Bill “Opening Day” Mueller

Let me tell you the story behind one of the greatest April Fools’ jokes of all time.

In the spring of 1985, Joe Berton was a 32-year-old middle school art teacher from Oak Park, Illinois.

One day he received a phone call from his friend Lane Stewart, who was a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated.

Stewart asked the school teacher if he wanted to come to baseball spring training with him.

Sure, Berton said. Why not?

But then it got weird…

The teacher was told to bring a French horn, a food bowl, and a Tibetan rug.

Oh, and an old, beat-up hiking boot.

Bring one of those, too. But just one.

So Berton borrowed a French horn from the music teacher at school, while another teacher gave him size-14 hiking boots.

And then he went to Pier One to buy a rug and a food bowl.

What followed next was something that probably couldn’t happen today.

…or maybe it would be easier to pull off, who knows. (I’ll let you decide.)

The prank originated with famed writer George Plimpton, who got approval to write a cover story for Sports Illustrated about a mysterious Mets pitching prospect named Sidd Finch.

Finch was a pitcher who never played high school or college baseball, yet was in spring training with the Mets throwing a fastball at 168 mph.

When the photographer Stewart called his friend to join him on his spring training assignment, he explained the trip this way:

“So 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.”

Stewart then paused for effect.

“And guess what?” he told the school teacher. You’re going to be him.”

The result was a full-length feature on the fictional Sidd Finch in the April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated.

The headline: “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch”

This was the picture on the cover with a middle school art teacher pretending to be the fastest pitcher ever discovered:

For some reason, no amount of Googling will locate the actual cover. It’s not even available for purchase in SI’s online store. Weird.)

Editors at the paper worried that people would actually believe it.

They wanted to have some fun, but since SI was the No. 1 sports magazine of record at the time, they didn’t want the prank to work TOO well.

And so they piled on crazy detail after crazy detail…

For example, they showed him taking exotic trips and playing his French horn in solitude…

…as well as plenty of other images meant to give away the joke…
They even wrote the article’s subhead so that the first letter of each word that spelled out “Happy April Fools’ Day.”

Said one editor: “With every detail, we thought, ‘Here’s the clue that gives it away.”

Stewart himself, the photographer who snapped all those pictures, never dreamed anyone would actually believe it.

But on the morning the issue hit the newsstands, he received a phone call from his wife, who worked at Life magazine at the time.

“How’s it look?” he asked her.

“Really good,” she said. “But the sports editor of Life Magazine wants to know how to reach Sidd Finch.”

“Oh, (bleep),” Stewart said.

As he put it years later: “It never occurred to me until that moment that anyone over the age of two would believe one damn word of that story. Every picture, the way I shot it, was almost designed to give it away.”

Oh, how they all underestimated our unquenchable desire to believe in the unbelievable.

Hell, I bought into it myself!

I’ll never forget devouring every word of this article myself. I wasn’t even a Mets fan but I couldn’t wait to see this kid throw!

I wasn’t alone…

Ticket sales went up. And as you might have guessed, some outrage ensued when people found out it was a hoax.

The magazine received more than 20,000 letters, and more than a few angry cancellations.

After my initial embarrassment to having been suckered, this one letter to the editor summed up my reaction:

“You lousy, rotten, good-for-nothing blankety-blanks. You got me hook, line and sinker—and I loved it.”

You have to remember that those were simpler times back then: pre-Twittersphere, pre-blogosphere, pre-digital trickery.

News traveled slower.

In fact, it took a full two weeks before the joke was outed.

The magazine printed a much smaller article in the following April 8 issue announcing Finch’s “retirement.” It then announced it was a hoax on April 15.

So where’s the marketing lesson in all this?

Soooo glad you asked 🙂

Look, I’m in dangerous territory here…

Because it would be easy to misconstrue my glorification of this story to infer that I’m saying it’s okay to make stuff up.

It’s not.

It’s never okay to lie.

But it’s worth looking at WHY so many got pulled into this story.

We’re talking about persuasion here, after all, which is one of the best skills you can master as a marketer, product creator or business owner.

(Or in life, period.) 😁

To me, here are a few of the elements that made this take hold in such viral fashion:

* Detail. The more detail you can infuse your stories with, the more persuasive they’ll be.

* Delight your audience whenever you can.

* Frame your story with the hopes and dreams of your audience in mind. One reason Sidd Finch was so real to people is because every baseball fan wants to believe their team is only one remarkable player away from a championship.

* Be memorable. How memorable is the sight of a gangly kid pitching with one bare foot? Unforgettable.

As Mets P.R. man Jay Horowitz put it: “The story was so different. I think even after people knew it was a spoof they still wanted it to be true.”

One way to achieve all this is to frame your pitches in such a way that makes your offer seem too good to be true … but it’s not. Turns out it IS true.

You want to inspire urgency for higher conversions?

Then keep it real. But make it spectacular.

(It certainly worked on Jerry. Talk about FOMO, ouch.)

Reminder: I’ll be teaching this sort of framing in my upcoming training on how to re-engage your list to reap an immediate payday, followed by creating an ongoing revenue stream month after month, all completely driven by emails.

Got questions or suggestions on what you want me to cover?

Just hit reply and let me know.

Bill “Opening Day” Mueller

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