From Shakespearean tales of royal shenanigans to Stephen King’s modern-day masterpieces, the fertile minds of great writers have provided endless works of delicious fiction. But even the Bard on his best day would struggle to compete with the bottomless pit of bizarre, real-life stories.
As part of an ongoing series, Top Tenz presents our latest list of mind-boggling events that can only be filed under, ‘stranger than fiction.’
8. Standing Tall
The 1951 St. Louis Browns were a lousy team — and that’s being kind. They would lose 102 games, finishing dead last in the American League, and a whopping 46 games behind eventual World Series champs, the New York Yankees. The hapless Browns, however, did have a bonafide winner with their colorful owner, Bill Veeck, who once used a 3-foot 7-inch, 65-pound little person to bat in a Major League Baseball game.
Among his many outstanding innovations and wacky promotions, Veeck (rhymes with ‘wreck’) had been an early proponent of integrating the professional game. As the owner of the Cleveland Indians, he signed the first black player in the American League, Larry Doby. He also made Negro Leagues legend, Satchel Paige, the oldest rookie ever as the two future Hall-of-Famers helped the Tribe win the 1948 World Series. But a messy divorce would later force Veeck to sell the team only to purchase the lowly Browns a few years later.
The baseball maverick tried his best to field a competitive team in St. Louis, but the cross-town Cardinals were vastly superior in both talent and selling tickets. That’s when Veeck reached deep into his bag of tricks. On August 19, 1951, at Sportsman’s Park, he ordered Browns manager, Zack Taylor, to send a circus performer named Eddie Gaedel up to the plate to pinch-hit against the Detroit Tigers.
Sporting a child’s uniform with the number 1/8, Gaedel stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the first inning. Detroit pitcher, Bob Cain, did his best to locate the tiny strike zone but proceeded to walk the pint-sized player on four consecutive pitches. Before being replaced by a pinch-runner, the triumphant Gaedel received a well-deserved standing ovation from the sparse crowd.
The following day, a furious American League President, Will Harridge, voided # 1/8’s contract and charged Veeck with making a mockery of the sport. Subsequently, all future deals had to be pre-approved by the Commissioner of Baseball. For those keeping score, Gaedel would later appear in another big league game — this time dressed up as a space alien when Veeck owned the Chicago White Sox. But that, dear readers, is another story.
7. Family Feud
Although an obscure Bosnian Serb would forever take the rap for starting WWI, one of the most famous monarchs in history lies at the epicenter of the war to end all wars. Britain’s Queen Victoria, who ruled for 63 years, is rightfully hailed as the “Grandmother of Europe.” As a result, several of her direct descendants would eventually become belligerents in the largest (and bloodiest) family feud in history.
Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent ascended to the throne at the tender age of 18, following the death of her childless uncle, King William IV, in 1837. Word count restrictions prevent further explanation of the wonderfully complicated process of British royal succession. But suffice to say, she got lucky, and lots of peeps died for her to become Queen.
Shortly after donning the crown, she kept with family traditions and married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The incestuous union produced no less than nine children, all of whom subsequently married into royal and noble families across Europe.
Flash forward to July 28, 1914, when a 19-year-old Yugoslav nationalist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. Although Queen Victoria had been dead for over 13 years, her grandchildren now ruled a substantial chunk of the planet. Sadly, they soon began to destroy it. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II kicked things off by declaring war on his cousin, Tsar Nicolas II of Russia. A few days later, Britain’s George V joined the family fray that led to unprecedented carnage and the death of over one million soldiers.
6. Beached Boy
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, mixes fact with fiction in his twisted love letter to Tinsletown. Oddly, the nostalgic romp asks the audience to frequently suspend all disbelief, including a scene in which a washed-up stuntman beats up martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Seriously? Fortunately, Tarantino doesn’t miss the mark with regards to Charles Manson rubbing shoulders with celebrities during the turbulent late 1960s.
It’s not surprising that Beach Boys’ drummer and Hell-raiser, Dennis Wilson, would pick up a pair of young female hitchhikers and take them to his Sunset Boulevard abode. But when the girls turned out to be Manson followers Ella Jo Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel, the “Good Vibrations” ran out when their cult leader arrived at the party.
