Some say the U.S. national pastime is baseball. Others say it's football. Or basketball. Or jai alai. But you can forget all those, because these seven examples prove that when it comes to sports, mankind's favorite pastime is lying, cheating, pulling pranks, and spreading hoaxes! Play ball!
1. A Black Pox on the Black Sox
This is pretty much the mac-daddy of all sports scandals. The 1919 Chicago White Sox was one of the greatest baseball teams ever to take the field, including superstar left fielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.
But two gamblers, "Sleepy Bill" Burns and Billy Maharg, backed up by gangster Arnold Rothstein, changed that by bribing eight players with $100,000 to throw the World Series [wiki]. The fix was a success, the Sox lost, and nobody really suspected a thing until late in the next season, when the eight players were indicted. Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis suspended them all from baseball for life, and they all had it coming.
Except one. "Shoeless" Joe did all he could to avoid being involved: he told Sox owner Charles Comiskey about the scam, but was ignored; he asked to be benched for the Series, but was refused; he even batted .375 for the Series and had 12 base hits (a Series record at the time) and the only home run. Due to the scandal, Jackson is still not in the Hall of Fame, though many players have supported his induction.
2. Stella "the Fella" Walsh
In 1980, a 69-year-old member of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame was shot and killed outside a Cleveland shopping mall. Police immediately ascertained that the victim was Stella Walsh, the greatest female track-and-field athlete of her day. Stella, born Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna in Poland, won a gold medal for Poland at the 1932 Olympics and a silver in 1936, and set 20 world records. But when the police took the body to be autopsied, they found something very unusual on the 69-year-old woman: male genitals?! Further studies showed that she ... er, he ... had both male and female chromosomes, a condition called mosaicism. When the shocking news got out, it took approximately 2.7 seconds for the great runner to get a new nickname: Stella the Fella.
3. Mighty Sports Illustrated Fans Strike Out
The greatest baseball pitcher of all time was actually a figment of George Plimpton's imagination. His article for the April 1, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated was entitled "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch."
It told the story of an English orphan, raised by an archaeologist, educated at Harvard, and trained by a yogi in Tibet, who showed up at the Mets training camp in Florida. He could throw a fastball at 168 mph (the record at the time was a comparatively sluggish 103) and preferred to pitch with one foot bare and the other in a large hiking boot. As of the magazine's publishing date, Finch hadn't yet decided if he was going to play for the Mets.
The response was massive. Sports Illustrated received over 2,000 letters immediately following the story, many expressing their hopes that Sidd would play. Two weeks later, the magazine fessed up to their hoax. Of course, the clever Plimpton had included a subtle clue in the article's subhead: "He's a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent lifestyle, Sidd's deciding about yoga ..." Confused? Just take the first letter of each word: "happyaprilfoolsday."
4. Rosie the (Underhanded) Runner
On April 21, 1980, a young woman crossed the finish line to win the 84th Boston Marathon in the record time of 02:31:56. For someone who had just ran over 26 miles, Rosie Ruiz [wiki] looked notably sweatless and un-rubbery in the legs. Race officials checked photos and video from various spots in the race, and Ruiz appeared in none of them.
So how did she do it? Here's the prevailing theory: She started the race with the others, then left the course, hopped a subway, then reentered the course about a half mile from the finish line. She was disqualified and stripped of her title. So, how'd she fine tune her con? By cheating in another marathon, of course. Rosie had sneaked her way past New York Marathon officials, and her time qualified her for the Boston race.
5. Simonya Popova: aka How the Women's Tennis Association Got Served
With the advent of computer-generated imagery, the art of the hoax really came into its own. Take the case of Simonya Popova, a female teenage tennis sensation from Uzbekistan who made Anna Kournikova look like Billy Jean King. In the fall of 2002, a Jon Wertheim article in Sports Illustrated profiled Popova, proclaiming her the next great phenom on the tennis circuit. It covered five pages and even had a picture.
But Popova was a complete fiction; her image was computer generated. Even the name Simonya was chosen as reference to SimOne, a movie about a computer-generated actress who becomes a star. The story was done as a fictional what-if, intended to be a comment on tennis's need for a hot new superstar to give the sport some mojo. But the Women's Tennis Association wasn't exactly amused. A spokeswoman for the organization lambasted the magazine, claiming they should've used the five pages to cover real tennis players. And, for the record, they said, "We have tons of mojo."
6. The Great Potato Caper
The date: August 28, 1987. The scene: Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The AA Reading Phillies were in town to play the hometown Williamsport Bills, when Bills catcher Dave Bresnahan decided to pull a stunt he'd been thinking about for weeks.
With a runner on third, Bresnahan threw the ball over to the head of the third baseman and into the outfield. The runner jogged home, thinking he had an easy run. But unbeknownst to him and the 3,500 fans at the game, Bresnahan still had the ball. The object he had thrown was a potato, meticulously peeled and shaped to look like a baseball.
Everyone got a chuckle out of the hoax. Everyone, that is, except Williamsport manager Orlando Gomez, who promptly ejected Bresnahan and fined him a whopping $50. Bresnahan had the last laugh, though: Instead of the money, he gave Gomez 50 potatoes.
7. A Rose Bowl Is a Rose Bowl Is a Rose Bowl (Except When CalTech's Involved)
It seems fitting that what is widely regarded as the greatest college prank of all time was pulled off by the college where pranking is practically a major: CalTech. (Students once changed the well-known "Hollywood" sign to read "CalTech," despite the massive security around the joint.)
Since the Rose Bowl game is played in CalTech's backyard of Pasadena, the students and their head pranksters, the Fiendish 14, were miffed at the lack of publicity the event generated for their school. So they finally decided to take it out on the game's participants in 1961 (neither of which happened to be CalTech - the game was between the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota).
The students learned of an elaborate halftime spectacle planned by the Washington cheerleaders that involved 2,232 flip cards. One CalTech student, disguised as a high school newspaper reporter, interviewed Washington's head cheerleader to learn their plan. The CalTech students then stole on of the instruction sheets, made 2,232 copies of it, altered each one by hand [wiki], then swapped them with real cards while the cheerleaders were visiting Disneyland.
The next day, live on national television, thousands of Huskies fans held up cards to make a picture of a Husky. Instead, viewers saw a Beaver, CalTech's mascot. One of the next card formations read "Seiksuh" (read it backward and you'll get it). And finally, the pièce de résistance: The cards read, in giant letters, "CalTech."
From mental_floss' book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, published in Neatorama with permission.
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