Sidd Finch was labeled as the greatest pitcher ever before anyone saw him throw a professional pitch. He came out of nowhere when the New Y0rk Mets signed him before spring training in 1985, and Mets fans — and the rest of baseball — went crazy. Fans were jumping with joy that the Mets had acquired this talent to pitch alongside Dwight Gooden, and media members went rushing to spring training to cover this phenom. The only problem with a larger than life character like Finch, was that he was just that: a character in probably the greatest April Fools’ Day joke ever pulled off in professional sports.
April 1, 1985, happened to fall on a publishing day for Sports Illustrated. Mark Mulvoy, the managing editor at the time, decided to play a little joke on the public. He wanted to craft a false story to publish towards the back of the magazine. He decided to turn the assignment over to George Plimpton, who was known for doing things a bit differently than other journalists, incorporating humor into most of his stories and telling things from a different point of view. Plimpton often competed in professional sporting events, then wrote them from the perspective of a fan. He played in a spring training game back in the 1960’s, and even ran some plays as a backup quarterback for the Detroit Lions during an intrasquad game. So it was no wonder Plimpton was chosen for this rather amusing project.
With the baseball season so close, it was decided that the April Fools’ Day joke would relate to baseball. So Plimpton crafted a fake baseball player named Sidd Finch. Finch was raised in an English orphanage, moved to Tibet to learn yoga, and played the French horn. He wore one boot on his right foot, while leaving the left bare. Finch’s fastball was “clocked” at 168 miles per hour, with perfect accuracy and not needing to warm up. On the scouting scale of 2-8, his fastball was a 9.
In order for Sports Illustrated to pull off this elaborate hoax, they needed a lot of help from the Mets. Photographer Lane Stewart recruited his friend Joe Berton to play the role of Finch. Berton was a middle school art teacher who stood at 6’4’’. After Plimpton had written his story, Stewart and Berton went to spring training to get pictures for the story before its publication. Finch was given a locker and a uniform to make the story seem more believable. Finch wore number 21 and walked around with his hat backwards and uniform sloppy to make the appearance more believable. An enclosed cage was also constructed for Finch at Mets spring training, so he felt more comfortable pitching.
Stewart and Berton went around spring training one day for a few hours to get the pictures needed for the story. Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre posed pretending to show pitching grips to Finch, Mets hitters looked scared as they “watched” Finch pitch, and catcher Ronn Reynolds was photographed holding his hand in pain. All of these images made the already crazy hoax seem even more believable. To put the icing on the cake, the subhead of the article read, “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga.” The first letter of every word spells out “Happy April Fool’s Day.”
After the article was published, Sports Illustrated became the subject of news reports and stories commemorating them on their fantastic joke. Many people believed the hoax for the first few days after the article was published, including some of the baseball community. At least two big league general managers called the commissioner with safety concerns about Finch’s blazing fastball.
While publishing a story like this in today’s media would be nearly impossible, this was a great job by Sports Illustrated to lighten the mood and bring a little humor to the sporting world. April Fools’ Day is not normally celebrated in the professional world, and it is cool to see that some people with authority have a sense of humor and know how to properly exert it to the world.