As the sports leagues get increasingly uptight — you can’t crack a joke in the NFL without the express written consent of Roger Goodell — we look for the guy who is not following the script. The dude with the Lane Kiffin sign on GameDay. The field crasher dressed like C-3PO. And, rarest of all, the sports hoaxer. You know him. He’s the guy who somehow slips past security guards and skeptical sportswriters. Then he makes mischief.
ESPN’s new 30 for 30 short is about Barry Bremen, who in his hoaxing prime (1979-86) crashed more than 20 events. Bored out of his mind with his job as a manufacturer’s rep, Bremen decided to impersonate athletes and celebrities. He called himself The Imposter. In ’79, Bremen slipped on a Kansas City Kings warm-up and joined the layup line at the NBA All-Star Game. He golfed practice rounds at three separate U.S. Opens. At the ’85 Emmys, Bremen appeared onstage to accept an award on behalf of the absent actress Betty Thomas. Thomas, in fact, was in the crowd. As Bremen liked to say, “I was terrific, wasn’t I?”
Yes, Barry. You were. And we’ve picked seven other sports hoaxes that honor Bremen’s genius. Note: For this exercise, hoax means “massive practical joke” rather than its more recent definitions, “use of PEDs” or “online girlfriend who went to Stanford.” We also figure you already know about Sidd Finch. Onward, funsters.
“The trouble with scouts is that they seldom believe what they see,” Richard Pohle once said. The remark was true long before Moneyball. So Pohle, a 36-year-old baseball washout, decided to transform his aging body into the one thing scouts couldn’t resist. Pohle became a 21-year-old phenom. He was Rocky Perone … from Australia. To complete the hoax, Pohle wore a shaggy, Pete Rose hairpiece. A Dutch Boy painter’s hat. He taught himself ’70s dugout chatter like, “He brings it.” (A final, ingenious touch was that he bunted badly. Pohle figured no 21-year-old phenom knew how to bunt.) In 1974, a bewitched Padres scout signed “Perone.” He made it to Class A and even reached base before a manager recognized the ruse. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that a 71-year-old Pohle was helping other aging players to penetrate pro ball. “Guilt?” Pohle scoffed to the paper. “What guilt?”
The Sidd Finch hoax was the brainchild of George Plimpton, a man of wit and erudition. The Wyoming State hoax came from NBC’s Dick Enberg, a total square. This is what made it so brutally effective. In the late ’70s, Enberg and his NBC partner, Al McGuire, created a fictive NCAA basketball team called the Wyoming State Porcupines. College-basketball TV was already in the Cinderella-making business. Enberg’s Porcupines fit the bill. At halftime of a game one day, the NBC graphics team put Wyoming State in its Top 25. Listen to Enberg’s voice of boyish wonder: “Hey, look at this. Here’s a new entry, Wyoming State. We don’t know a lot about the Porcupines, but they haven’t lost a game in three years.” (Why hadn’t the Porcupines ever appeared in March Madness? No one asked, apparently.) The prank was said to have lasted two full seasons. Enberg knew he’d succeeded when a Chicago sportswriter called. The writer said he thought Wyoming State would make for the perfect feature.
As we’ve seen, the best sports hoaxes take a cherished media figure — the Cinderella, say — and exploit it. In 2008, Nevada high schooler Kevin Hart looked at the hoopla that has grown up around college football recruits and decided to make himself one. Hart had bad grades and only two Rivals stars, but on February 1, 2008, he sat before a packed auditorium to make his “decision.” Like all big-time recruits, Hart set out two baseball caps: Cal’s and Oregon’s. He chose Cal’s. Sticking to the grateful-athlete talking points, Hart said, “I’m sure it won’t hit me until I hit the practice field and get welcomed to the Pac-10.” Everyone just kind of went with it. The Reno Gazette-Journal noted, “Hart was Northern Nevada’s most highly sought football recruit this year.” Hart’s coach said he was “one young man who is going to represent us on the national level.” Hart, in a later confession: “When I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I made up what I wanted to be reality.” Actually, we in the media made up the reality; Hart merely took his spot on the line. A happy ending: After a stint in juco, Kevin Hart was actually recruited and is playing at Missouri Western State.
