The Counterfeit Athlete: Barry Bremen, the Man Who Pretended to Be an MLB, NBA, and NFL All-Star

Bremen’s exploits earned him the title of “the great imposter.”
Barry Bremen fooled 'em all. For a moment or two.
Barry Bremen fooled 'em all. For a moment or two. / PM Images/Stone via Getty images

As Barry Bremen hid in the sauna, Secret Service agents scoured the building.

It was 1979, and Bremen was getting ready to trot out onto the field for a Major League Baseball All-Star game at Seattle’s Kingdome stadium. Standing a lean 6 feet, 4 inches, Bremen certainly looked the part, even donning a custom-fitted New York Yankees uniform.

But closer inspection revealed certain details that were off. For one thing, Bremen’s white cleat spikes were dyed black to match the team’s official shoes. He also added white stripes to the sides of the sneakers.

For another, the name Barry Bremen didn’t appear anywhere on the Yankees roster. That’s because Bremen wasn’t a professional athlete. He was an insurance salesman from Detroit, Michigan. His shelter in the sauna was an attempt to circumvent the government officials who had accompanied then-president Gerald Ford to the game and who would almost certainly realize he didn’t belong there.

For Bremen, that was the point. His hobby—perhaps his passion—was finding novel ways to infiltrate professional sports events, a harmless kind of pranksterism that left players laughing and owners screaming. For a fleeting moment, he could experience the high of jogging out in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans at MLB, NBA, and NFL games.

When the Secret Service finally dispersed, Bremen headed for the dugout of the American League All-Star team. He didn’t want to be late for the game.

The Wager

Barry Bremen was born in Detroit on June 30, 1947. Like many kids in the Midwest, he was interested in sports—but while he was athletic, it was clear Bremen wasn’t going to make a career out of it. Instead, he opted to take a job as a history teacher at a junior high school. That eventually gave way to a job selling life insurance and a satisfying suburban life with his wife and fellow Michigan State University alum Margo and their three children.

Bremen’s trajectory toward normalcy was altered during a visit to the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan, on February 3, 1979. When he was playing racquetball, Bremen frequently wore a warm-up uniform that initially belonged to two different players on the Kansas City Kings (now Sacramento Kings) NBA basketball team, which had been given to him by a friend. In the locker room after a basketball game at the community center, Bremen told his friends he thought he might be able to get onto the court at the All-Star Game that was scheduled for the Pontiac Silverdome the following day. Maybe, he said, he could shoot a few lay-ups before being discovered.

His friends shook their heads. There was no way, they said. Bremen wound up betting four of them $75 each that he could do it.

The next day, February 4, Bremen showed up for the game with the Kings warm-up suit underneath his street clothes. At halftime, Bremen dashed off to the bathroom to take off his clothes and return in the warm-up suit, then fell in with the team as they walked toward the court. He had stitched the name Johnson on the back, figuring that there were enough Johnsons in the league that people wouldn’t think much of it.

The bet was not only that Bremen could get on court but that he could get a lay-up. At first, he was too anxious. “I was pretty nervous,” he said. “At the time, I’d never broken the law before. So my basket didn’t even come close. So I told the players, ‘Hey, I'm only here on a bet to get a rebound.’ They loved it. They were great about it.”

Soon, he was dribbling on the court and sinking baskets next to luminaries like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius “Dr. J.” Irving. But it wasn’t long before NBA officials began to question him. With no reasonable explanation for his presence there, he was escorted out. As he left, fans asked for his autograph.

The fallout of Bremen’s stunt was bigger than he could have anticipated—much more than the $300 he made in betting his friends. National sportswriter Dick Schaap named Bremen his “Sportsman of the Week” on NBC’s Today Show, which led to a spot on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. The attention was exciting for Bremen, who began plotting an encore.

“After that, there was no stopping,” he said. “It’s like writing a good book. After you do one, people just expect another and another.”

His next opportunity came in June 1979, when golf’s U.S. Open was held in Toledo, Ohio. Bremen noted that pro golfer Jerry Pate had dropped out of a threesome practice round with fellow pros Wayne Levi and Kip Byrne. Bremen simply joined them, his friend working as a caddy. He played the remaining back nine holes until he realized no one on the relatively serene golf scene was particularly concerned with his presence. (For verisimilitude’s sake, he had another friend ask for his autograph.) A journalist trailed them, later observing that he wanted to write an account of the worst player he had seen at the Open.

“We thought he was playing bad because he was an amateur,” Levi said. “He told us it was his first Open, but we didn't ask any questions—just what he’d been doing, where he’d been and stuff like that.”

After finishing, Bremen confessed to the two he was a phony. As a flourish, he took off his cap and waved it at onlookers before leaving the course. Dick Schaap once again named him Sportsman of the Week. (Bremen would crash two more Opens in 1980 and 1985, getting off scot-free each time.)

The U.S. Open was followed by his brush with the Secret Service at the MLB All-Star Game at Seattle’s Kingdome that July. Players, including George Brett and Tommy John, recognized Bremen from his earlier exploits and became co-conspirators, sneaking him into the sauna and helping to hide his presence by standing near him when officials walked by. He smiled when a photographer took the team’s picture. (No one thought the head count was off: Reggie Jackson was still in the clubhouse.) He remained there long enough for the player introductions and was seconds away from being “introduced” to the crowd with the rest of the players before being yanked out of the arena, possibly by the Secret Service, which Bremen later claimed handcuffed and detained him before he could successfully explain he was no threat to democracy.

Bremen finished his eventful 1979 by donning a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader uniform and jumping into the line-up. For this, he was arrested and threatened with a lawsuit by the Cowboys executive office, which failed to find any humor in the stunt. Some reports had Bremen being banned from making any further appearances in the outfit; others said he merely promised not to.