Manson, along with 17 others of his congregation, soon moved into the party pad — setting the scene for Caligula-esque debauchery, featuring non-stop orgies and drug-induced revelry. Wilson later provided his new pal with coveted music industry connections such as The Byrds producer, Terry Melcher. In an interview with the Record Mirror in 1968, Wilson candidly expressed: “I told them [the girls] about our involvement with the Maharishi, and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie who’d recently come from jail after 12 years. He drifted into crime, but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We’re writing together now.”
Wilson even enlisted the help of his older brothers, Brian and Carl, to finance and produce a recording session with the charismatic singer/songwriter. One of those songs, the eerily-named “Cease To Exist,” was later retitled “Never Learn Not To Love” and released on the Beach Boys 20/20 album in February 1969 — less than six months before the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders.
Ultimately, success as a musician eluded Manson. He experienced a heated fallout with Wilson, who claimed the ex-con owed him over $100,000 (and the expense of multiple doctor visits to treat his raging gonorrhea). For his troubles, the drummer took sole credit as the song’s composer, leaving the false prophet to seek fame elsewhere.
5. Howard’s Huge Obsession
More than 40 years after his death, fascination with Howard Hughes remains strong as ever. His exploits as a record-setting aviator, businessman, and Hollywood lothario provide endless intrigue regarding one of the most enigmatic (and wealthiest) men of the 20th century. However, among all his extraordinary achievements, Hughes’ attempt at designing women’s undergarments would prove to be an abject failure.
His obsession with the female anatomy reached dizzying heights during the making of his movie, The Outlaw. Ostensibly, the film should have been a re-telling of wild, wild west icons Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday. But Hughes had a different vision in mind. The producer/director/studio boss made it all about boobs — specifically, the ones belonging to actress Jane Russell.
Hughes had discovered Russell in 1940 as an unknown, 19-year-old, buxom brunette and immediately signed to her an exclusive seven-year contract. The mogul then cast his latest ingenue in the role of “Rio,” a sexy señorita caught in a love triangle between the two gunslingers. The infatuated filmmaker instructed his cinematographer, Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane), to feature Russell’s cleavage throughout the movie — and even constructed a crude garment with wires to further showcase her voluptuous figure.
Naturally, the well-endowed Russell refused to wear the contraption. In her autobiography, the actress described the ham-handed design as “ridiculous and uncomfortable” and never wore it. Instead, she fooled her bosom-obsessed boss by simply padding her bra with tissue paper. “He could design planes,” she said. “But a Mister Playtex he wasn’t.”
4. Operation Mincemeat
“All warfare is based on deception.” — Sun Tzu
Before achieving world-wide acclaim as the author of the James Bond spy novels, Ian Fleming put his creative skills to work for British Intelligence during WWII. He’s credited with hatching an elaborate ruse, involving a corpse dressed to resemble an officer en route to delivering secret documents. The phantom messenger would later be dropped near the coastline and eventually find its way into enemy hands.
With a wink and nod to their dark sense of humor, British military officials codenamed the plan, Operation Mincemeat. The subterfuge, designed to mislead the Germans with regards to the Allies’ intended attack on Sicily, revolved around a recently deceased Welsh vagrant named Glyndwr Michael. He would soon take on a new identity as Captain (Acting Major) William “Bill” Martin of the Royal Marines. Despite the dead man’s unremarkable life and grim demise, he would soon embark on an extraordinary adventure.
On the morning of April 30, 1943, off the southwest coast of Spain, a local sardine fisherman made the gruesome discovery of the lifeless body floating in the water. The mysterious soldier with a black briefcase chained to his waist was quickly brought ashore and handed over to German spies stationed in the area.
Later, the bogus documents found in the attaché case revealed “top secret” plans involving a large scale Allied invasion of Greece and Sardinia. The information eventually landed on the desk of Adolf Hitler, who reacted decisively while being thoroughly hoodwinked. The morbid scheme became one of the most bizarre chapters of WWII, punctuated by a cheeky message to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declaring, “Mincemeat swallowed. Rod, line and sinker.”
3. Feline Forces
Albert Schweitzer once said, “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” The astute observation by the renowned philosopher and Nobel Peace Prize winner might also include mention of how cats provided refuge from the misery of trench warfare during WWI.
Volumes have been written about the horrors and senseless carnage of the first world war. Weapons such as machine guns, mustard gas, and flamethrowers all contributed to the endless graveyard of “no man’s land.” But without question, the conflict would be defined by life in the trenches, which the Allies overcame with a secret weapon: cats.
