Joe Berton

Joe Berton, who posed as Sidd Finch in a 1985 Sports Illustrated hoax. (Brian Cassella / Tribune Photo)

Joe Berton was the greatest pitcher to ever climb a mound. And today, Joe Berton, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Oak Park and is 57 and Ichabod Crane spindly and does not swivel heads anymore, is a footnote to sports history. No, that's not quite it: Joe Berton is a footnote to a footnote to sports history.

Wait, scratch that: Joe Berton is a footnote to a footnote to a bit of sports history that never happened.

Yes, that's it: Joe Berton was Sidd Finch. Or rather, he was the model for Finch, who was born in the spring of 1985. Finch was the baseball player featured in the April 1, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated; the story, titled "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" by George Plimpton, was a 14-page profile of a New York Mets pitching phenom who had never played the game but whose fastball was a leather-wrapped sonic boom of 168 miles per hour.

So with the Cubs and Sox opening their seasons Friday, the first of April, April Fools' Day, we thought to check in on Berton. This is, after all, the anniversary of the greatest hoax in the history of baseball.

He was 32 in 1985. He landed in the story because he was close friends with SI staff photographer Lane Stewart, who read Plimpton's piece before publication. Plimpton had written that Sidd was awkward and shy, his loping pitching style a dead ringer for Goofy in old Disney cartoons. Stewart was astonished at how much of Plimpton's description sounded like his 6-foot-4 buddy in Oak Park.

"I called Joe," Stewart remembers, "and asked if he wanted to come to spring training with me. I said, 'The Mets have this pitcher they picked up. They got him pitching in secret, under a big tarp. He has a 168-mile-an-hour fastball and he plays the French horn and went to Harvard and he was raised in Tibet by Buddhist monks and he pitches with one foot bare and one foot in a boot. And guess what? You're going to be him.' "

"The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" became one of the most celebrated pranks since Orson Welles told a 1938 radio audience that aliens landed in New Jersey. It was also one of the most popular stories in the magazine's history. However, one thing about Sidd Finch wasn't fabricated -- Berton himself. A couple of weeks after the photo shoot, he was back to teaching art at Hawthorne Junior High (now Percy Julian) when the issue hit: "This student came up to me in the hall. 'Mr. Berton, does this mean you're not teaching anymore?' I didn't know what he meant. He said, 'You're going to play baseball now, right?' I hadn't seen the issue yet. So I went to the 7-Eleven in Oak Park and I remember pulling out the third issue from the front of the rack and ... I couldn't believe how big the story was."

Or how huge it became.

"The funny thing is, people believed it. Everybody was talking about it, long after the truth got out," said Mel Stottlemyre, the former New York Yankee. He was the Mets' pitching coach in the spring of '85 (and he appeared in photos alongside Finch). "The story was far-fetched, but I think the timing was right, because we had good pitching. Ron Darling. Dwight Gooden, who threw in the 90s, and had come up from nowhere too. Fans would call out: 'When's Sidd pitching?' I'd have to say something. 'Not ready yet! Soon, though!' "

The magazine received more than 20,000 letters, and more than a few angry cancellations (after the truth got out). And soon the impact had filtered down to the game itself. Asked about Finch, Don Zimmer, who coached the Cubs at the time, said: "I don't know anything about that Met from Tibet."

Commissioner Peter Ueberroth fielded calls from nervous managers wondering how their players were supposed to risk being dinged by a 168-mph fastball. And more than a few reporters were rumored to have been threatened with firing for missing the biggest game-changer in the history of baseball.

The prank was conceived during an early 1985 meeting between Plimpton and editors Mark Mulvoy and Myra Gelband. They noticed an upcoming issue date fell on April 1. The Mets were chosen because Plimpton was published by Doubleday, Gelband remembers, and Nelson Doubleday owned the Mets. Plimpton, who died in 2003, liked that the seventh definition of "finch" in his dictionary was "small lie."

"We kept it very secret," Gelband said. Only a few people at SI and a few people with the Mets knew.

"Secrecy wasn't really the worry, though," she said. "The thing was, could we get people to believe it? We never expected it to go over the way it did. With every detail, we thought, 'Here's the clue that gives it away.' "

Pardon the cliche, but those were simpler times, pre-blogosphere, pre-digital trickery. News traveled slower. Berton thinks "the Zen component of Sidd," coupled with baseball's rich history of mythical, mystical fictitious players, helped sell it. Gelband is more pragmatic: "People could still be wide-eyed about baseball then, I think. It was before the steroids and the scandals and the asterisks made people permanently skeptical."

She also hid a big clue in the story's secondary headline: the first letter of each word spelled "Happy April Fool's Day." Word got out. SI fessed up. "Which is when a story that was big got much bigger," Stewart said. Soon the Mets were holding "Sidd Finch Day" and Berton was signing balls at the edge of the field with the real Mets: "I told this kid, 'I can't sign that. Gary Carter signed that.' Carter yells, 'Sidd! Sign it!' "

Berton never lived it down, or wanted to. After the story ran, a college baseball player stopped Berton and asked earnestly for a pitching tip. "Pitch with one shoe off and you'll gain 5 miles an hour," he told the kid.

For a short time there was a Sidd Finch's Bar & Grill in Oakbrook, with Finch-centric wines ("Home-Team White," "Extremely Well Read Red"). There were baseball cards, bumper stickers. When he was a guest at a Sportsman of the Year banquet, he shared a limo with Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver. Tongue still in cheek, SI occasionally updated Finch's tale and Berton would assume his role. And whenever Plimpton was in Chicago, they'd catch up; at a roast, Plimpton said "few authors get a chance to meet the person they created."

Then Berton went back to his life -- which, with great irony, has all the non sequitur of Sidd Finch: Yes, Joe Berton taught at an Oak Park middle school (and retired last year). Yes, he has a wife (Gloria Groom, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago) and two sons. But he is also one of the world's leading experts on Lawrence of Arabia; he has lectured on Lawrence before the T.E. Lawrence Society in Oxford, England. He is writing an illustrated guide to Lawrence. He also sculpts British colonial miniatures for various model companies.