He made no such agreement for any other professional sports uniform.

Official Business

At the 1980 NFL Pro Bowl game in Honolulu, Hawaii, Bremen trotted out on the field wearing the jersey of Lem Barney, a retired Detroit Lions player who was friendly with Bremen and had loaned him the uniform. Barney, however, differed from Bremen in one significant way: He was Black. While the security guards who took him off the sidelines in the third quarter may have noticed this detail, not everyone was aware. “You can’t take Lem Barney!” some players shouted.

Having worn out his welcome as a player, Bremen turned to impersonating officials. On October 14, 1980, during Game 1 of the 1980 World Series in Philadelphia, seven umpires could be seen huddling closely together. This was one more than MLB regulations accounted for. One of them was Bremen.

Bremen had gotten access to the game via a media credential. Once inside Veterans Stadium, Bremen discarded his outer layer to reveal the blue jacket and blue turtleneck attire of the umpire, an ensemble he said he borrowed from a unnamed American League official. Bremen chatted with the other umps, some of whom recognized him, and stood for the National Anthem before exiting of his own volition. It was an imposter career high for him.

“Are you kidding me?” he later said. “Getting out to home plate at a World Series game, then getting [away] without getting spotted? That’s like Mission: Impossible. I still can’t believe I did it.”

Just a few months later, Bremen was back as an unauthorized official, this time posing as a referee for Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, Louisiana. By this point, Bremen had graduated to donning tear-away clothing—the kind of Velcro pants and shirts favored by exotic dancers—to make a quick transformation. Upon entering the Louisiana Superdome, he hid under the bleachers and behind a sheet of plywood until he saw the other referees jog out. He quickly fell in step and began chatting them up on the sidelines, once again freely admitting he wasn’t supposed to be there.

An NFL official—a real one—noticed that Bremen was wearing the number 12 on his striped shirt. That official was already wearing the same number. Bremen was chased out, so he jogged across the street, changed back into his street clothes, and returned to the Superdome as a ticket holder to watch the game.

The following year, the NFL posted pictures of Bremen at the various entrances at Super Bowl XVI. His workaround was to show up dressed as the San Diego Chicken, a famous freelance sports mascot. A guard noted that the tall, lanky Bremen was far taller than the actual Chicken, who stood closer to 5 feet, 7 inches. He was denied entrance.

Bremen was relatively quiet in 1983 and 1984, aside from an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman and a personal appearance for Kmart. (He was billed as “the world’s most famous gatecrasher and sports imposter.”) In 1985, however, Bremen would expand the ambitions of his (mostly) harmless con game. Now that he’d conquered most of the major sports, there was only one gate left to crash.

Rewarding Behavior

The 37th Primetime Emmy Awards were held September 22, 1985, in Pasadena, California. Shows like Cheers, Miami Vice, and St. Elsewhere were celebrated, as was the critically acclaimed cop show Hill Street Blues.

Actor Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) rattled off the list of nominees for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series from the stage. The winner was Betty Thomas, who played Sergeant Lucille Bates on Hill Street Blues. But it wasn’t Thomas who bounded up to the podium. It was Bremen.

Beaming, Bremen explained that Thomas couldn’t be there but that she wanted him to accept the award on her behalf. He went on to thank Dick Schaap before dashing off, Emmy award in hand. In the aisle, a confused Thomas watched as a stranger took off with her trophy.

As he had done several times before, Bremen pretended to be a media member to gain access to the event and bought a $300 ticket to have a seat once he was there. (He had actually attended other Oscar and Emmy ceremonies over the years but got cold feet about going onstage each time.) He later explained that he accepted Thomas’s award because he genuinely believed she wasn’t there. For this infraction, Bremen was actually arrested to on a charge of attempted grand theft of the Emmy and fined $70. Thomas largely refused to discuss the stunt, preferring Bremen not to receive any further attention.

“When I got to the stage, there was some strange man accepting,” she said. “It’s the nightmare we are all afraid of.”

Johnny Carson was equally pithy but more effusive. “You could tell he was an imposter,” he said of Bremen. “He was brief and funny.”

In 1986, he managed to sneak onto the MLB All-Star Game field at the Houston Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Unfortunately for Bremen, it happened to be a game featuring Tommy Lasorda, the Los Angeles Dodgers manager. When he spotted Bremen taking practice swings in a Mets uniform, he began screaming at him to get out; Bremen again candidly confessed his ruse, but Lasorda was unmoved.

“He said he was living his fantasy, and I said it was my fantasy to get his [rear] off the field,” Lasorda said.

It was the end of an era. Though he wouldn't officially retire until 1997, Bremen was effectively hanging up his cleats, jerseys, and pom-poms. He would later cite the increasingly blurry line between pranks and dangerous or threatening behavior, including celebrity stalking and even violence. After 1993, when a spectator stabbed tennis star Monica Seles, it no longer seemed appropriate to infiltrate events, as innocuous as his behavior was. Security, once perhaps too lax, was now on high alert.

By that point, Bremen had graduated from life insurance to co-owning Birchcrest Marketing, a firm founded in 1982 that specialized in bringing toys to retail. Following his death at age 64 in 2011, it was revealed that Bremen had also been an anonymous sperm donor beginning shortly after the birth of his first child. A 2022 ESPN profile discovered 32 children who had been conceived due to his contributions and who learned of their biological lineage through genetic testing. The actual number might be as many as 60. To what degree any of them share Bremen’s characteristics isn’t clear, but thus far none of them have shown up to the Super Bowl dressed as the San Diego Chicken.

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