What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the “Surprise the Cat” blog-a-thon. In honor of International Cat Day on March 17th, this blog-a-thon is being directed by the official Dubsism house-cat, who happens to be named Surprise from the day she ran out from under a bush in our back yard and adopted us. Obviously, this is about films with a feline theme, but the “surprise” aspect was if you felt lucky, you had the option to send us an actor or a genre of film, and Surprise the Cat would send you a movie to write about.
As previously mentioned, I must like Alan Alda films much more than I was aware, as this is his third appearance in this series (click to see “A New Life” and “The Four Seasons”). In this installment, Alda plays George Plimpton, who was a Harvard-educated author known as the father of “participatory journalism.” Think of it as the writer’s version of “method acting gone too far;” like when Robert DeNiro actually got a cabbie license for the filming of “Taxi Driver.” As such, Plimpton’s exploits included doing a stand-up comedy act at Caesars Palace, playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and driving a race car. He would then put those experiences on paper from the perspective of a guy doing things he hasn’t the foggiest notion of how to actually do.
“Paper Lion” is the film adaptation of Plimpton’s sojourn through the Detroit Lions’ training camp posing as a rookie quarterback trying to make the squad. Of course, Plimpton has the level of athletic prowess commensurate with his status as an Ivy League egghead. As such, Plimpton’s attempts to disguise the fact he’s never played football doesn’t make it past lunch on Day One. Visually, this is re-inforced by the gangly Alan Alda on the field with the real thick-necked Detroit Lions. With the protection of the ruse gone, Plimpton’s presence is resented by some of the players, and as football is a rough game, he gets knocked around a bit. The players eventually come to accept Plimpton after All-Pro and de facto team leader Alex Karras sticks up for him.
Plimpton continues to win over the players despite his sheer level of cleat-bound boobery. He takes his lumps in stride, never complains, and remains an all around good sport. This leads to great bit of light comedy in which during a practice scrimmage, Plimpton scores a touchdown. However, it is during his joyous celebration he notices all the Lions laughing because they had deliberately let him score.
The film culminates with Plimpton being allowed to play in a pre-season game with predictable results.
By the way…the real George Plimpton shows up as the “4th Gunman” in the John Wayne western “Rio Lobo,” and “Paper Lion” launches the movie/television career of Alex Karras. In 1967, he was a defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions, but a few years later you would come to know Karras as one of the best characters in the greatest western comedy ever made.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Despite the fact he was unable to pass himself off as a professional quarterback, George Plimpton went on to author the greatest hoax in the history of sports journalism. The April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated featured a 13-page article penned by Plimpton titled “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.”
This tale revolved around the totally fictional Hayden Siddhartha Finch, or “Sidd” for short. The construction of this character was the definition of outlandish. The life arc of Sidd Finch supposedly starts in an English orphanage from which he was adopted by an archaeologist who later died in a plane crash in Nepal. From here, Finch briefly attended Harvard, but became bored with academia. He followed his deceased adoptive parent to Tibet to learn the “yogic mastery of mind-body” under “the great poet-saint Lama Milaraspa.”
While that sounds like so much bilge, Plimpton used an ingenious hook to fish people into buying this load of bugle oil. For all his oddities, Finch’s mastery of zen yoga had made him a baseball phenom unlike anything this world had ever seen.
Let’s talk about “outlandish.” There was nothing all that odd about Finch and his purported ability to pitch a baseball, except for the fact he only wore one heavy hiking boot. But the “hook” was all this oddity came with Finch’s alleged 168 mile-per-hour fastball combined with “pinpoint” accuracy and his “yogic mastery of mind-body” meant he could do all this without warming up. Topping it all off was the element of “hard to get.” Not only was Finch supposed to have the sexiest attributes possible in a pitcher, but he reportedly wasn’t even that interested in baseball; he was considering “playing the French horn or golf or something.”
Plimpton set the “hook” by getting the New York Mets to play along. They fostered the full illusion by giving finch a locker and a uniform number. When Sports Illustrated published the story, it was loaded with photos of Finch, including one featuring Finch talking with the Mets’ actual pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre.
The role of Finch was played by a junior high school art teacher from Oak Park, Illinois named Joe Berton. Unlike the photo above, Berton’s face was never clearly visible in any of the photos in order to not reveal his true identity. Berton was recruited for the role by his friend Lane Stewart, who just so happened to be a Sports Illustrated photographer. Stewart picked Berton for his largely un-baseball-player-like appearance; he was a gangly 6’4″ with size 14 feet…which figured prominently in many of the photos of Finch.
Plimpton pulled this prank off with such mastery that for two weeks, the baseball world was abuzz over the story of Sidd Finch. Even after Plimpton revealed this was a hoax, there was actual debate as to whether the Mets paid Plimpton to say this story was fake in order to protect the Mets’ “secret weapon.” There was such mastery to this gag that it has become the stuff of legend; in 2015, the Mets celebrated the 30th anniversary of “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” Plimpton went on to write an entire book based on his fictional French horn-playing phenom, and ESPN made a “30 for 30” short about it.
The Moral of The Story:
Don’t believe everything you read…especially not here.
P.S. For a completely believable and entertaining read on more of the exploits of George Plimpton, check out the Classic Film and TV Cafe blog.
P.P.S. You can read the entire article “The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch” here.
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