The following is a true story. That is, depending on who you believe.
When did you give up on your athletic dreams? Was it after high school? Or in your 20s? Perhaps you haven’t yet. Perhaps you’re like so many of us, still thinking that if everything worked out just right, if the chips fell perfectly, you could still do it—whatever it is. Compete against golf pros. Win a small tennis tournament. Or maybe, in your wildest imaginings, play professional baseball.
But of course that would never happen. There are too many obstacles. Too many realities to overcome. Then again, maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Maybe reality is the last thing you should worry about.
Just ask Rocky Perone.
Perone’s tale could begin in many places, but let’s start on a dusty baseball diamond at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, where a group of young men are chasing groundballs at an arranged tryout in 1974. A Padres scout named Jim Marshall watches. In his time, Marshall has seen thousands of ballplayers. He’s discovered All-Stars and, once, a future American League Cy Young runner-up named Mike Caldwell. Now, in the sure-handed second baseman fielding grounders, Marshall sees talent. Not a ton of it, but enough. The kid’s small—maybe 5' 7"—but quick, with great hands, a nice swing and a strong arm. He clocks a 6.7 in the 60, which is fast enough. Plus, there’s something exotic about him, with his dark shaggy hair flopping out from under his painter’s cap, and with his funny accent. From Australia is the word. Marshall had no idea they played baseball down there, but it doesn’t matter: This kid handles the glove as if he grew up in Biloxi or Boston. When the tryout ends, Marshall approaches him.
What’s your name, kid? he asks.
Rocky, the kid says. Rocky Perone.
How old are you?
I’m 21, mate, the kid says.
Marshall nods, pleased. The Padres’ rookie league team out in Walla Walla needs a middle infielder, and the Australian will do. By the next morning Marshall has made him an offer. It isn’t much, $500 for each month of the nearly three month season, but if the Aussie does well, he’ll rise through the system.
Looking back now, Marshall says it was an easy decision. “His arm was good enough, he ran good enough,” Marshall says. “I figured what the heck, give the kid a chance.”
Upon arriving in Walla Walla, a farming town in southeastern Washington, Perone was assigned a roommate named William DeLorimier, a lanky righthanded pitcher who, at 23, was the oldest player on a team full of 18- and 19-year-olds. DeLorimier liked Perone, whom he remembers as “a go-go guy who obviously loved the game.” But DeLorimier also remembers thinking that something about Perone was off.
For starters, Perone wore sunglasses. All the time. And smeared a special moisturizing cream on his face that he claimed was from Europe. Weirdest of all, says DeLorimier, his new roommate shaved “more often than any man I’ve ever met.”
Still, maybe this was how they did things in Australia. Plus, there were benefits to living with the guy. He scored himself and DeLorimier a spacious farmhouse outside of town. He bought his roomie beers at a local pub. And, on occasion, let him use his Mustang.
For the season opener, three weeks later, Perone’s name wasn’t in the lineup. Nor did he play the next game, or the two after that. Then, on June 23, before the second half of a Sunday doubleheader against the Lewiston (Idaho) Broncs, Walla Walla manager Cliff Ditto penciled in the Aussie to play second base and hit second.
So it was that on a warm, dry afternoon in front of a few hundred fans, Perone walked to the plate for his first professional at-bat. He toed the dirt at Walla Walla’s Borleske Stadium, where Tony Gwynn and Ozzie Smith would play in years to come. He stared out at the pitcher, a man named Ed White.
The first pitch was a ball, and after three more Perone was on first base. Two pitches later he broke for second and swiped it clean, officially entering the minor league record books with a counting stat. His teammates clapped from the dugout. Standing atop second base, Perone beamed a crazy smile, for he knew a few things no one else did.
He was not from Australia, his name was not Rocky Perone and he most certainly was not 21 years old.
Once upon a time, Rich Pohle had grand dreams. He also possessed the most prized trait in sports, one found exclusively in the young: potential. A 5' 7" second baseman from Lisbon Falls a small town in Maine, he was good enough to get invited to a few tryouts, and he caught the eye of a scout or two. In 1963 he went to spring training with the Daytona Beach Islanders, the Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Athletics. But something always happened—an injury, a bad break—and the opportunity disappeared.
