools’ Day jokes in the world of sports. Plimpton came up short, struggling to find enough examples for a full-length article so Mulvoy gave him free rein to create his own hoax. Plimpton decided to swing for the fences.
After writing the article he and Mulvoy decided to back it up with actual “evidence.” The story ran with photos of Finch hanging out with famous Mets players like Lenny Dykstra (who played for the team between 1985 and 1989) and their pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre.
The role of Finch was played by Joe Berton, an art teacher who was good friends with Sports Illustrated’s photographer, Lane Stewart. Berton at 6 ft 4, (1.93 m) and wearing size 14 shoes played the role perfectly. The Mets even got in on the fun and provided a genuine uniform, number 21.
It was all good fun but according to Plimpton’s assistant at the time, renowned novelist John Dee, the hoax took its toll on the world-famous sportswriter. Plimpton was wracked with nerves, knowing that, it “falls quite so flat as a bad joke.”
It was the only time in the five years Dee worked for Plimpton that he was asked to work on a Saturday and Plimpton worried that if the hoax was a failure, he’d be a national laughingstock. It wasn’t.
Plimpton needn’t have worried that his writing wasn’t convincing enough, people all over America fell for the hoax. Mets fans were overjoyed that their team had landed such a godly baseball player. As soon as the article was launched fans were inundating the magazine with requests for more information.
- Outrageous Astronomy – Who Was Behind The Great Moon Hoax of 1835?
- Titanic Thompson: The Golfer Who Married Five Women and Murdered Five Men
Other publications also fell for it. One New York sports page’s editor was so enraged that he complained to the Mets’ public relations director, complaining that Sports Illustrated shouldn’t have been given such an important exclusive. Another publication, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), sent a reporter to track Finch down and one talk show host embarrassed himself by bragging on air that he’d seen Finch pitch.
But the joke kept going. The Mets made the most of the free publicity and gave Finch his own locker between two other prominent players. A press conference was held at Al Lang Stadium, attracting the attention of major news outlets like CBS, NBC, and ABC. This caused the General Managers of two rival teams to call Commissioner of Baseball Peter Ueberroth to ask about Finch and gauge how much of a threat he really was.
At this conference, held on April 2, it was announced by a disguised Berton that Finch had decided to retire from baseball. Sports Illustrated ran an article in its April 8th edition also announcing his retirement and then announced the hoax the following week on April 15. While most fans took the joke in good spirits, not everyone was pleased.
All’s Well that Ends Well
The April Fool’s joke was a success. Plimpton may have worried about what it would do to his career, but he needn’t have. Two years later he released a full-length book on Finch, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch. The book sold well and further cemented Plimpton’s reputation as a gifted writer.
As for the article itself, it stands as a powerful reminder not to trust everything you read. Despite the many strange elements and red flags that Plimpton had sprinkled throughout his piece countless people still fell for the hoax.
Fans wanted to win so badly that they forced themselves to believe the unbelievable. Likewise, rival teams and publications were so quick to anger that they made fools of themselves. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Especially if you’re reading about it on April 1st!
Top Image: If Sidd Finch seemed too good to be true, that’s because he was. Source: cfarmer / Adobe Stock.