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 arrivingin 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 upona 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 wasby 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 safeto 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.