By 1974 Pohle had become something of a lost soul. The life he envisioned had never materialized. After years of playing in semipro leagues, wherever he could latch on, he was out of work and sleeping on his sister’s couch in Huntington Beach, Calif. Yet he yearned for one more shot. Partly because he was sure he was good enough, and partly because the game was all he knew. The diamond was the only place he felt comfortable.
Unfortunately, no scout would work out a short, bald guy past his 20s, no matter how good his arm or quick his bat. But a 21-year-old with speed and rare savvy for his age? Now that, Pohle knew, was the kind of player scouts loved.
He already had an alias, one he’d concocted years earlier: Rocky Perone. It just sounded good. The backstory came next. Pohle had played and coached in Australia for a few years in the early ’70s, so he knew enough to fake an Aussie persona. To mask his nasal Northeastern bray, he figured he’d just say mate a lot.
He put in long hours training at a ballfield in L.A. Pohle had never been much for work, but when it came to baseball his stamina was endless. There was still one glaring issue, though. With his crooked nose, shiny pate and dark stubble, Perone was not exactly youthful-looking. So he bought a wig—not just any wig but a shaggy black Pete Rose number. If he was going to do this, he might as well go all the way. Next he borrowed his sister’s face creams and began his maniacal shaving regimen, taking long baths to open his pores and raking his face twice a day. To his surprise, it worked: The Padres scout bought his getup, and so did his minor league manager and teammates. And now here he was, standing on second base in Walla Walla, a professional baseball player playing in a professional baseball game, officially good enough to make it.
All at the age of 36.
But then, as Pohle would later recount, he got greedy. In the third inning he had smacked a bad-hop single up the middle. He had made two nice throws and a putout. Everything was going so well that, after a Lewiston player doubled, Pohle decided to take a risk. He walked over to the pitcher and whispered,Step off the mound, mate. On the way back to second he pounded his open glove and then told the runner he needed to “fix the bag.” Seconds later Pohle triumphantly yanked the ball from under his armpit and tagged out his bewildered opponent. It was, Pohle would later say, one of roughly 25 times he’d pulled off the trick.
The Lewiston manager, Bobby Hofman, leapt out of the dugout and barreled across the diamond, incensed. Who the hell was this kid to pull that kind of bush-league stunt in Class A ball? It went against all the unwritten rules of the game. Then Hofman got a good look at the kid, who must not have looked that much like a kid to him. Something must have clicked. A dozen years earlier, he’d had a prospect in training camp in Daytona who looked just like this guy. Fielded just like this guy. Was this guy.
By the next morning, when Walla Walla manager Cliff Ditto called Pohle into his office to deliver the bad news, Pohle didn’t care. He’d played one game. He was in the record books. He’d proved everybody wrong.
No one could ever take that away from him.
Pohle was by no means the first of his kind. For as long as men have paid other men to play games, sports have been fertile ground for impostors and ruses. In 1904, according to baseball lore, an 18-year-old baseball player sent the most famous sportswriter in the land, Grantland Rice, a series of unsigned telegrams and letters hyping a young, unknown talent named Ty Cobb. Eventually, inundated with missives, Rice wrote a glowing story. Only half a century later did Cobb admit that he’d sent the letters.
Cobb was driven by ambition. Sometimes the goal is a fleeting moment of fame, as it was with Barry Bremen, aka the Great Impostor, who over 30 years successfully impersonated an NBA All-Star, an MLB umpire and a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. More often, though, impostors are motivated by regret. They are almost always men, and they are usually hoping for a second chance.
In 1989, a 32-year-old former minor leaguer named Don Johnson passed himself off as 22 while starring for San Bernardino Valley College before he was exposed, costing his team a conference title. In 1992, a 26-year-old former Mets minor leaguer named Michael Lee Anderson tricked the Marlins into signing him, thinking he was 21. (He got caught when he tried to pass a bad check at an auto dealership.)
At the pro level, the age of any given Cuban or Dominican prospect has long been considered more theory than fact. Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez famously turned out to be four years older than he claimed. Former Marlins closer Juan Carlos Oviedo assumed the identity of a friend, Leo Nuñez, in order to shave a year off his age and sign a larger contract (apparently, if you’re looking to pull a con job in baseball, your first stop should be the Marlins). Then there are other kinds of lies, ones that lead to rewritten record books and grand jury trials. These days, every player is on trial for imagined sins; every fan with a cellphone is a PI.
