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Al Polfoir was nobody’s fool. True, the kid from the Maritimes was a fish out of water on Toronto soil but he understood the importance of keeping his incredible fastball under wraps.
The entire Blue Jays team, in fact, was sworn to secrecy, having surreptitiously flown to Nova Scotia to work out with their new pitching sensation. And management stayed mum on the 18-year-old that one team insider called the “equivalent of the Stealth Bomber.”
Polfoir’s fastball, honed by hurling rocks at fish from the shore, had been timed at almost 115 m.p.h. — about 10 m.p.h. faster than the record for major league baseball.
“I’m going out on a limb even admitting that he exists,” the source told reporter Bill Taylor before abruptly hanging up the phone.
That was 20 years ago, just before Polfoir made his debut at the Jays’ home opener. The Toronto Star broke the story that day, which happened to be — you guessed it — April 1.
And thus the newspaper continued a long tradition of tongue-in-cheekiness that these days might be termed “fake news.” Some of the pranks were simple sight gags, like the whale in Toronto Harbour that renowned staff photographer Boris Spremo snapped in 1983. Or the too-good-to-be-true scoop that the Toronto Maple Leafs might be signing Wayne Gretzky back in ’82. The hockey superstar was photographed in a Leafs jersey flanked by a beaming team president, Harold Ballard.
But the paper took hoaxes to great heights in 1976 with a photo of King Kong atop the CN Tower as a teaser to a remake of the 1933 film classic.
Worried, perhaps, that gullible types might actually believe the giant ape was swatting traffic helicopters from his lofty perch, The Star tagged the front-page picture “April Fool!”
Other shams, however, were shamelessly and painstakingly executed. Take Faux Pop, for example. In 2001, The Star claimed to have created a pop band as part of its new media program.
Five talented singers, who included a 51-year-old former psychologist and a 45-year-old Britney Spears wannabe, were brought together to form “Canada’s next big thing.” The group would use music to “ratchet up awareness of social issues” in a way that shallow boy and girl bands didn’t, said pop culture reporter Vinay Menon.
“The world is a very different place,” explained managing editor Mary Deanne Shears quite truthfully. “So a newspaper can’t just be a newspaper any more. It has to deliver information in new and innovative ways.”
In interviews with the musicians, who were all profiled and photographed, 24-year-old Kiwi professed the desire “to change the world.” The groups repertoire, Menon’s lengthy yarn continued, included song titles such as “You Say Adversity, I Say Diversity.”
The journalist added layer upon layer to the leg-pulling, even documenting the “thundering response” of more than 10,000 would-be stars who jammed phone lines and sent demo tapes when The Star first publicized its band plan.
It’s hard to say how many readers were reeled in but more than 1,200 called a hotline to hear a sample of the group’s music. A brief warbling recorded by Star staffers was followed by a confession to the tomfoolery.
The paper was far from alone in turning the news funny side up.
A few years ago, the Toronto Transit Commission also took the public for a ride on April 1 with a video introducing the “personal car” where subway customers could put their feet on the seat, clip their nails, play loud music and “do whatever you like.”
Two executives demonstrated how riders should treat the space like their own home — before driving home a message about boorish behaviour on public transit.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a perennial prankster with truth-stretching shenanigans that range from TV personality Peter Mansbridge unearthing a story about kindergarten students being fed baked worms as a snack in 1990 to radio host Lister Sinclair documenting a strange 19th century disease in which victims appear dead but come back to life days later.
But one item that listeners had a hard time digesting, according to the CBC’s digital archives, was a 1979 radio interview with a Willowdale entrepreneur who was supplying high-end food shops with stuffed, cooked budgies.
As happy chirping filled the airwaves, “Fiona Curtis” revealed she bred the bite-sized birds by the hundreds in her basement.
“Is there much meat on them? They seem to be so small,” interviewer Jim Wright asked.
“No, but the incredible thing about them is that you can eat the bones as well. They just crunch,” Mrs. Curtis said.
With the right spices, the “delicacy” was juicy and delicious, she raved. Mrs. Curtis added she was thinking about expanding her line to include gerbils “because they’re really quite meaty and they grow very quickly.”
If the host had trouble stifling his snickers, that’s one challenge print reporters don’t face as they weave their tangled web. In 2005, The Star’s movie critic Pinocchio, er, Peter Howell pulled off a masterpiece of straight-faced fabrication when he awarded four stars to a “vibrantly modern” remake of the 1942 wartime romance Casablanca.
While he admits “doubters may scoff” over the choice of Ashton Kutcher and Paris Hilton for the lead roles originally played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Howell gushes over their performances.
Hilton makes such a “spectacular Ilsa,” he writes, that one look at her “and all thoughts of Internet sex videos, all-night partying and narcissistic posturing vanishes from the collective memory.”
The movie was a joy to watch, the reviewer exalts, but “only on this day, April 1.” Gotcha.
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