Twenty-nine years ago today, Sports Illustrated ran George Plimpton’s “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” about a mysterious, unknown major league pitching recruit who threw a fastball at jet speed. Published on April Fools’ Day 1985, the piece carried the following deck:
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.
Plimpton, the fun-loving founding editor of The Paris Review and a known practical joker, had written, with the magazine’s complicity, what the New York Times later called “a 14-page exposé on a bizarre, out-of-nowhere Mets phenom who fired baseballs at a stupefying 168 miles an hour.” The Times went on:
“Crafted,” of course, is what Plimpton truly did — the story was pure fiction. It instantly became its generation’s “War of the Worlds,” leaving thousands of frenzied fans either delighted at the April Fools’ prank or furious at being duped.
A 6-foot-4 Chicagoan named Joe Berton, a middle school teacher, posed as Finch for photos (and continued to be recognized on the street as late as 2005). Go here to read about him and to learn more about the story’s origin —
The hoax began at Sports Illustrated’s offices in early 1985. The managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, noticed that a cover date would fall on April 1, and asked Plimpton to write an article on April Fools’ jokes in sports. Most of them wound up being you-had-to-be-there shenanigans, leaving Plimpton discouraged.
“Mark said, ‘Why don’t you do your own?’ ” Plimpton, who died in September 2003, recalled in a 1995 interview. “He gave me license to do anything I wanted. What a fantastic feeling, to create something with your own mind.”
Plimpton’s creation became the most famous fictional ballplayer since Mighty Casey.
— and how the magazine carried out the hoax:
Selected Mets officials were among the few people (including Sports Illustrated editors) even slightly aware of what the magazine was up to. They issued Berton a uniform and allowed him full access to their spring training complex, even letting him sit in the bullpen during exhibition games as Stewart clicked away. Fans would ask the weird-looking guy in the No. 21 jersey if he was trying out for the club, and he would reply: “Yeah. You’ll hear about it later.”
What’s fun about it:
—The piece, hooked to the beginning of baseball season, starts with a concept — a secret that cannot be kept any longer — but gets straight to narrative action. The characters walk, explain, step, carrying the action forward scene by scene. The Mets’ pitching coach …
walked over to the 40-odd Met players doing their morning calisthenics at the Payson Field Complex not far from the Gulf of Mexico, a solitary figure among the pulsation of jumping jacks, and motioned three Mets to step out of the exercise.
—The integration of factual particulars about major league baseball with hilariously “observed” details: “A solitary figure among the pulsation of jumping jacks;” a dorm room bed cloth of “yak fur.” The character is “developed” with what Tom Wolfe calls “status details:” a French horn that Finch liked to play while in the bath; a facility with foreign languages; a shepherd’s crook, kept in a corner. You can imagine Plimpton chortling as he wrote. Upon quitting college, Finch:
“… left a curious note on the floor. It turned out to be a Zen koan, which is one of those puzzles which cannot be solved by the intellect. It’s the famous one about the live goose in the bottle. How do you get the goose out of the bottle without hurting it or breaking the glass? The answer is, There, it’s out!’ I heard from him once, from Egypt. He sent pictures. He was on his way to Tibet to study.”
—The seed bed of comical clues that Plimpton was trafficking in satire, including the bottled goose; a comparison to the Disney character Goofy; an allusion to the Mets front office being “victims of a crazy hallucination;” the many references to Harvard (Plimpton’s alma mater, where he edited The Harvard Lampoon); Finch’s renunciation of worldly goods (contrast that with A-Rod’s 2013 salary of $29 million); the direct deployment of the word “joke;” and “quotes,” from actual Mets players, like this one, featuring the incongruous, suspicious verb bleat:
“The ball is launched from an arm completely straight up and stiff. Before you can blink, the ball is in the catcher’s mitt. You hear it crack, and then there’s this little bleat from Reynolds.”
—The inventive plausibles of why Finch went unknown to Americans and to other major-league players: He came from the U.K.; at spring training, he bunked not with the other players but rather at a boarding house on a bay where he liked to stare at windsurfers; he enjoyed baseball but was enough of a yogi to maybe probably give up the sport as a path to enlightenment. “He suspects that in Tibet Finch may have learned to play the rkang-gling, a Tibetan horn made of human thighbones, or perhaps even the Tibetan long trumpet, the dung-chen, whose sonorous bellowing in those vast Himalayan defiles is somewhat echoed in the lower registers of the French horn,” Plimpton writes. “The Met inner circle believes that Finch’s problem may be that he cannot decide between baseball and a career as a horn player.” Carrying the character further:
Asked what influences might have contributed to Finch’s style and speed, Stottlemyre said, “Well, cricket may have something to do with it. Finch has taken the power and speed of the running throw of the cricket bowler and has somehow harnessed all that energy to the pitching rubber. The wrist snap off that stiff arm is incredible. I haven’t talked to him but once or twice. I asked him if he ever thought of snapping the arm, like baseball pitchers, rather than the wrist: It would increase the velocity.
—The kicker, the biggest clue of all. Well, second-biggest. That deck? 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. The first letter of each word spells out “HAPPY APRIL FOOLS’ DAY — AH FIB.”
Ever since “Sidd Finch,” other journalists have tried to fictionalize their stories for the sake of April Fools’ Day and beyond, with weak results. The strength of the joke depends in no small part on the spirit of the storyteller’s intentions. A trick tried too often wears off. Finch was a once-in-a-lifetime-of-the-industry kind of thing. Plimpton keeps the crown. Of the subsequent Finch novel, the Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Chauncey Mabe wrote what is equally true of the SI piece:
The author pokes fun not only at baseball and Buddhism, but also Florida, Disney World, fame, love, writing, the mass media (Plimpton is deadly accurate here), the British and himself. The approach to satire is that of observation rather than open attack. Plimpton’s ear is flawless, as when the Mets’ management consults a specialist on Eastern religions, whose humorous explanations echo all the egghead writers who have tried to capture the spirit of baseball and failed.
More recommended Plimpton:
—His oral story (now hosted on The Moth) about fireworks and the Brooklyn Bridge and despairing writers, called “Dinner at Elaine’s.”
—His New Yorker piece “The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair,” about Larry Walters, a Vietnam veteran who famously took flight in a lawn chair attached to 42 helium-filled balloons.
—His interview with Ernest Hemingway, about writing, and his interview with Truman Capote, about another famous piece of “nonfiction,” the book In Cold Blood.
—NPR’s recent exploration, via the documentary film Plimpton!, of his career and reputation as a founder of participatory journalism (quarterback for the Detroit Lions, triangle player for the New York Symphony).
—Plimpton’s son, Taylor, writing for ESPN about carrying out his father’s final wishes.
—The Paris Review.