Perhaps no story in Sports Illustrated's first six decades engendered the response of "The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch." The piece, by longtime SI contributor George Plimpton, told the tale of a young man who could throw a baseball 168 mph yet was as mysterious off the field as he was hard to believe on it. The story appeared in the April 1, 1985 issue, and neither the date nor the strangely worded subhead ("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 letters of which spelled out "Happy April Fool's Day," clued readers into the fact that it was all a hoax.
The saga of Sidd Finch remains one of SI's most talked about stories. Though it was Plimpton, the Harvard-educated writer and editor who had become famous for participatory journalism, who thought of Finch, it was SI's managing editor at the time, Mark Mulvoy, who first came up with the idea of a story-as-prank.
"I knew every Monday date about 10 years in advance, and it dawned on me in like January of 1985 that April 1 was a Monday," Mulvoy told SI.com associate editor Ted Keith. "Right away, I thought, we gotta do an April Fool’s story. The only person in the loop was [outside text editor] Myra Gelband. We talked and got George involved. I remember sitting in my office with George and he had an idea about a Japanese marathoner who ran in the London Marathon and took a wrong turn. We talked about it some more and he came back, and the idea was baseball and spring training. With George you just let him go, and he came in with the story of this Siddhartha Finch and we all just went ballistic. When we closed the issue, I went home that Monday night, and said to myself, 'This will be fun.'
"I’ll never forget that after the issue came out I was having dinner with advertisers at 21 in a private room and Peter Jennings, from ABC News, came over and said they gave us three minutes on it. [Then-Time Inc. Editor-In-Chief] Jason McManus, my only boss, was pissed [about our story]. I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want someone to say, 'You can’t do it.' I figured if you do 600 stories a year you can have fun with at least one."
After some initial blowback, readers certainly agreed. Here is a sampling of some of the letters published in SI in the weeks following the story's publication, as well as the entire Letter From The Publisher in the April 15 issue that gave readers the full backstory to Sidd Finch.
• "The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch should go straight into the Practical Joke Hall of Fame—without the usual mandatory five-year waiting period."
• "You lousy, rotten, good-for-nothing blankety-blanks. You got me hook, line and sinker—and I loved it."
• "Ha-ha. Cancel my subscription."
• "I called 10 friends to tell them about Sidd Finch. And they called 10 friends. And so on. And so on. Then I read a newspaper article revealing the joke. The next morning, my 10 friends called, as did their 10 friends. Masterful job. The quotes. The photographs. The detail. One helluva hoax. Don't ever do that again!"
• "We enjoyed wholeheartedly, in some hilarity, your odd, unusual athlete. However, a pitching phenomenon yielding a perfect release in languid fashion, offhand, offers little satisfaction, despite a yearning thirst of ongoing sports information." (Thanks. -- ED)
Letter From The Publisher, April 15, 1985:
When the editors first read George Plimpton's April Fools' story, The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch (April 1), they felt it would be widely enjoyed as a delightfully told, if not entirely plausible, tale. What they didn't anticipate was that many readers would want to believe in the existence of Sidd so strongly, despite the 168-mph fastball and other improbabilities, that they would rationalize their doubts for a good while before being brought back to earth by more skeptical acquaintances. Partly for that reason, the Plimpton spoof has become one of the most talked-about pieces in SI's history, and has generated one of the largest outpourings of reader mail and phone calls.
Plimpton had thought of writing an article on April Fools' pranks after he'd been duped in 1981 by an April 1 story in the London Daily Mail on a Japanese long-distance runner who thought a marathon lasted 26 days rather than 26 miles.
Plimpton's and our own research into April Fools' escapades led to the conclusion that most of them are funnier in the doing than in the telling. That led to a meeting among Plimpton, managing editor Mark Mulvoy and articles editor Myra Gelband from which evolved the idea of Plimpton's creating a baseball player who had never been in the game at any level—he'd be an intellectual musician and a pitcher with a bizarre delivery. Hello, Sidd Finch.
The name Hayden Finch derives from that of author Isak Dinesen's lover, Denys Finch Hatton, who died in a plane crash in Africa in the '20s.
The Sidd in the pictures? He's Joe Berton, an applied-arts teacher at Hawthorne Junior High in Oak Park, Ill., whom photographer Lane Stewart, a collector of military miniatures, came to know because Berton is one of the top sculptors and painters of such figures in the country. Philip Stearns, who posed as the expert on Eastern religions, Dr. Timothy Burns, also works in this genre. The French horn belongs to Hawthorne Junior High, the tiny black mitt to seventh-grader Andrew Boies, who demanded, and received, an SI swimsuit calendar in exchange. Sidd's landlady is a Canadian who prefers that her name not be divulged. The shots from Egypt? Berton accompanied Stewart and his wife, Anna, on a vacation there in 1983.
After the story came out, one of the first inquiries came from the office of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.). "Is it true?" an aide asked. SI letters manager Ann Scott, not yet clued in, staunchly responded, "We stand by our story." That one took some fast clearing up. On assignment at Villanova, reporter Hank Hersch came across a roomful of credulous students offering various explanations for Finch's pitching prowess. The St. Petersburg Times dispatched a reporter to find Finch at the Mets' training camp, then sent another to call him back. There were numerous other red faces around the country.
Some people may have smelled a rat when no one at Dean Witter could place stockbroker Henry W. Peterson. Senior vice-president Hayter Haynes had the firm's telephone operators searching frantically for Peterson, Sidd's Harvard roommate. (The fellow pictured as Peterson is actually Jim Muuse, son of SI administrative assistant Gloria Muuse and brother of SI production assistant Pieter Muuse. The room at Harvard belongs to Rob Hagebak, stepson of SI deputy art director Richard Warner.)
Plimpton has had calls from four movie moguls—including, of all people, the writer of The Sting, David Ward—and, he says, "Whole restaurants have asked me about Sidd."
Among those less than delighted by the article was Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who condemned it as "bad for baseball, bad for the Mets, bad for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED." On the other hand, The Village Voice called it "a brilliant lampoon," and ABC-TV played it straight for three precious minutes on the national news before declaring our story a bang-up April fool.
"The way I look at it, it didn't hurt anybody and it was fun," says Mets p.r. man Jay Horwitz. At one point Horwitz told callers that not only did Finch throw a 168-mph fastball, but he also had a 120-mph curveball. "The story was so different," Horwitz says, "I think even after people knew it was a spoof they still wanted it to be true."