The baseballer who wasn’t

This story originally appeared in the ‘Do I Know You?’ issue of MUSEUM.

Aside from being inexplicably rich in celebrity fatalities, the year 2016 also represented a breaking of the dam for the trustworthiness of mass media. The cracks had been showing for some time, of course, but it finally exploded. An entire stratum of people who had screamed into the void about what they perceived as a wholly distorted, unreliable media elite suddenly had a voice, and the world of politics was thrown off its axis.

Now, the grand old media institutions — and those who work for them — have to grapple with a simple truth: much of the world has lost faith in what they report. In these conditions of growing paranoia, with a palpable disjunction between journalists and the very people they report on, it’s hard to imagine a resurgence of one of the quirkier elements of the media universe: the journalistic hoax.

Born of a time when magazine writers were perceived more as a kind of cosmopolitan clerical class than a traitorous fifth column, the hoax depends on a sort of mutual trust — one that could be played on without engendering any long-term ill will.

On April 1st 1985, Sports Illustrated—the title which not only carved the course for sports publications, but magazines generally — published a news feature which was utterly false. Using the tried and tested literary form the magazine had pioneered, refined and embedded deep into the American consciousness, it fabricated a baseball wunderkind by the name of Sidd Finch.

George Plimpton, legendary sportswriter and a founding editor of The Paris Review, authored ‘The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,’ which spoke in breathless tones of a pitching prodigy signed by the New York Mets, previously unknown by the sporting media establishment. Sports journalism constantly justifies its own existence with larger-than-life tales of talented rookies — there is always a florid back-story to match — and Hayden Siddhartha ‘Sidd’ Finch fit the bill perfectly.

In perpetrating the hoax, Plimpton’s rationale was simple: hoaxes are funnier in the doing than in the retelling. Though he had been instructed to produce a summary of some of the greatest April Fool’s Day pranks in sporting history, he faced two hurdles: there weren’t many worth talking about, and for those that were, you had to be there. So Sidd Finch was born.

Finch, through studying the meditation and body mastery techniques of Tibetan Buddhists, had purportedly developed the capability of launching a baseball at the quite frankly lethal speed of 168 miles — or 270 kilometres — per hour. Considering the previous record for a fastball at the time was 63 miles below that, it’s unsurprising that Mets fans would have found Finch a tantalising prospect.

Many elements of Finch’s history were, on the face of it, patently absurd. He was allegedly raised in an orphanage in Leicester, England and was adopted by an “eminent” archaeologist — one Francis Whyte-Finch — who later died in a plane crash at the Dhaulagiri massif in Nepal. He never appeared on the pitch without a heavy hiking boot on one foot. His personal possessions consisted only of a bowl and spoon. He learned his fabled technique through a regimen of intense Buddhist meditation and pitching rocks in his Tibetan mountain retreat. He was torn between baseball and a career playing the French horn.

The model for the accompanying photographs — which included a dimly poetic shot of Finch playing his beloved French horn on a cluster of sea rocks before an ocean sunset — was a Chicago middle school teacher named Joe Berton. One photo of Finch astride a camel, in front of the Pyramids of Giza, was taken two years prior while Berton was on vacation. In other shots he was pictured with the Mets themselves: pitching to their hitters, standing with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and observing grips. In 2005, Berton spoke to the New York Times about the power of the myth: even then, 20 years after the fact, fans recognise the mild-mannered teacher as Finch, asking for autographs in the character of the mysterious monk-pitcher, baseball’s last great hope.

In 2011, the Chicago Tribune attempted to determine whether Berton’s pitch was comparable to that of his superhuman alter ego. Alas. He pitched 54 miles per hour, with “the grace of an octopus.” He claimed he had pitched 69 miles per hour in the past — perhaps another bit of mythmaking.

The first Sports Illustrated article was written with the playfulness that any great literary hoax deserves. The subheading 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.” The eagle-eyed reader, in retrospect, would note this formed an acronym: “Happy April Fools Day — a(h) fib.”

The magazine received over 2,000 letters from readers desperate to learn more about Finch — many of them Mets fans who saw an ascendant messiah in baseball, America’s second religion after Protestantism. A messiah who belonged to them, no less. The magazine’s editors confessed to being overwhelmed not only by the number of people who believed the story, but by the sheer volume who so desperately wanted it to be true, no matter how absurd it was. That Finch, a fictional character sustained only by a mastery of the sportswriting form and a willingness on the part of the Mets to play along, could become so immediately important to the mythos of baseball, speaks to the enduring power of narrative in sport.

