Every now and then a sports personality comes along that is “bigger than life”…..a person so different from the norm….that they capture the imagination of sports fandom everywhere…and the 1976 Major League Baseball season gave us such a character when Pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych toed the rubber for the Detroit Tigers….in what would turn out to be a magical season.
Mark Fidrych nicknamed “The Bird” pitched his entire five year career for the Detroit Tigers from 1976 through the 1980 season….as in his rookie season in 1976 at age 21…Fidrych led the major leagues with a 2.34 ERA….won the AL Rookie of the Year award….after finishing with a 19–9 record. Shortly after, injuries piled up and his major league career ended after just five seasons.
Of greater significance to this story and tribute to Fidrych….The Bird also captured the imagination of fans with his antics on the field….whereby he would crouch down on the pitcher’s mound and fix cleat marks….in what became known as “manicuring the mound”….then he’d talk to himself…then talk to the ball….after which he would aim the ball like a dart…..while strutting around the mound after every out “like a male bird on the hunt for a female”….and throw back balls that “had hits in them”….insisting they be removed from the game. Mark Fidrych also was known for shaking everyone’s hands after a game…even spending hours at a time in the stands with the fans.
Every time Fidrych pitched at Tiger Stadium…it was jam-packed with fans who became known as “Bird Watchers”….in which his fan appeal was also enhanced by the fact that he had his own “personal catcher”…..which the Tigers coaching and managerial staff were somewhat superstitious about “jinxing” Fidrych’s success….so Bruce Kimm, a rookie catcher, caught each of Fidrych’s outings.
It became common to hear the crowd chant “We want the Bird, we want the Bird” at the end of each of his home victories. The chants would continue until he emerged from the dugout to tip his cap to the crowd. While these “curtain calls” have become more common in modern sports….they were not so in MLB in the mid-1970’s. Attendance at Tiger Stadium equaled almost half of the entire season’s 81 home games in The Bird’s 18 appearances…..as opposing teams started asking Detroit to change its pitching rotation so Fidrych could pitch in their ballparks. Mark The Bird Fidrych appeared on the cover of numerous magazines including Sports Illustrated twice…with one being with Sesame Street character Big Bird….another larger than life character. As of 2018, The Bird is the only baseball player ever to make the cover of the rock and roll magazine, Rolling Stone. Fidrych turned away five people who wanted to be his agent in one week alone….saying, “Only I know my real value and can negotiate it.”
Fidrych also drew attention for the simple, bachelor lifestyle he led in spite of his fame, driving a green subcompact car…living in a small Detroit apartment….wondering aloud if he could afford to answer all of his fan mail on his league-minimum $16,500 salary….and telling people that if he hadn’t been a pitcher….he’d work pumping gas in North Borough….as this unique character in the sports world fascinated everyone….especially young women….with his frizzy blond curls, blue jeans, and devil-may-care manner.
At the end of his rookie season, the Tigers gave him a $25,000 bonus and signed him to a three-year contract worth $255,000….as economists estimated that the extra attendance Fidrych generated around the league in 1976 was worth more than $1 million.
Legendary baseball commentator Mel Allen tells the bittersweet story of an outstanding athlete whose incredible talent could not hold a candle to his “bigger than life” personality….as a one of a kind left an indelible mark on baseball fans forever.