Muhammad Ali’s little shyster lawyer once ran a hoax on the U.S. Senate. He would call Ted Kennedy and do Ali’s voice to engage the senator in political gossip. He’d call Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, Strom Thurmond, John Warner, Sam Nunn, Joe Biden. They’d talk inside-baseball on Virginia politics and the coming Republican national convention. They’d talk on the telephone, anyway. When Ali came in person to the senator’s offices, he stood mute. The little shyster lawyer did all the yakking.
It took me three months to figure it out. The little shyster lawyer wanted the senators to introduce a bill in Congress that would allow Ali to sue the federal government for $50 million for unlawful conviction on his draft-refusal conviction of 1967. The bill was never written, let alone voted upon. When apprised of the lawyer’s impersonations, the senators decided to forget they had ever met Muhammad Ali.
So there we have one reason people make up stories. For the money.
There are other reasons. Lance Armstrong’s fables of innocence and purity were created as cover for the way he won bike races. Manti Te’o kept singing the same sad song about the imaginary girlfriend because he’d bought in too far to get out without looking sillier than the faux leprechaun that dances a jig on the Notre Dame sidelines.
Whatever happened to making up stories for the best of reasons?
You know, for the hell of it.
Once upon a simpler time, sportswriters just got bored. Then they got to thinking. It happened to Gary Cartwright in Texas, long ago.
“Take the creative mind,” he wrote, “and lash it to a pillar in the city room some Saturday night. Bombard it with the rattle of Western Union printers. Give it headlines to write and other people’s stories to read and paste up, and you will understand why from time to time rats have been trained to play the piano.”
Suddenly, Cartwright and accomplices at the Dallas Times Herald had an idea. They would report the wonders of the Corbet Comets, a small high school football powerhouse.
“The Comets streaked along on the energies of their twin halfbacks, Dickie Don and Rickie Ron Yewbet,” Cartwright wrote. Every Friday night, under a 14-point headline, the newspaper printed a paragraph celebrating Corbet’s latest victory.
“Corbet did not lose for two seasons,” Cartwright wrote, “in which time Rickie Ron got mumps and died. Someone had blue and black Corbet window decals printed, and someone else suggested a story to the editor of the women’s page when E.O. [Shug] Kempleman, Corbet Ford dealer, donated the world’s largest tuba to the Fighting Corbet Band.”
The Corbet Comets that never existed, save in the restless minds of the Cartwright gang, are immortals in the history of football stories too good to be true.
Thinking here, too, of the famous Plainfield Teachers College team, the product of New York stockbroker Morris Newburger’s daydream at dinner on Oct. 25, 1941.
“He remembers it well,” The New Yorker reported at the time. “During the entire meal, for some reason, his mind dwelt on the problem of how obscure teams like Slippery Rock got in the newspapers week after week. ‘Slippery Rock, dickety-dock, Slippery Rock, tickety-tock, Slippery Rock,’ he kept saying to himself, with variants.”
Suddenly, Newburger excused himself from the table and called The New York Times.
“I wish to report that Plainfield Teachers defeated Winona, 27 to 3,” he said.
“Thanks a lot,” the Times said, after which Newburger phoned in the score to the New York Herald Tribune.
“As easy as that, it began,” The New Yorker reported. “The next morning both papers carried the score. Mr. Newburger was stunned. As he recovered, a kind of godlike feeling came over him.”
Omnipotent in all matters involving Plainfield Teachers, Newburger gave the team a phenomenal halfback named Johnny Chung and known as “The Celestial Comet.” Chung operated out of coach Ralph (Hurry Up) Hoblitzel’s unique “W” formation in which the ends faced the backfield. Born in Hawaii of Chinese parents, Chung was “stalwart, shifty, All-America material,” Newburger said. “He achieved stamina by eating rice between the halves.” Chung averaged 9.3 yards a carry for the mighty Lions and scored 69 of the team’s 117 points.
The New York Post wrote of Chung, “If the Jersey dons don’t watch out, he may pop up in Chiang Kai-shek’s offensive department . . .”
Plainfield Teachers 24, Chesterton 0. Plainfield Teachers 13, St. Joseph 0. Plainfield Teachers 35, Randolph Tech 0 -- a suspicious score because, that same day, Army and Notre Dame had mud-wrestled to a scoreless tie during a New England rainstorm.
Too good to be true, of course, and untrue it was, but it was so much for-the-hell-of-it fun that Newburger’s friends spread the tale until it reached a stiff-neck at Time magazine who refused all entreaties to hold off his expose. “We still had games with Appalachian and Harmony,” Newburger said. So the school’s fake press agent sent out a fake news release on fake letterhead saying that Chung and five teammates had failed mid-term exams and could no longer play.
Too bad, Newburger said. In the game with Appalachian, The New Yorker reported, “Chung would have sprained his knee, but he would have returned doggedly the next week and downed Harmony 47-20.”
That week, United Press notified its client newspapers: “De-emphasis note: Plainfield [N.J.] Teachers College has abandoned football. The Flying Figments not only are unbeaten and untied. They are unreal.” Sportswriter Caswell Adams, in the New York Herald Tribune, commemorated the myth poetically:
Far above New Jersey’s swamplands
Plainfield Teachers’ spires
Mark a phantom, phony college
That got on all the wires.
Perfect record made on paper.
Hail to thee, our ghostly college,
Product of a dream!
P.S.: Maybe, or maybe not, Muhammad Ali knew what his little shyster lawyer was up to. I never solved that riddle. Soon after their trips to Capitol Hill, the lawyer disappeared, once spotted in Cuba. Years later, the FBI arrested him on a charge having nothing to do with Ali; they found him hiding in a closet in his Florida mansion. In jail, awaiting trial, he hanged himself.