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7 Underhanded Sports Tactics (Including how to knock out a deaf guy)

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As Chris Connolly found out, cheating is unimaginative, brutish, and plain crass. Underhandedness, on the under hand, requires a certain moustache-twirling panache—a boldness that beguiles us, no matter what the rulebooks say! Here's to 7 of the Greatest Underhanded Sports Tacticians of All-Time.

1. The Real McCoy: Giving New Meaning to Hitting Below the Belt

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Seeking to psych out challengers in the days leading up to big fights, Hall of Fame boxer Charles "Kid" McCoy frequently feigned illness or spread rumors of an injury. Then, when the bout came around, McCoy would show up in perfect form. (This supposedly prompted reporters to wonder whether they'd be seeing "the real McCoy" in the ring.) But McCoy's lowest blow? In 1893, when he fought a deaf mute. Toward the end of the fourth round, McCoy simply dropped his gloves and walked back to his corner as though the bell had sounded. When the deaf fighter turned to do the same, McCoy ran over and knocked him out.

2. Red Auerbach: The Host From Hell

Coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach, the cigar-chomping mastermind behind the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1950s and 1960s, wasn't one to let any advantage go unused. Auerbach knew his home stadium inside and out and manipulated it to create one of the greatest home court advantages in the history of sport. To foster a feeling of alienation among opposing players, he would assign visiting teams a different locker room in the Boston Garden each time they came to town. To foster a feeling of nausea, he reportedly made sure at least one toilet in the visitor's quarters was stopped up and overflowing. And finally, to foster a feeling of "it's so hot I'm gonna die," he contrived to have the building's boilers stoked and steaming right before tip off and again at halftime.

3. The Spanish Paralympic Basketball Team: Playing Dumb

The grand champions of sport ethics obliteration have to be the members of the 2000 Spanish Paralympic basketball team. How low could they go? After the team snagged a gold medal, it was revealed that 10 of the 12 players had never been tested, and were, in fact, not mentally challenged.

4. Eddie Stanky and The Stanky Maneuver

One of the all-time greats at probing the limits of sports rulebooks was second baseman Eddie "The Brat" Stanky. The best evidence of Stanky's creative rule interpretations came in 1950, when baseball commissioner Ford Frick had to forbid Stanky from using what had become known as the "Stanky Maneuver," a dubious defensive tactic in which he took advantage of his position behind the pitcher by "jumping up and down while waving wildly in an attempt to distract opposing batters."

5. Jason Grimsley and The Ol' Bat-and-Switch

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When suspicions arose that Cleveland Indians slugger Albert Belle had been corking his bat, it made for a cloak-and-dagger spy-fest. Tipped off about Belle's bat during a 1994 game against the White Sox, umpires confiscated it and took it to a locker room for later investigation. Knowing Belle's bat was doctored, and not wanting to lose their best offensive player to a suspension, the Indians dispatched pitcher Jason Grimsley to sneak into the room and switch out the bat for a legal model. Grimsley climbed through about 10 feet of ducts and a false ceiling to pull the switch. The plan might have worked, if only he hadn't replaced it with an autographed Paul Sorrento model. The caper was quickly discovered, and Belle soon found himself suspended.

6. Donald Crowhurst and Some Not-So-Smooth Sailing

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When 36-year-old Donald Crowhurst entered the British Sunday Times Golden Globe round-the-world yacht race in 1968, all he had going for him were an experimental plywood sailboat, a little sailing experience, and a gift for underhanded improvisation.

Crowhurst set out with good intentions, but soon encountered problems with his ship. Dubious about his craft's chances in the brutal Southern Ocean near Antarctica, Crowhurst simply detoured across the Atlantic and holed up off the coast of South America at a position much farther along the course. As he waited for his competitors to catch up, Crowhurst sent out bogus radio reports claiming he was in second place. The scheme came to a tragic end, however, when he learned that Nigel Tetley, another racer, had capsized in an all-out attempt to catch him, or, at least, his reported position. Overcome with remorse, Crowhurst scratched out a confession, stepped off the side of his vessel, and committed suicide by drowning. We didn't include this story to depress you; we included it so that you couldn't accuse us of endorsing cheating.

7. Gene Bossard and the Field of Streams

For groundskeeper Gene Bossard, lending the Chicago White Sox an underhanded hand was the family business. Gene managed the turf at Comiskey Park from 1940 to 1983, and when he stepped down, his son Roger took over operations. Together, the Bossards were known for doctoring and dampening the diamond to give the Sox a true home field advantage. In fact, opposing teams took to calling the infield "Bossard's Swamp," because Gene kept it watered down to benefit the Sox's sinkerball pitchers and to slow opposing baserunners.
Bossard's most infamous trick, however, seems to be inventing the "frozen baseball." Perhaps Roger Bossard explained the phenomenon best: "In the bowels of the old stadium my dad had an old room where the humidifier was constantly going. By leaving the balls in that room for 10 to 14 days, they became a quarter- to a half-ounce heavier." The Sox manager during the frozen ball era in the late 1960s? Number 4 on this list, Eddie Stanky.

NOTE: This piece is excerpted from Chris Connolly's terrific 10 Underhanded Sports Tactics piece from Vol. 5, Issue 5 (available at the mental_floss store, here).

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Watch the Original Spinal Tap Short Film
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Spinal Tap formed in 1979, five years before the classic film This is Spinal Tap premiered. They performed on TV and began developing their personas as idiotic heavy metal monsters.

When the band, along with director Rob Reiner, went to pitch their mockumentary to production companies, nobody "got it." It wasn't clear what an unscripted comedy pseudo-documentary would feel like. So Reiner asked for the screenplay fee—$60,000—to be paid up front as a budget for a short proof-of-concept film.

That skimpy budget went a very long way, allowing the group to produce The Last Tour, a 20-minute Spinal Tap film exploring some of the plot (and many of the songs) that appeared in the later film This is Spinal Tap. There's a surprising amount of concert footage, as various bits that were repeated in Tap (some interview clips were even used in Tap unaltered).

The Last Tour is delightful because it shows a well-developed idea being implemented on the cheap. The wigs are terrible, the sound is spotty, but the vision is spot-on. The characters and the core story of the group (including a string of dead drummers) is already in place, and we get to see the guys improvise together. Tune in (and be aware there's plenty of salty language here):

(Note: Around 4:38 in the clip above, we see Ed Begley, Jr. as original drummer John "Stumpy" Pepys in the "Gimme Some Money" video. Stumpy died in a gardening accident, of course.)

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
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In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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