Glory Thieves

6 Apr

In 1958, two men, one who had just died in a Detroit rooming house, and another, who was living in Dayton, Ohio, claimed to be former major league pitcher Jack Rowan. Rowan played for the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies over parts of seven seasons from 1906-1914.

Each man had supporters who claimed he was the “real” Rowan.

The Dayton Rowan died in 1966—the question of who was the “real” Rowan died with him.

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Jack Rowan

In the end, one man had his greatest achievement stolen from him, and the other was the vilest of thieves; stealing an achievement and a legacy from someone who had earned it.

When someone erroneously claims military service it is called stolen valor. Given the role of baseball in the American fabric, for one to claim to have been a professional ballplayer when they did not achieve that status makes that person a glory thief.

In “Shoeless Joe,” W.P. Kinsella introduced fiction’s best known glory thief. Eddie “Kid” Sissions claims to be “The oldest living Chicago Cub,” while he actually had only an obscure minor league career. The book’s hero, Ray Kinsella, gives Scissions a pass when his lie is discovered:

“I imagine Eddie Scissons has decided, ‘If I can’t have what I want most in life, then I’ll pretend I had it in the past, and talk about and live it and relive it until it is real and solid and I can hold it in my heart like a precious child. Once I’ve experienced it so completely, no one can ever take it away from me.’”

Kinsella and his protagonist were too forgiving.

Countless are the number of times I have had someone who never came closer than a seat in the stands at a professional game tell me they played pro ball.  More incredibly, the phenomenon persists during a time when claims of a pro career can be verified within seconds.

Over many years in Chicago I ran into dozens of claimants to a professional baseball career; mostly barstool jockeys operating during a period when everyone didn’t have easy access to the internet in their purse or pocket. There were also many imposters–for some reason utility infielders were particularly popular–I met a fake Sammy Esposito, Craig Grebeck, Paul Popovich, Alan Bannister, and Mick Kelleher among others.

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The real Sammy Esposito

When I was living in Las Vegas, the old men who sat together drinking at one of the local’s casinos told me I had to meet their friend who, they said, had a cup of coffee with the Red Sox in the mid 1960s—even said he roomed with Rico Petrocelli on the road. Their hero never seemed to be able to come over when I was around—and of course, a quick search of Baseball Reference confirmed he never played professional baseball at any level. But he has regaled two generations of credulous Las Vegans with stories of his time with the Red Sox.

And there was the contractor who told me he had played in the Royals organization in the 1980s; two basic questions about the club’s affiliates during those seasons revealed him to be a glory thief—he hadn’t bothered to do the most basic research to make his claim credible. If his ball playing ability was commensurate with the quality of his work, it is likely he never played at a level higher than Little League.

It is also very possible the middle-aged guy with a gut and a story about his professional career at your softball game is a glory thief as well. If you are playing with a former professional, you know it.

I worked at a television station in Chicago during the late 90s and played 12” softball with the morning anchorman—Mike Pomeranz. Pomeranz pitched four seasons in the minors, was once traded for Lloyd McClendon, and is now a studio host and announcer for the Padres on Fox Sports San Diego.

My one vivid memory of softball with Pomeranz was playing first base—Mike, a southpaw was playing third—he fielded a ground ball and effortlessly and flat-footed put the ball in the pocket of my glove. I walked around with a handful of ice for the rest of the day. He didn’t need to tell anyone he played pro ball.

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Mike Pomeranz

I asked John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball for his take on what kind of person pretends to have had a professional baseball career:

“Calling Dr. Freud. Self-aggrandizement always reflects an undersized ego and uncertain sense of self, as if life were to be lived from the outside.”

Dr. Freud was not available for a second opinion but Dr. Rachel Annunziato was. Annunziato, associate professor of Psychology at Fordham University said:

“I would say given how easily such claims could be debunked these days, there might be concerns about significant mental illness—delusions–and perhaps antisocial personality characteristics which can include lying and manipulating.”

Dr. Annunziato allows that for a thief like Kinsella’s “Kid” Scissions, a professional, but one who didn’t make it to the big leagues the misrepresentation is mainly tied to ego:

“I suspect too that many were ‘close’ and perhaps have modified their story over time to protect (and) bolster self-esteem.”

And, finally, because my experience with glory thieves has been limited to bar stools and social situations, I asked someone who has dealt with them professionally to tell me about his experiences with them.