This was not the case in 1974. At that time you couldn’t just go on the Internet and research someone. Nor could you instantly peruse newspapers from around the globe, or archival baseball records. And, at least in the U.S. in the pre-Crocodile Dundee age, few people knew much about Australians. All of which helps answer the question, How did a 36-year-old from the Northeast pass himself as 21-year-old Aussie and get signed by an MLB club?
Pohle’s time in the Padres' system may have been short, but his notoriety was just beginning. Newspapers chronicled his feat (“Red-faced Padres admit signing 35-year-old baseball imposter” read one headline). Interview requests arrived. Eventually Eliot Asinof, the author of Eight Men Out, a best-selling account of the Chicago Black Sox scandal, called. Sensing a great yarn, Asinof collaborated with Pohle on a first-person article titled “The Secret Life of Rocky Perone,” which ran in this magazine’s June 18, 1979 issue.
It was full of grand pronouncements. “Except for Satchel Paige, I probably was the oldest rookie ever signed to a professional baseball contract,” Pohle wrote. The details were amazing. Pohle claimed that a childhood friend named Richard Lister, who became a sports psychologist, helped hatch the idea and then used hypnosis to turn Pohle into Perone. “A couple of times,” Pohle wrote, “Doc even pulled me aside and put me under light hypnosis right on the ball field, because he thought I was dogging it.”
At the end of the story Pohle made a promise. “I’m almost 41 now,” he wrote. “I can still run like a deer and my hands are as sure as ever, and everyone knows a man can hit until he goes blind. I really believe I can still play ball with almost any rookie trying to break in. The fact is, I’m so sure of it that I’m going to try again. Doc Lister agrees with me. We’ve got a new notion of how to pull it off, and this time I’m not going to get caught. You’ll see.”
The response to the story was impressive. SI readers lauded Perone for chasing his dreams. Ed McCloskey, from Pittsburgh, wrote: “It would be nice if a greater number of the more gifted athletes in the big leagues had some of that burning desire. God bless Dick Pohle. He’s beautiful!” The Salem Senators, a Class A team in the Northwest League, welcomed the by-then 42-year-old Pohle for a one-game cameo return the following year, playing as Perone (he went 0-for-1 with a walk and a run scored). And, most exciting, United Artists called about making a movie, and Pohle and Asinof began work on a deal, rumored to be worth big money. There was talk that Al Pacino would play the title role.
After all those years, Rocky Perone was on his way to being famous. And so was Rich Pohle.
At least that was the plan.
It’s safe to say the plan never came to fruition. Did you ever hear of Rich Pohle? I certainly hadn’t until a friend passed along an old newspaper clip from the ’70s. The story got me wondering: Whatever happened to Pohle? Pacino never played him in a movie, that’s for sure. Thus began my epic quest to track down one of the most notorious impostors in sports history.
It took 45 seconds.
After a few clicks, a website popped up: RICH POHLE BASEBALL DEVELOPMENT, based in Orange County, Calif. It included a phone number and an address. Surely there was an interesting story here. It would be, I imagined, part Sidd Finch and part Catch Me if You Can.
So this past February I flew to Los Angeles to meet Pohle on a weekday morning. I tried to imagine what he’d be like. Defiant? Wise? A charming scoundrel?
I heard him before I saw him. “HEY THERE, GUY!” Pohle brayed. At his suggestion we were at a municipal field in the small community of Buena. Pohle rumbled toward me, all forearms and Northeast squawk. He was short and stout and wore a baseball cap and sunglasses. His handshake was hard, his hands tiny. But at 76, he was still full of gusto. “COME ON OVER!” he blared, leading me toward the field.
Pohle proceeded to run a half dozen pimply high schoolers through drills. He hefted a fungo bat and, with impressive force for a man of his age, cracked grounders and liners at the boys from close range as they sprinted toward him on the outfield grass. In his zeal to show off, I worried he might crack one of the boys in the forehead. All the while Pohle maintained a running dialogue that was part patriarch and part motivational guru: “Come on, pick it up, you’re moping!
“Everything people tell you is just a suggestion. No one can run, pitch or hit but you!
“What did I tell you about putting your stuff in your bag!”
Once he stopped and turned to me: “O.K., guy, you like it so far?” Before I could answer he declared, “You’re going to want to write a book, I’m telling you!”