The Love Letters of Tyrus Raymond Cobb
In 1904, the sportswriter Grantland Rice was in his Atlanta office, worrying over tomorrow’s pages, when he got an urgent telegram. It concerned an 18-year-old Georgia baseballer named Ty Cobb: “He is a terrific hitter and faster than a deer … he is undoubtedly a phenom.” Rice wrote in reply: “After this, the mails are fast enough for Cobb.” Then Rice forgot about it. But soon, the mails started. Postcards poured in from two-bit towns: “Keep your eye on Ty Cobb … Have you seen Ty Cobb play ball yet?” Finally, Rice knuckled under and wrote a column anointing Cobb “the darling of the fans.” Almost 50 years later, Cobb admitted to Rice he’d written the telegram and postcards himself. It was one of the first shitty things Ty Cobb had ever done. “I didn’t know it then,” Cobb explained to Rice, “but I was trying to put you onto your first big scoop!”
You May Kiss … My Ass
It’s hard to believe now, when Dennis Rodman is the subject of Brookings Institution papers. But there was a time when Rodman was a romantic hero. This is the guy who fended off a marriage proposal from Madonna. (Rodman was “unwilling to enter into such a commitment after such a short courtship,” says his website.) He wondered aloud about his sexuality when such things were considered verboten. In 1996, Rodman went on The Late Show and announced that he was getting married the next day. The Chicago Tribune reported that all three of the city’s network affiliates came to Rockefeller Center to cover the ceremony. Rodman arrived in a hansom cab, wearing a wedding dress, opera gloves, and a blond wig. Rodman had married himself. An academic told the Tribune, “He’s an entertainer that’s crossed the line from how an athlete should be preparing in the offseason.” The utter preposterousness of those words show exactly why the ’90s needed Dennis Rodman.
The Race for the Hershberger
Nothing makes an ass of a sportswriter like a postseason award. Enter four students from William & Mary. The year was 1972. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s Rachel Bachman, the students were turned off by the “proliferation of All-America teams” and the notion that William & Mary’s own stud wasn’t on any of them. So the pals created the phony Hershberger Award, given out by the “National Association of Collegiate Basketball Writers.” As with Richard Pohle, details are important. The students cooked up NACBW letterhead with the pompous slogan, “Serving the Sport.” They certainly sounded like sportswriters. The group informed the Hershberger winners by mail in March of ’73. The news wormed its way into several sports pages. (Two of the hoaxers later saw a Hershberger hanging inside the Notre Dame athletic department.) When Bachman informed Mike Arizin, the William & Mary player, that his award was phony, Arizin remarked, “I’m sort of flattered.”
Lost in Translation
If there’s a sandbox for sports hoaxers, it’s trade season. See the recent phony trades of Matt Schaub and Rajon Rondo that were widely circulated. Here’s why trade hoaxes work: Trade rumors are already sorta … bullshit. Schaub-to-Cleveland hardly looked weirder than anything else on Twitter. (In February, George Karl copped to planting nonsense in the media in competition with other coaches.) The trade hoax reached its high point in 2008, when the Phillies — in cooperation with the team’s beat writers — “traded” pitcher Kyle Kendrick to Japan’s Yomiuri Giants. The staging was nearly flawless. Manager Charlie Manuel slumped in his chair, his voice filled with fatherly regret as he broke the news. GM Ruben Amaro offered management blandishments. (“You’re a classy kid.”) The look on Kendrick’s face was something like pure horror. The only false note came from Brett Myers, one of the ringleaders, who told Kendrick, “You just got punk’d!” It dated a sports hoax that otherwise should have been immortal.