Bill Deane was Senior Research Associate for the Baseball Hall of Fame from 1986-1994, and shared several great stories:

“I’d often be asked to verify that someone played minor league baseball—typically a family member or friend of the questioner. As often as not, I’d find there was no evidence of Grandpa having played professional baseball at any level, and have to come up with a tactful way of telling them so.”

Deane heard many stories about another would-be former Boston player while at the Hall of Fame:

“I frequently got calls about a Sal Rizzo, who claimed to have played for the Red Sox and set some sort of record for triple plays. The calls came from people who were considering a business venture with Rizzo. He must have been a smooth talker, because when I told them there was no such person who played major or even minor league ball, they were sure I was mistaken.”

Another of Deane’s encounters seems to fit Dr. Annunziato’s assessment that some glory thieves might be delusional:

“Another ‘former major leaguer,’ James Durler, wrote frequently, requesting copies of his big league records so he could apply for a pension. The man said he had played in the majors between 1967 and 1970, and listed his birth date (December 3, 1954), teams, positions, and other details of his career. After checking fruitlessly for any evidence that he played in the majors or even the minors, it dawned on me that the guy would have had to be 12 years old when he began his career. I wrote him back with my findings, but he continued to write every month or so, each time listing different teams with which he played and different details about his career, but always the same birth date and same range of playing years. My responses got more and more sarcastic over the years, before I finally let go of my need to answer every letter.”

More recently Keane met someone else claiming to be a former Red Sox; in this case, even the man’s wife wasn’t quite sure of the truth:

“I had a face-to-face experience with an impostor. A man moved into the Cooperstown area in 2003, and told the Town Clerk (who happened to be my wife, Pam) that he was Chuck Schilling, who played for the Red Sox from 1961-65. He said he had been Carl Yastrzemski’s roommate and told all kinds of stories about his career. Pam told me about the encounter, and I thought an interview with Schilling would make a great story for the local newspapers. I researched his career thoroughly so I would be prepared, and then I happened into him when I visited the Town building and he was there again. Pam introduced us.

“Chuck seemed older than he ought to have been, and didn’t look much like the guy I researched, but of course he’d aged 40 years since then. He went into a self-deprecating routine about his career, and how he was such good friends with Yaz. I got suspicious when I asked him a couple of questions he should have known the answer to, but didn’t, such as if he remembered his first home run. When your first big league homer is a grand slam off the best curveball pitcher–Camilo Pascual–of your generation, and part of a six-RBI day, I think you’d remember it. So, I figured either the guy is a fraud, or he has no memory, either way making for a bad interview.

“I phoned him to set one up anyway, and got his wife. He was outside, but she asked me ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?’ She said that he sometimes claims he played for the Red Sox, other times is tight-lipped about it. But she also said her husband was born in 1927 (the ballplayer was born in ’37), and spells his name ‘Schelling.’ I guess he knew the jig was up by the time he got to the phone. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I’m not the Chuck Schilling who played ball, I was just kidding.’”

Whichever one of the two Jack Rowan’s was the real deal, he probably would not have gotten the joke.

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4 Responses to “Glory Thieves”

  1. JD April 7, 2017 at 7:35 am #

    Sadly, there will always be such fabulists and baseball, with its long history and large numbers of players at all levels, will be a place where such liars can potentially thrive (although maybe less so these days with searchable databases).

    Some years ago I was working in book publishing and known around the office for my baseball knowledge and general fandom. One day an executive from the sales department came to my office with a resume in hand–and great excitement–to show me one she had received and for whom she was setting up an interview. She wanted to share with me this person’s pedigree, which included a stint as the starting 2b for both the World Series champions Mets of 1986 and the 1989 Oakland A’s. Not some minor-league affiliates, but in both cases the big clubs. The name was completely unknown to me and a quick perusal of the Baseball Encyclopedia (or maybe it was Total Baseball) showed no such person playing in the majors, let alone in such a high-profile position as a starting infielder on recent World Series teams. I had to marvel at the sheer audacity of such a lie (or be saddened by the mental illness it implied). I then suggested to this executive that perhaps she should even check on the applicant’s claim to have graduated from Wharton as well . . . you can guess the rest.

  2. Gary Cieradkowski April 12, 2017 at 12:51 pm #

    Glad you’re back! This story’s a great start to the season.

    • Thom Karmik April 12, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

      Thank you.

      • Thom Karmik April 12, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

        Somehow I am not shocked. I have heard so many similar ones.

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