Half an hour into the workout, Pohle sent the boys off. It turned out they were on lunch break from the high school up the road. Which meant the workout was held solely for my benefit on a field Pohle and the kids weren’t supposed to be using. Why he didn’t host me at one of his actual workouts, which he runs on weekends and afternoons for groups of players between the ages of roughly 12 and 20, eluded me. Like much about this story, as I would learn, it was best just to roll with it.
From the ballpark we headed to lunch at a buffet joint with Pohle’s friend Steve Sturla, an easygoing man with a pencil mustache. Once seated, Pohle launched into his life story, in all its glory and dysfunction. This is how he told it:
He was raised by a loving but weak father and a stepmother who, according to Phole—and, as you’ll see, there’s a lot in this story that is necessarily “according to Pohle”—put a lock on the refrigerator and, at one point, forced young Rich to sleep on a mattress in the basement, rats scurrying by his head (“I lived in a cellar for six years!”). He played ball for the town team, got a girl pregnant in high school and dropped out (“biggest mistake of my life”). He left his son with the girl (“second biggest mistake”). He tried working at the lumber mill. He toiled in his father’s butcher shop, Pohle’s Quality Meats. He hated both jobs. Then, at 19, he saw an ad for baseball tryouts in St. Petersburg and took a bus to Florida. He slept on the beach, practiced during the day and attended every open tryout—without luck. Eventually a cop kicked him off the beach.
He joined the Army but hated it and finagled a discharge during basic training due to a shoulder injury. He headed to California and moved in with his sister. In 1963, at 25, he caught the eye of a scout named Art Lilly while playing semipro ball. When Lilly asked his age, Pohle had a flash of inspiration. If he said 25, he was toast. So instead he said 18. Then, for the first of what would become many times, he gave his name as Rocky Perone, using the surname of an old college player, Kenny Perone.
It was good enough for Lilly, who signed Pohle. But, as Pohle soon realized, he’d made a crucial mistake: By claiming to be 18, Pohle—or Perone—needed a guardian to co-sign his contract. Grudgingly, according to Rich, his sister did the deed. [His sister declined to comment for this story.]
Pohle was giddy. He flew to Florida to join Class A Daytona and played for Bobby Hofman—the manager who later recognized him in Walla Walla. In Pohle’s telling, he lasted 13 exhibition games before getting sick and being cut. It was a missed opportunity he would rue for the next 10 years as he bounced to Canada and Australia, playing and then managing and ultimately, in the role of amateur scout, alerting the Royals to a talented Aussie pitcher named Barry Stace. At spring training with Stace in 1973, Pohle says he had an epiphany while watching prospects take BP: Damn if he couldn’t hit better than most of them.
So he got in shape and began calling front offices pretending to be a talent scout hyping a young Australian named Perone. Which of course led to his moment in Walla Walla and then the article in SI and the movie talk. Which brought us up to 1979.
The rest of the story would have to wait for another day, though. Pohle had something important to get to, a mysterious afternoon engagement. “Sorry, can’t talk anymore, guy,” he told me. “Can’t miss this.”
Curious, I pushed a bit. It turned out that Pohle had to go watch his granddaughter. Because even professional impostors grow up to be grandpas.
A month later we met again, this time at his residence in a retirement home in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Pohle was, as always, wearing a hat and sunglasses (when he briefly took off his sunglasses, I caught sight of brilliant blue pupils ringed by raccoon eyes). “They’re walking dead in here almost,” Pohle said after leading me to a courtyard. “Very quiet. I keep away from them. It makes me feel older. No way I’m going to join that piano class.” Then he brightened up. “But I do love the Glenn Miller!”
For the next three hours I asked questions and Pohle answered them. Though that’s not exactly right. Most of the time I’d ask a question and Pohle would answer a different one of his own choosing, like an ornery politician. He doggedly pursued one tangent after another. He told tales of long-forgotten games and invoked old ballplayers, waiting for a nod of recognition. He’s spent his life name-dropping, only to find no one recognizes all the names anymore. He said, “to make a long story short” many times but never did. He made declarations such as, “I don’t want to belittle a ballplayer, but this guy couldn’t play.” Occasionally he asked Sturla—who again joined us—to verify facts on his “fancy” phone, as Pohle hates email. Explaining his passion, he declared, “I’m a different guy when I’m on a baseball field than in the outside life. I’m in my element. I’m like an alcoholic.”
