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8 Sports-Related April Fools' Day Hoaxes

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Last February, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Brett Myers devised a plan to fool teammate Kyle Kendrick into thinking that he had been traded to Japan for a player named Kobayashi. Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, Kendrick's agent, and even the team's beat reporters were in on the prank, which was executed flawlessly. Had Myers attempted the same stunt on April Fools' Day, it's less likely that Kendrick would have taken the bait. But as some of the following stories illustrate, one can never underestimate others' gullibility, no matter the date.

1. The Curious Case of Sidd Finch

As sports-related April Fools' Day hoaxes go, George Plimpton's 1985 Sports Illustrated essay about New York Mets pitching prodigy Sidd Finch is the (fools') gold standard. As Plimpton told it, Finch, who wore a single hiking boot, had mastered the art of pitching in a Tibetan monastery and could throw a baseball 168 miles per hour. Many readers initially believed the story, while Mets fans willed it to be true. In addition to the fantastical details Plimpton included in the piece, the first letter in each of the first 19 words of the article's sub-headline provided another hint that Finch wasn't real: "He's a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd's deciding about yoga "“ and his future in baseball." You can read the article in its entirety here.

2. Orchestra Steroid Scandal

NPR poked fun at baseball's steroid scandal with an April Fools' Day report on the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs among musicians in 2005. During the segment, NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman deadpans, "I'm not a music reporter, but I've heard from others that this is a very serious issue and it brings up a whole host of issues related to performance-enhancing drugs." Carter Bray, the principal cellist for the New York Philharmonic, offers some explanation for why his peers might resort to steroids. "I think the public doesn't understand the kind of pressure that orchestra musicians are under to play faster and louder," Bray says. Ever dedicated to providing a variety of viewpoints, even for fictitious stories, NPR quotes a physician about the warning signs that a musician may be on the juice (overdeveloped triceps in the bow arm and descending neck veins, if you're curious). One solution to the problem, according to Goldman, will sound familiar: mandatory drug testing.

3. The 26-Day Marathon

Before there was Forrest Gump, there was Kimo Nakajimi. In 1981, the Daily Mail ran a story about the Japanese runner, who entered the London Marathon, but, on account of a translation error, thought he had to run for 26 days, not 26 miles. According to the fictional story, which included photos, Nakajimi ignored the locals who urged him to stop and was determined to finish the race he thought he had signed up to run.

4. Olympic Genes

The cycling magazine VeloNews has an April Fools' Day tradition of posting farcical stories on its Web site. Last year, an article about the launch of a sperm and egg bank company, PC Olympic Genes, by former U.S. Olympians Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter drew the ire of readers who didn't understand it was a joke. According to the hoax, prospective parents could purchase Phinney's sperm or Carpenter's eggs for $250,000; for one million dollars, the company would combine Phinney's sperm and Carpenter's eggs. "It's literally a no-brainer for couples who want champion children," fictitious company spokesman Felix Magowan says in the article. "This is absolutely disgusting," one reader later wrote. "I feel for these children who will likely be pressured to fulfill the athletic dreams of their parents. My admiration for these two exceptional athletes is now tarnished." Previous April Fools' Day articles published by VeloNews include a story that USA Cycling was outsourcing its membership services to a contractor in India, and a conspiracy theory that the sunflowers that line the route of the Tour de France are the result of a secret program of genetic manipulation.

5. Soviet Newspaper Plays Soviet-Style Prank

Picture 12.pngIn 1988, the Soviet newspaper Izvestia reported that Spartak, a Moscow soccer team, was in negotiations with Argentine star Diego Maradona, who was playing for the Italian Napoli club at the time. According to the article, Spartak would pay Maradona $6 million to come play for them within the year. An editor later admitted that the story was an April Fools' hoax, the first such hoax ever published by the paper.

6. Hockey Prank Causes Headache for Ombudsman

In 2003, an Ottawa sports radio station announced that CBC television was canceling its scheduled coverage of the Ottawa Senators' first round playoff series due to budget cuts, and would air rival Toronto's games instead. CBC ombudsman David Bazay received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from angry Senators fans who didn't realize that the announcement was a joke. Bazay didn't find it particularly funny, either. "Frankly, it's silly when there are a lot of other serious complaints that I could have been dealing with," he told reporters. "We have a war going on in Iraq, there's the SARS outbreak. It's just not very productive to spend my time dealing with this type of thing."

7. Mark Cuban's Fake Fight

MarkCuban.jpgIn 2003, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban got into a shoving match with a phony NBA official during a timeout. Cuban, never one to shy away from controversy, was poking fun at himself for being fined repeatedly for his complaints about NBA officiating. A Mavericks equipment manager restrained Cuban during the fake fight, drawing cheers from the crowd and even a few laughs from the real officials at the game. The Mavericks' players weren't in on the April Fools' Day prank, so Dallas reserve center Evan Eschmeyer rushed to help restrain the man who signs his checks. "It was a good laugh," Eschmeyer said afterward. "I think it's a good thing I didn't go out and punch the guy or we'd probably all be looking at this in a different light."

8. Soccer Star Yardis Alpolfo

In 2003, the Glasgow Rangers published a story on their Web site announcing that manager Alex McLeish had signed a Turkish striker for 10 million pounds. The player, who the report compared to legendary Turkish striker Hakan Sukur, was named Yardis Alpolfo. Perhaps you've already figured out that the name is an anagram for April Fools' Day, but if not, don't feel too bad. Reuters ran with the story before an official from the Rangers informed the news agency that it was a joke.

For more April Fools' Day hoaxes, be sure to visit The Museum of Hoaxes.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Courtesy of Dave Drason Byrzynski

Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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