The notion of a significant portion of a magazine's readership buying a very obviously fabricated story, on April Fools' Day, no less, is so antiquated that the idea itself is practically unbelievable.
But it was only a little more than a quarter century ago that our country's pre-eminent sports publication and sportswriter teamed up to craft what would go on to become the Museum Of Hoaxes second greatest April Fools' Day Hoaxes of all time, and serve as a cultural time capsule of America before the Internet.
By the time Sports Illustrated ran George Plimpton's the Curious Case of Sidd Finch, a 15-page bio of an unknown New York Mets pitching prospect, both magazine and writer had amassed enough literary clout to ward off universally immediate suspicions of, as Plimpton's therapist character in Good Will Hunting would say, “tomfoolery” or “ballyhoo.”
And so Plimpton was given free reign to concoct as fantastical a character as the sports journalism — or any journalism for that matter — has ever seen. Which is precisely what he did, detailing the life of a 28-year-old orphan, which included stops at Harvard and a Tibetan monastery, a single hiking boot, a food bowl, a rug, and a French Horn. His fastball was clocked 168 miles per hour, 65 mph faster than the fastest ever recorded.
He produced fictional quotes from real people, including Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and young third basemen, and eventual Hall-of-Famer Lenny Dykstra, Finch's Harvard roommate. (Plimpton, founder of The Paris Review and member of the New York social elite, was close friends with then Mets owner Nelson Doubleday, who signed off on the no-quotes-barred idea.)
The story was 15 pages of pure, unadulterated deadpanned bullshit, and left to its own devices, would surely have not had reached its full impact of 'authenticity' without some help. Which is where the photos came in.
To put a face to Finch, SI turned to award winning photographer Layne Stewart, who turned to his friend Joe Berton, an Illinois junior high art teacher who resembled something like if Michael Cera was put through a medieval limb-stretching torture device. In an interview with The New York Times on the publication's 20th anniversary, Berton recalled the initial conversation:
"Joe, the Mets have this pitcher down in Florida I have to go shoot," Stewart said. "He plays the French horn, his only possessions are a rug and food bowl, and he pitches in one work boot. And he's got this 168-mile-an-hour fastball. Can you come with me?"
"Great!" Berton said.
"There's only one catch – you're going to be him."
Stewart and Berton went down to the Mets spring training facility, creating an entirely feasible visual narrative, including photos with Mets players and brass. It was these photos that gave him life. Stewart assumed the piece would include 5 photos. There were 13.
Despite the obviously fantasticalness of the account, as well as hidden clues — the first letters of the story's sub-header read : HAPPY APRIL FOOLS DAY — many fell for the hoax, including Life Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, several Major league general managers, and then-New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
“It’s interesting see who believed that story and who didn’t, who fell for it and who didn’t,” Stewart told journalist John Strubel. “I had a real theory at the time, the people that really did believe it were the professional readers. The people who didn’t believe it were the kids, because they read the whole thing. If you read the whole thing, you didn’t believe it. If you just went through it and picked up the quotes, who the hell thinks Sports Illustrated is going to make up quotes from, of all people, Mel Stottlemyre? Who’s gonna put words in his mouth?”
48 hours after the magazine hit newsstands, Sports Illustrated announced that the story was in fact a hoax. But that did little to stop Finch fever: A themed restaurant, Sidd Finch Day at the Mets stadium, t-shirts, souvenirs, everything you could monetize was monetized in the name of this fictional character.
Everyone in America was now in on the joke, and no one seemed to mind. Berton was asked to pitch, his fastball reached 68 mph, a full century below Finches. To this day, Berton is regularly approached by fans. "I was at one of the Cubs' playoff games in 2003,” he explained to the Times, “ I'm lining up for a beer, and this guy goes: 'You're Sidd Finch! I can't believe it!' "
It's remarkable to think of how our consumption of culture and news has evolved (or devolved) since The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch first ran 27 years ago today. We live in an age of almost complete un-gullibility, where April Fools Day hijinks are not only expected, but ranked. It's difficult to fathom an April Fools hoax occurring today that would actually befuddle the majority of the Internet, really.But so perhaps, then, the best April Fools Day Prank would be an entire day completely devoid of pranks, where everyone just agreed that we're all in on the joke. No inconspicuous links or surreal site redesigns, just complete and total reality. Only then, I suppose, will I have seen everything.
Conor McKeon is a Webby-Honored writer/editor living in Brooklyn. In addition to being a former CollegeHumor staff writer, he has contributed to The Onion, Yankee Pot Roast, Mental_Floss, and CNBC.com. He tweets here and blogs here.