He told stories, some dubious, of meeting Roberto Clemente (“one of the handsomest men I’ve ever seen in my life”) and Pete Rose and of taking BP off John Candelaria. He railed against superagent Scott Boras, misguided parents and players he views as cheaters (“That freakin’ McGwire!”). He saved his worst venom for MLB, which he believes is built on hypocrisy and ageism. “If I could do it over again,” he claimed, “I’d do it, and I’d screw baseball again.” More than once Pohle became indignant, ready for backlash. “You’re going to have people rip me,” he told me, sitting up. “Bring it on! BRING IT ON!”
Which brings us to Richard Lister, the childhood friend who, in the original SI article, was crucial to Pohle’s gambit. Pohle now says that part of the story is not true. There was no hypnosis. Lister had nothing to do with his success. It was only a ploy to get PR. “We thought it would be good for Lister’s business and for the story,” Pohle explained. “I did him a favor.” Regardless, the fabrication slipped past SI’s fact-checker like a backdoor slider.
(Unfortunately Lister passed away two years ago, or he’d have something to say on the subject. In a 1982 story in the Evening Independent of St. Petersburg, Lister called Pohle “a dummy. And you can underline dummy 14 times,” claiming it was Pohle who pulled him into the lie, not the other way around. Lister then claimed he had pulled a Rocky Perone before Rocky Perone: He told the Independent that he’d played in the minors under an assumed name years earlier. Take that, Rich.)
This was all great material, but it raised a question: If a guy SI wrote about because he lied his way into baseball lied to us the first time we wrote about him, why should I believe him now?
Pohle seemed shocked that I would ask. “Anything I’m telling you is the truth,” he said.
Some proof does exist. A 2005 book about Maine baseball, When Towns Had Teams, by Jim Baumer, mentions Dick Pohle as one of Lisbon’s better players in the early 1960s. Baseball-reference.com and baseballcube.com list Rocky Perone’s Walla Walla stint. Pull up the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin from Monday, June 24, 1974, and there are the stats for the previous day’s doubleheader against Lewiston. And, sure enough, there is Perone at 2B. Stories have been written about Pohle in the last two decades—The Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, ESPN.com—but almost all take Pohle’s story at face value.
Pohle did provide me with binders full of mementos. A contract from April 6, 1963, signed by Richard Pohle, passing himself off as 18. A letter from the commissioner’s office in 1975 verifying that Richard Perone signed a contract with Daytona Beach on Jan. 8, 1963 and was released on April 6. A photo of his father at the meat store.
I also found stories with paragraphs blacked out—who redacts his own clips?—and newspaper stories full of inconsistencies and fabrications. One, in the Fresno Guide, describes Pohle as “having played five years in the Kansas City Athletics Organization.”
Other reports paint his career in management as, shall we say, less than stellar. A series of articles in the Evening Independent in the spring of 1982 detail the failure of a touring team—Rocky’s Baseball Club—that Pohle took to the Virgin Islands with a plan to also visit Korea, Japan and Australia, splitting the gate receipts with the players. After five weeks the group ran out of money and Pohle and the players got in a fight, after which, according to the newspaper, he was booked for assault and battery before being released.
Otherwise, verification of Pohle’s claims proved challenging. Many characters in his stories are now dead, though I was able to track down a few others. I reached Jim Marshall, the scout, at a senior center in Florida. He said I was the first reporter ever to call him. He verified chunks of Pohle’s tale—“I did sign him, and I did send him to Walla Walla”—but took issue with a number of details and characterizations in the Sports Illustrated article. DeLorimier confirmed the bones of Pohle’s story. He also said that Pohle confided in him: “He said, ‘Just between us, I’m actually 28 years old and doing this for a book I’m going to write about all the injustices in the sport.’ ” Meaning that Pohle lied about his lie to protect his lie. DeLorimier laughed. “I was a rookie,” he said. “I didn’t care.”
Pohle’s sister, Ann Stanley, refused to talk. “I don’t want to be interviewed about anything,” she said before hanging up on me. “There’s nothing I could add to the story.”
Which leads us, in a roundabout way, back to Pohle’s granddaughter. Of all the strange aspects to his tale, the strangest might be the part involving Richie Jr., Pohle’s second son, from a failed 1977 marriage.
Richie Jr. grew up to play minor league baseball and become an associate scout for the Mariners. Using his real name. And real talent. He’s also, from all indications, a well-adjusted, humble family man. I know, what are the chances?
