The man behind Sidd Finch, the best April Fool's prank ever, is ready for a baseball encore
Hailed as the greatest pitching prospect in baseball history, 1985 phenomenon Sidd Finch has found the enlightenment he has been seeking for decades, and will be named today as the new Opening Day pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.
At least that would be my hope for Finch, the mythical pitcher portrayed by Joe Berton, a 1971 St. Charles High School graduate and star of perhaps the greatest April Fools' Day stunt. Renowned writer George Plimpton broke the story in the April 1, 1985, edition of Sports Illustrated, profiling Finch, a 28-year-old "eccentric mystic," who, having studied Eastern philosophy in Tibet, changed his given name of Hayden to Siddhartha, which translates from Sanskrit as "He who has attained his goal." Berton stunned the baseball world by showing up at the Spring Training facility of the New York Mets as Finch, with a French horn, Tibetan food bowl and fastball that he purportedly could throw to a precise spot at speeds never thought possible.
Plimpton wrote, "He may well change the course of baseball history," with a fastball that hit 168-mph on the speed gun.
Perhaps that was the first hint that the legend of Sidd Finch was an April Fools' Day stunt, says Joe Berton, the 1971 St. Charles High School graduate, who adopted the persona of the bizarre pitcher and posed for multiple photographs shot by Lane Stewart, including one of him pitching with a bare left foot and a heavy hiking boot on his right foot.
"You know, I told Plimpton that people might believe the story if he lowered that speed to 116-mph or even 120," says Berton, now a 68-year-old retired teacher. Even with the preposterous speed embellishment, the story was taken as gospel by many readers.
An applied arts art teacher at a middle school in Oak Park where he lives, Berton met Stewart a few years earlier when the photographer was capturing images for a story about hobbies and Berton had already established himself as a master builder of intricate toy soldiers. As a boy, Berton would walk to Walker's Hobby Shop in downtown St. Charles. Now he is president of the Military Miniature Society of Illinois.
Pals from their first meeting, Stewart knew Berton was a huge baseball fan, and often invited him to help him with equipment when he had assignments in spring training. The 1985 call was different. "He wanted to shoot a phenomenal pitcher who could also play the French horn," remembers Berton, who agreed to help in whatever way he could. "Then he said, 'You've got to be the man.'"
Right-handed and lanky at 6-foot-4 and 170 pounds, Berton was captured in mid-windup as the story told how he fired perfect pitches that knocked Coke cans off sand dunes as the sun was coming up. "7-Eleven was only open from 7 until 11, so Lane and I are going through garbage cans looking for red Coke cans to set up on the beach," Berton remembers.
"In those days there was no internet, so if you saw a photograph, you assumed it was real," says Berton. He had a locker between Mets stars Darryl Strawberry and George Foster and sat down the right-field line during spring training games in the grass next to 1985 Cy Young-winner Dwight Gooden and future All-Star Kevin Mitchell.
Legendary catcher Gary Carter was the only signature on a ball handed to Berton by one young autograph-seeker, and Berton balked at putting his phony name on a ball signed by a future Hall of Famer. "Then Carter turned around and said, 'Sign the ball, Sidd.' So I did," Berton says.
For all that spring training, Berton avoided the press, but Mets coaches and players talked as if he was the real thing. A handwritten scouting report read, "Unbelievable (!) fastball and control. You got to see this. Never played (no joke). Could be the phenom of all time."
One pretend source said Finch was a disciple of Lama Milaraspa, an 11th Century yogi who figured out how to produce internal heat, which allowed him to wear a thin cotton robe in intense cold and snow. Finch also was among the greatest French horn players ever, said another source quoted by Plimpton.
"One of the things I really enjoyed was getting to know George Plimpton," says Berton, who went to parties at Plimpton's place in New York and had dinner with him when Plimpton came to Chicago. In the winter of 1985, Berton was an honored guest at Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year" ceremony, where he shared a limousine with baseball greats Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver, and sat at a table with the parents of recipient Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Lining shelves in a room filled with Finch memorabilia, books and his military miniatures are baseballs signed by legends such as Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt. Berton met former Cubs pitcher Steve Trout at a Plimpton book signing, and they remain friends. The Mets used to leave him tickets under the name Sidd Finch whenever they played at Wrigley. At one sports gathering, he was sitting with World Series champion pitchers Charlie Leibrandt and Bret Saberhagen, when their wives asked to dance with the famous Sidd Finch. "We don't care," Saberhagen said. "He doesn't exist."
Since Berton was at a military miniatures show in Oklahoma on the anniversary of their stunt, Plimpton met Berton with a crew and set up Sidd Finch's performance at the World Championship Cow Chip Throw in Beaver, Oklahoma. Berton also went to England, where Stewart photographed him throwing a javelin in front of the white cliffs of Dover.
Decades later, Berton still gets pictures of Finch in the mail with requests to autograph them and mail them back. Berton's wife, Gloria Groom, the mother of their sons, Alexander and Philip Berton, is the esteemed curator of European painting and sculpture for the Art Institute of Chicago. Groom is known worldwide, but among people who remember the Finch story, Berton is the celebrity.
At the Brooklyn Cyclones' Sidd Finch 30th anniversary celebration in 2015, Berton threw out a first pitch 100 mph slower than his reported speed in 1985. Fans were invited to perform yoga on the field before the game. A group of horn players performed the Star Spangled Banner, and the first 2,500 fans received a Finch bobblehead featuring Berton in mid-pitch. Turning down an appearance fee, Berton took home some goodies and persuaded the Mets minor league affiliate to donate money to charities helping survivors of a severe earthquake near Kathmandu in central Nepal.
Years later, Berton is still having fun with the story. While forever linked to the Mets, Berton admits, "I had a Cubs shirt on underneath my Mets uniform." He marvels that he, "a make-believe guy," made friendships with professional athletes, "the real guys."
Special in his Finch memorabilia is an autograph from Plimpton that reads, "To Joe, whose left foot made Sidd Finch famous. From an admiring collaborator, George Plimpton." When Plimpton died in 2003, Sidd Finch was part of his obituary, and Berton sat next to Norman Mailer at the memorial service. Plimpton got to live out Walter Mitty-esque fantasies by boxing with Archie Moore, pitching against Willie Mays, golfing against Sam Snead, playing basketball with the Boston Celtics and goalie with the Boston Bruins and playing quarterback with the Detroit Lions. Portraying Finch gave Berton his own Walter Mitty life.
"I love baseball, and to be a footnote in baseball is exciting," Berton says. "And because it's an April Fools' Day story, everybody revisits it every year."
During his teaching career, kids would bring a photo of Finch to class. "My dad said to ask you about this," they'd tell Berton, who delights in telling people the curious case of Sidd Finch.
Don't let my first-letter-of-each-paragraph secret message go past you like a Sidd Finch fastball, and you will be in on our April Fools' Day gimmick.