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JACK SMITH

All the News That's Fit to Fake : In Days Gone By, the Terminally Mischievous Could Take Pride in Seeing the Flying Figments of Their Imaginations Make Their Way Into Print

October 11, 1987|JACK SMITH

IN THESE DAYS OF big-time football, when the sport is a billion-dollar business, few fans may recall the glory days of unbeaten Plainfield Teachers College.

I am reminded of Plainfield's only season by Mike Welds of Fullerton.

Plainfield came out of nowhere, literally, in the fall of 1941, before Pearl Harbor. It was conceived by Morris Newburger, of Wall Street and Harvard '26, who got to wondering one Sunday morning, while perusing the sports pages of the New York Herald-Tribune, whether such colleges as Slippery Rock and Spearfish Normal, whose scores he invariably found, actually existed.

The following Saturday Newburger dialed each of Manhattan's dailies and said he wanted to report a college football score: Plainfield Teachers 12, Scott 0.

The next morning, much to his satisfaction, he found the score printed along with other small-college scores.

Thereafter, Newburger reported the score of each Plainfield game. Plainfield 24, Chesterton 0; Plainfield 27, Winona 3; Plainfield 13, St. Joseph 0.

It was Plainfield's high-scoring success that finally undid Newburger's little game. Some savvy readers wondered one Sunday how Plainfield could have defeated Randolph Tech 35-0 on the day that Army and Notre Dame struggled to a scoreless tie in the mud of a New England rainstorm.

That week United Press sent the following cryptic message to 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."

Welds recalls that an embarrassed editor of the Herald-Tribune, Caswell Adams), was inspired to write this verse:

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,

Imaginary team!

Hail to thee, our ghostly college,

Product of a dream!

I am reminded of a similar phantom, though not so glorious, that turned up in the Los Angeles Times more than 30 years ago and for which I was responsible.

It was then the paper's practice to publish rainfall figures from all over the Southland. Our stringers would call in the figures from every crossroads that had a measuring instrument. For each figure reported they were paid 75 cents, which accounted for their thoroughness.

We reporters took turns recording the figures on a printed list, taking them down by telephone from the far-flung stringers. It was a boring rainy-day assignment.

The job occasionally fell to me, and I did it with no more enthusiasm than any of the others. I was suspicious of a correspondent in Orange County who invariably reported dozens of rainfall figures from burgs I had never heard of: Buzzard Flats, .6 inch; Lizard Rock, .5 inch; Cauliflower Corners, 1.1 inch, and so on. I suspected him of inventing towns just to pad his account.

One day, I was overcome by an impulse to add a town of my own. I wrote down Smith Flats, 1.2 inches, and was deeply gratified to find it in the paper the next morning.

Smith Flats remained on the rainfall list, although I don't know who supplied its rainfall figures, since it was as much a fantasy as Plainfield Teachers, to which all hail!

I suppose it is risky to tell this story, even after all these years; I will say in my behalf that I never put in for my 75 cents.

At about that time, we had a bright young reporter and desk man named Ted Sell, who made a similar contribution to journalism.

Noticing that photographs often had unidentified people in them, Sell decided to identify these ghosts as Phlange Welder, a name adapted from the men-wanted ads.

In time, every photograph had its Phlange Welder. "Mr. and Mrs. Yancy Poindexter at Santa Anita Park; at right, Phlange Welder."

When this phenomenon came to the attention of the managing editor, he issued a decree: The next employee who identified anyone in a photograph as Phlange Welder would be fired.

Sell later was sent to Washington to cover the Pentagon. One day he wrote for our opposite-editorial page an excellent essay analyzing our nation's defense posture. It was a good piece of reporting and reasoning, and only a few of us noticed that the initial letters of each paragraph, taken together, spelled PHLANGE WELDER. Sell is no longer with us, but I am happy to say that this indiscretion was not the reason for his departure.

But Phlange Welder never had the place in our hearts that Victor Frisbie had. Frisbie was invented one New Year's Day by a Times reporter, Maury Godchaux, as a spectator at the Rose Parade. In those days we all had to cover the Rose Parade, and we were required to fill the paper with little quotations by spectators.

Godchaux got tired of interviewing strangers and simply made up Victor Frisbie. The next year he showed up again. Other bored reporters picked him up. He began to appear in various guises. "Maj. Gen. Victor Frisbie, Australian Fusiliers, said, 'Jolly good show!' "

Then Godchaux was killed by an automobile. Other reporters sustained Victor Frisbie, and he lived. Inevitably he was found out, and managing editors issued dire decrees.

Godchaux's colleagues chipped in for a notice on the obituary page: "In Memory of Victor Frisbie. Rest in Peace."

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