I met Richie Jr. on that first trip to L.A. Thick and strong, with short black hair, he stood to the side holding his nine-month-old daughter, who wore a shirt that read CUTER, FASTER, STRONGER. Richie grew up in the game. When his parents split up, his father was the one who took responsibility. Rich raised Richie Jr. as a single father, toting him everywhere, stationing his stroller on the side of baseball diamonds (“I don’t believe in babysitters,” Rich proclaims). When Richie was a little boy, his dad switched him to hitting lefty, to increase his odds of success.
By all accounts Rich doted on his son. He coached Richie’s Pony League teams. At least until he got kicked out of the league for being too “intense,” according to Richie. Strangely, Richie says he’s never read the original SI story, or those that followed. He remembers first hearing the tale when he was in seventh grade, and he read bits and pieces here and there. “I never sat down and read the whole thing,” he says. “I’m not sure why.” (Nor did he see the movie, because it never got made. A dispute about money, apparently. Which is where Sturla comes in. A writer, he helped draft and produce a seven-minute film called The Secret Life of Rocky Perone in hopes of reviving studio interest. Al Pacino does not star in it. There is, however, an actor in a Pete Rose wig, and a cameo by Pohle at the end. The film screened at the L.A. Short Film Festival in 2010. You can watch it on YouTube.)
Richie was a legit prospect. A star outfielder in high school and college, he played short-season Class A ball alongside Ryan Howard in the Phillies organization in 2001, then spent a year in the Mariners system before playing four years of independent league ball. Now he helps his dad run the academy. He is as calm as his father is blustery. “We have two completely different personalities. I’m kind of mellow, laid back,” Richie said as we watched his father bark at players and wave his arms, looking like a tiny, wrinkled Popeye. “I don’t know if I got that because he’s so out there.”
Richie says his dad is slowing down but won’t admit it. “I try to throw more BP, but he won’t let me,” he says. I ask if he thinks his father will ever retire from coaching. He shakes his head. “When he can’t do this anymore, I think that’ll be it.”
For now the elder Pohle is still having success. A few years ago he began working with an incoming junior at Brea Olinda High named Cameron Bishop, who had struggled as a sophomore, hitting .167. Pohle saw potential in the boy. “The first time I had a session with Pohle, he told me, ‘You're a pro prospect,’ ” says Bishop, via email. “I thought he was just telling me what I wanted to hear, but Pohle truly believed it.” The two worked together almost every day over the next couple years. His junior year, Bishop hit .424. But it was what Pohle did next that was inspired; he turned him into a pitcher. The following season, Bishop posted a 1.65 ERA and was named Century League Pitcher of the Year. And, in June 2014, Pohle’s prophecy came true; Bishop was drafted in the 32nd round of the MLB draft, as a pitcher. “I credit a lot of my baseball success to Coach Pohle,” writes Bishop. “One of the biggest things he did for me was believe in me when no one else really did.”
Indeed, Pohle’s superpower may be belief: in himself, in seemingly implausible outcomes, in kids like Bishop. Still, it is his own son who he believes in most fervently, and who he considers his most impressive pupil to date. “Best pure hitter I ever saw. He should still be in pro ball, I tell you, they screwed the kid. That’s the real story here.”
Pohle offers to recount it in detail. He’s got lots of clips and other evidence, but that will have to wait. We’re not done with his story yet. There’s a final twist.
On May 12, 1978, the Fresno Guide wrote a profile of Tom Anthony, an up-and-coming 20-year-old minor leaguer with an unusual background. Though born in the U.S., Anthony grew up in England and became a professional rugby player. By chance he met a man named Rich Pohle, who convinced him to try baseball. The Brit took to it with remarkable speed. Soon enough, the Guide reported, Pohle had persuaded Jack Schwartz, the Giants’ director of player development, to sign Anthony, whereupon the young man played for Class A Great Falls, Mont., of the Pioneer League. In the story Anthony comes off as amazed by his rapid progress. “I started hitting lefthanded last year two weeks before spring training,” he is quoted as saying. “I had never hit lefthanded before, but Richard [Pohle] thought I could do it and I did.” Wrote the Guide: “Playing like an old veteran of the great American pastime, Anthony was nothing less than a smashing success in his rookie season.”
