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Hail, Hail, the Great Imposter

The story of Barry Bremen.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

Every once in a while, you stumble onto a sports story that happened years ago that almost defies belief in our current age. The story of Barry Bremen is one of those stories. Even though I was alive and a huge sports fan during Bremen’s 15 minutes, I hadn’t heard about him until a few weeks ago.

How is that possible? It wasn’t like the guy was some kind of secret. At various times he was on the cover of Newsweek, Time and Life magazines. He appeared on The Tonight Show and on David Letterman. If you didn’t live in the pre-internet age, it’s difficult to convey at how slowly and erratically the news was transmitted in those days.

Bremen was born in 1947 in Detroit and in his young life made a living as an insurance agent and seller of novelty items. He was evidently an aspiring jock and decided if he couldn’t make it in a professional league, he’d at least show up. In February of 1979, off a dare from a friend, Bremen donned a Kansas City Kings uniform with the name Johnson stitched on the back, and somehow got onto the floor of the NBA All-Star game at the Pontiac Superdome. He took part in the pre-game layup line, getting off a few shots while mugging for the cameras. The secondary story being that the NBA All-Star game at the time was so popular that it was held in a large domed stadium and drew 31,745 fans. Do that many people even watch that abomination of an All-Star game on television today? Anyway, back to Bremen. There he stood in the layup drill of the warmups when Otis Birdsong who did play for the Kings, and was a terrific basketball player, said, “you’re on my team and I don’t even know who you is”. Standing 6’4, Bremen could pass for a basketball player. Bremen was removed by security.

Fans running onto the field or court are not uncommon. It always warms my heart when someone runs onto an NFL field and gets leveled by a player. More recently, we’ve seen the trend veer towards a more tiresome protest, a “save the whales” type thing. The most glorious intruders are the golf streakers, who paint “19th hole” on their backs and boldly steak across the green.

Bremen’s motto was, “no guts, no glory”. He repeated the ruse at the 1981 NBA All-Star game, this time in a Houston Rockets jersey. Barry Bremen was just getting started. Later that season, at Game Five of the NBA Finals at the Boston Garden, Bremen donned a referee outfit and stood with the actual game refs during the National Anthem. In some ways, Bremen was the male equivalent of Morgana, without the obvious assets.

On July 17, 1979, with assistance from famed sportscaster Dick Schaap and our very own George Brett, Bremen got onto the field at the baseball All-Star game in Seattle, outfitted in a New York Yankee uniform. He shagged flies before the game and tried to get into the American League group photo before being discovered and ejected from the premises. Interviewed before the game, Brett said that he hid Bremen in the clubhouse, “we put him in the sauna about 35-40 minutes ago. Good thing it’s not on or he’d be cooked!”

His next stunt was dressing as an umpire and taking the field at the 1980 World Series (Royals-Phillies) in which he stood at home plate with the actual umpires, before being discovered.

He laid off baseball for a while before resurfacing at the 1986 All-Star game at the Astrodome, shagging flies in a New York Mets uniform. Noted hard ass Tommy Lasorda discovered and unleashed a profanity laced tirade on Bremen for the stunt. “Who do you think you are” bellowed Lasorda, who was evidently the self-appointed keeper of all things sacred in baseball.

In late 1979, Bremen branched out from baseball and basketball in what might have been his most audacious stunt yet. He lost 23 pounds, practiced drag routines for weeks and had his wife make him a custom-made Dallas Cowboy cheerleader outfit. He snuck onto the Texas Stadium field for a Cowboys-Redskins game, outfitted in the famous hotpants with a blond wig, falsies and shaved legs, and got in a few cheers before Cowboy security discovered him. At 6’4 he did look a little out of place, with that big nose and a prominent Adam’s apple.

Understand that in 1979, the Cowboy cheerleaders were America’s darlings. They were on magazine covers and wall posters of nearly every pre-pubescent male in the United States, including me. Young boys and men loved them. Wives, girlfriends and moms hated them. Randy White, a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Cowboys, once rolled out of bounds on a tackle, sprang to his feet and asked the closest cheerleader for a date. The Cowboys, an organization who have always been super serious about their image, filed a $5,000 lawsuit against Bremen for trespassing and had him banned for life. Bremen followed this up by dressing as a line judge for Super Bowl XV and as the San Diego Chicken at Super Bowl XVI.

Bremen, who claimed to be a 7-handicap golfer, had better luck running his gag with the PGA. First time I went to a professional golf tournament, I was amazed at how close you can get to the golfers compared to other sports. I even had a golfer sit down next to me on a bench, while I was surfing on my phone, and ask me how another tournament was going.

At the 1979 US Open, Bremen was able to sneak onto the course and play a practice round with Wayne Levi and Jerry Pate. He tried again at the 1980 US Open and after a rough practice round was asked by an official of the USGA how he made it through qualifying being such a lousy golfer. He reappeared at the 1985 US Open. This time he got Fred Couples in on the gag. A friend of Bremen’s smuggled his clubs and a caddy (his friend, Dr. Paul Rein of Detroit) onto the course whereupon Bremen emerged from some shrubbery on the 2nd hole to join Couples and Jay Haas. He came on with a wig and a visor and buzzed the crowd with his tee shot. I’ve always thought most golfers were pretty chill, which helps explain John Daly’s enormous popularity with the common man and Couples definitely fit the bill, getting a good laugh out of Bremen’s stunt. After finishing the round, Bremen hit a bucket at the practice tee, then showed up at the Press tent with a media badge.

In 1985, Bremen expanded beyond the sports world by rising from his front row seat to accept an Emmy Award for actress Betty Thomas for her part on Hill Street Blues. Looking dapper in his rented tux, with pink bowtie and cummerbund, Bremen said a few lines then tried to exit stage left while the presenter, Peter Graves, the award winner Thomas and the audience looked on in confusion.

All of this earned Bremen a degree of notoriety. When he appeared with Johnny Carson, the host joked you could tell Bremen was an imposter at the Emmy’s because his speech was “brief and funny”. The Emmy stunt got him a question on Jeopardy: I’ll take Entertainment for $500 Alex.

By 2005, Bremen announced that he had retired from the world of imposters with this statement: “You’ve heard of tasers? You’ve heard of 9/11? They don’t ask questions anymore.” Bremen earned the nickname, The Great Imposter, for his escapades. His jump shot was kind of ugly but his baseball throwing ability passed muster. It was all a goof of course, the kind of thing that could probably never happen today.

Last summer, ESPN did a profile on Bremen, called appropriately, The Great Imposter. It’s definitely worth the time to watch. In our lives, how many of us at times have felt like an imposter? That nagging voice in your head telling you that you don’t belong in this meeting, or on this team, or in this house or with your significant other. We’ve all felt that at one time or another. Bremen just took it to another level, all in good fun.

Sadly, Bremen died of esophageal cancer on June 30, 2011, his 64th birthday and is buried in Scottsdale, Arizona.