From 1914 to 1918, an estimated 500,000 four-legged commandos were deployed in the trenches, where they hunted and killed disease-carrying rats and mice. Their duties also extended to ships at sea as well as serving as mascots. The practice dates back thousands of years to the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped the furry felines for their ability to keep naval vessels and royal palaces vermin-free.
So the next time your cat meows for attention or requires a fresh bowl of chow, be sure to not only accommodate their needs but thank them for their ancestors’ military service.
2. No Rest For The Wicked
The murder of famed silent film director William Desmond Taylor had all the makings for a box office blockbuster. Glamour. Mystery. Greed. And even a few uninvited ghosts.
On the morning of February 2, 1922, Taylor was found dead in his bungalow in Los Angeles. He had been shot in the back, most likely during the previous night, resulting in a massive police investigation of yet another roaring ’20s sensational crime that would dominate headlines for months.
Several high-profile Hollywood players were questioned, including the director’s cocaine-addicted, erstwhile girlfriend, Mabel Normand. The popular leading actress, one of Taylor’s many lovers, had been the last person to see him alive on the evening of his death. After extensive interrogation, LAPD ruled her out as a suspect despite persistent accusations from muck-raking tabloids of the day.
Ultimately, authorities were unable to establish any credible leads or produce the murder weapon. Taylor’s family had his remains interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where the story takes its most shocking (and absurd) turn. A determined reporter named Florebel Muir orchestrated the kind of crazy publicity stunt that only could have occurred in La-La land.
Muir, the Hollywood correspondent of the New York Daily News, attempted to out scoop her rivals with a half-baked plan involving Taylor’s butler, Henry Peavey. Three days before Taylor’s murder, Peavey had been arrested for “social vagrancy” — and Muir hoped she could extract a murder confession out of him. She eventually hired a Chicago hoodlum named Al Weinshank to dress up as a ghost and hide near Taylor’s mausoleum at the cemetery.
Late one night, after luring Peavey to the gravesite, the ghoulish gangster suddenly appeared in a white sheet and cried out, “I am the ghost of William Desmond Taylor! You murdered me! Confess, Peavy!” Not surprisingly, the butler only coughed up a hearty laugh before giving the conspirators a piece of his mind. As for the ghost, Weinshank later joined the real dead after being gunned down in the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
1. Docked and Loaded
The drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s affected all corners of society and eventually spilled over into the world of sports. In Major League baseball, pill-popping before games became as routine as the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Former Pittsburgh Pirates ace Dock Ellis claims he never played a game sober — and once even pitched a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD.
Ellis made his MLB debut in 1968 as a hard-throwing right-hander. He quickly emerged as one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, leading the Pirates to five divisional titles and a World Series Championship in 1971. He became an outspoken advocate for racial equality at a time when athletes were discouraged from voicing their opinions. The all-star pitcher also became addicted to drugs and alcohol to help cope with the pressure of performing at the top level.
Along with coolers full of cold beer, amphetamines such as Benzedrine and Dexamyl (known as “Greenies” at the time) were an everyday staple in locker rooms throughout the league. On one memorable occasion, Ellis decided to drop acid on what he thought was an off-day while visiting friends in Southern California. However, while “higher than a Georgia Pine,” he learned that the Pirates had scheduled him to start the first game of a twi-night doubleheader against the San Diego later that evening.
After rushing down to the stadium, he swallowed some more “greenies” to help balance his drug-fuelled trip. Ellis then walked out to the mound on June 12, 1970 and made baseball history. As the drugs took effect, he began hallucinating and struggled to focus. Pirate catcher, Jerry May, had to wear reflective tape on his fingers so Ellis could see his signals. In the end, it wasn’t pretty (he walked eight and hit a few batters) but Ellis shut down the Padres, 2-0.
He would go on to play a total of 12 big league seasons in an injury-plagued career filled with many ups and downs. Ironically, he came to regret the rare milestone because it overshadowed his far more meaningful accomplishments outside the sport. After retiring in 1980, he entered a substance abuse rehab program and devoted his life to sobriety as well as helping other athletes fight addiction. He also became a spokesman for creating awareness about Sickle Cell disease (a condition he battled most of his life) and worked to raise money for medical research.