There was good reason for this, of course: Anthony was an old veteran, at least by MLB standards. In reality his name was Tom Rowan, he was 24, he was a waiter in Arizona and he’d spent his life playing baseball. He was also Pohle’s prize mentee in a new endeavor: helping other oldish guys con their way into the game. Rowan hit .333 in ‘77, earning a promotion to Single A Fresno in 1978. He eventually made it as high as Double A and ended up playing four seasons in the minors before stalling out, passed over in favor of Chili Davis (who was eight years younger than the then 28-year-old Rowan and would go on to play 19 seasons in the majors). Still, like Pohle before him, Rowan had realized his dream. He was a professional baseball player, and a pretty good one. And in his case no one was the wiser.
Emboldened, Pohle did it again, this time with a 26-year-old from Orange County named Joe Parga. As before, according to Pohle, the story was just crazy enough to be believable. Pohle remade Parga into Jose Hernandez, a 22-year-old from Jalisco, Mexico, who spoke no English. Pohle recruited a friend of Parga’s, a catcher, to “translate” for him. Parga was signed by the Angels and hit .286 in his first season in the organization. Then he was sent to play winter ball. In Mexico. The team figured he’d love it. But Parga, an Orange County kid, had never been out of California. A week in, Pohle says, he got a call. “The kid’s upset,” Pohle recalls. “He says, ‘I hate it here. I’m sleeping on a dirt floor, and the food’s horrible.’ ” Pohle reminded him that he’d wanted to play pro baseball, and this was part of pro baseball. Then he hung up.
There were others. According to clips, 31-year-old Mark Worley morphed into 21-year-old Nick James from Hull, England, and played alongside Rowan for a season in Great Falls (Note: The above accounts come from previously published reports, as well as the accounts of Pohle and Sturla; despite repeated efforts I could not reach Rowan, Worley or Parga, though a former teammate of Parga’s, Rick Barrett, confirmed elements of his story.)
Though not all of Pohle’s attempts were successful one thing was undeniable: He knew talent. Still, that pro teams trusted him remains shocking. Usually, when you thumb your nose at a system as rigid as baseball, the system blackballs you. But Pohle was let back in the door. Repeatedly.
In 1981 the Giants even signed Pohle to a bird-dog agreement, under which he was paid for each prospect signed. (In the years to come he would continue to scout and even spend a season on staff with the Braves’ rookie league affiliate in Idaho Falls.) Pohle still has the letter he received with the agreement from Giants head scout Jack Schwarz, a legendary figure in the organization who once signed the young Willie McCovey. Schwarz promised that he’d register Pohle with the commissioner’s office as a scout, allowing him into any minor league park in the country.
But Schwarz finished with a request. In the future, he wrote, “I will appreciate you revealing the correct ages of any free agents you may see fit to recommend.”
A few months after our second meeting, I heard from Pohle again. He told me he was contacted by his grandson, Garrett Mason, the son of the boy he left back in Maine many years ago. Garrett, 30, is now a state senator in Maine who, in an interesting twist, once worked in baseball too, in group sales with the Portland Sea Dogs, a Red Sox affiliate, in 2007. When I spoke to Mason, he was hesitant to discuss it. “It’s always good to connect with your roots, no matter what,” he says, explaining why he finally reached out after Pohle’s repeated attempts to get in touch. Mason said he’d read about his biological grandfather online, and that he found it interesting that he ended up going into baseball as well.
Still, he stressed that “it’s a difficult situation for my family.”
“I don’t want to cast judgment on him,” said Mason. “As a politician, I get judgment cast on me all the time. But he chose not to have my father in his life and that has consequences.”
Overall, Mason called the situation “kind of weird” and his grandfather’s tale “wild.” And who can blame him? Imagine hearing your grandfather’s story from his mouth for the first time and it’s, well, this story.
After all, Pohle is not an easy man to explain. He’s a baseball coach and a doting father. He’s a bar bet taken to its extreme and illogical conclusion. He’s a frustrated old man and the star of his own movie, an inspiration, and, at times, a first rate pain in the ass. He’s a born shortstop and an eternal raconteur. He’s an irresistible story and a cautionary tale. He’s all of us and none of us. In the end, like anyone who’s pulled off a con, he is whoever you want him to be.
At least he’s easy to find; who he is might be complicated, but not where he is. Most often it’s on a baseball diamond. Because that is where Rocky Perone was born and it’s where, someday, Rich Pohle will probably die.
And when he does, he’ll be doing the one thing he truly, honestly loves.