It’s interesting to consider this response in the context of the alternate pitch suggested by Plimpton and his co-pranksters before they settled on their Tibetan wonder-boy story. They had originally contemplated a narrative about a Japanese marathoner who “ran in the London Marathon [but] took a wrong turn.” It’s easy to see how such a story would not — could not — have manifested the same kind of quasi-spiritual response. It’s paper filler, only funny in an abstract way. Finch tapped into the perceived transcendental abilities of sporting heroes.

Apocryphally, sports publications reported that a baseball team in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, invited Finch to their annual banquet. Whether Finch showed up is obviously a matter of historical debate, but reports indicated the team did receive a note, which read: “The challenge is reaching the Eightfold Path of right belief or the ninth inning with the proper relief. May you have peace of mind.”

Unable to keep the myth of Finch alive — given that fans would expect to see the gangly mystic on the field at some point — Sports Illustrated published a short article on April 8, announcing Finch’s quiet retirement. Then, on April 15, they revealed it had been a hoax, largely for the benefit of those few, true acolytes who had maintained belief for two whole weeks — sustained by the oily rag of delusion alone.

“You lousy, rotten, good-for-nothing blankety-blanks,” read one of the letters to the editor. “You got me hook, line and sinker — and I loved it.” “Masterful job,” read another. “The quotes. The photographs. The detail. One helluva hoax. Don’t ever do that again!”

The character of Finch plays a background role in the continuing history of the Mets and modern baseball. It’s not just his peculiar physicality — Finch was given a locker between George Foster and Darryl Strawberry, and before the hoax was confirmed people claimed to have actually met him — but the fact that he represents a distillation of the pure rags-to-riches narrative that drives and sustains sports media. In 2000, 15 years after the original article, Sports Illustrated ran a follow up on the decidedly unfunny date of July 31st. ‘Where Have You Gone, Sidd Finch?’ presented a po-faced counter-history of the hoax: Finch was absolutely real. Fans and media had been whipped into a frenzy by the April Fool’s Day publication of the original article. As a result, the hapless editors of the magazine had no choice but to go with the prevailing narrative, and deny the man had ever existed. Finch himself, in this version of events, was not bothered in the slightest — “by all accounts, especially those from within the Mets organisation, he was so withdrawn and shy as to be almost invisible.” Plimpton, however, was characterised as a vain social climber. He was furious that the craven actions of the top brass had denied him the journalistic awards the profile, taken seriously, would bring.

What followed was the author, Mark Hofmann, pontificating on the possible fate of Finch, and pulling together the disparate threads and hearsay to argue the great man — the legend — was contemplating a return to professional sport. Rumours abounded that he’d considered entering Olympic javelin — the only restriction being that his prodigious talent for throwing would likely propel any javelin far beyond the boundaries of any arena. Denizens of a regional English pub recalled seeing Finch — “a thinnish bloke in his early 40s” — playing darts with such incredible and lethal accuracy that he propelled the dart several inches into the board. While the pub’s strongman attempted to dislodge the offending projectile, Finch disappeared.

In the final paragraph of Finch part two, the author describes calling the acid-tongued Plimpton in an attempt to confirm the rumours of a return. “Well, I have Sidd’s phone number in London. I call it on occasion,” says Plimpton. “There’s never any answer. But the other day I called and it was busy.”

It’s hard to imagine this kind of fakery by an ostensibly factual publication today. These two stories are indicative of the difficulty in fabricating a human being — one with a life and history — in a world where anyone can follow a digital paper trail. Even a reclusive monk like Finch couldn’t elude a particularly committed internet detective for any longer than a few hours — especially were he reported on by a major magazine like Sports Illustrated.

There’s now a certain severance in the role of mass media thattranscends the mere spread of information. To insert into the narrative a fictional character like Sidd Finch relies on a trust between creator and audience that no longer exists — and where it does, it is sequestered away by biases and loyalties. The thought that media could sustain a hoax in a way that is benevolent and playful, rather than deliberately deceptive an politically manipulative, seems outside the boundaries of possibility to the average reader.

In Finch we see not only a distillation of the kind of myth-making that enables the superhuman drama of professional sports, but also the subtle intersections between reporting and much grander narratives. In Finch, the lanky, cowboy-looking rookie with the magic pitching arm, we see a fleeting vision of a world that our increasingly paranoid reality can’t support.