Sunday, January 17, 2016
Johnny Chung scores again
College pranks don't get much attention. Which is why it was surprising on Saturday to pick up the New York Times and not only see a story about a prank in the paper, but on the front page, under the headline, "Forget the Quarterback Sneak: A Deception Play for the Ages."
In it, writer Bill Christine describes the 1941 Plainfield Teachers College prank, which he calls "one of the greatest hoaxes in sports history." It wasn't. It was a slight, charming deception that took place in the agate football scores at the back of the sports pages of a couple East Coast papers. Though Christine tells the story in great detail and at length—a full inside page—he never explains why he's telling us now about this 74 year old prank, and I can't explain why he would. It's a curious lapse. You can read it here.
Or you can refer to my 1992 book on college pranks, "If At All Possible, Involve a Cow," where I relate the incident with the concision it deserves:
There is no rule that a college prank has to be pulled by a college student. Morris Newburger certainly wasn't in college: he was a stockbroker with the firm Newburger, Loeb & Company. He was also fascinated with the obscure schools that were listed in the college football roundup in the New York Herald Tribune.
In the fall of 1941, he amused himself during America's last moment of global innocence by creating his own school—Plainfield Teachers College—and phoning the scores in every week to the Herald Tribune.
Newburger did his homework. When asked, he was ready with 22 names for the lineup roster—names of his friends, neighbors, business partners. There was also a certain Morris Newburger starting at right tackle.
Every team should have a star, and Plainfield's was Johnny Chung, the half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian tailback known as the Celestial Comet. Under his leadership, Plainfield went 6-0, and seemed a shoe-in for the prestigious Blackboard Bowl.
As can happen with these things, matters got a little out of control. Newburger found himself printing up letterheads for the Plainfield Teachers Athletic Association and took a post office box in Newark. Jerry Croyden, the imaginary director of sports information, sent out news releases and phoned tidbits to the papers. The Celestial Comet was tearing up the field.
Sadly, the Plainfield Teachers never made it to the Blackboard Bowl. Enjoying himself immensely, Newburger bragged to one pal too many, and word leaked into journalism circles. With Time magazine preparing to expose the hoax in their next edition, Newburger rushed out a release having the Celestial Comet flunk his exams, and so many players became ineligible that the rest of the season was cancelled.
The Herald Tribune finally smelled something fishy and checked with the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce, discovering the utter nonexistence of a Plainfield Teachers College about the same time the November 17, 1941 issue of Time hit the stands.