Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych smooths out the mound during a game at Tiger Stadium.
For baseball fans 1976 will be remembered as “The Year of the Bird.” Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the 21-year old rookie, who came out of nowhere, ended up winning 19 games, losing only 9, for the Detroit Tigers and was named “The Sporting News Rookie of the Year”.
He led the league with a 2.34 ERA while creating a sensation around the league. He threw a two-hitter in his first major league start and started the All-Star game for the American League.
During the first five weeks of the season, Fidrych, a tall, flashy fireballer from Massachusetts, languished in the bullpen, making only two brief appearances in relief. But on May 15, 1976, manager Ralph Houk gave him his first major league start against the Cleveland Indians. He responded to the challenge by retiring the first 14 batters he faced and finished with a two-hitter and a 2-1 victory.
Fidrych was considered a flake by most but no one questioned his ability to pitch.
Fidrych’s nickname was hung on him by a teammate in Bristol of the Appalachian League, where he was sent after he signed with the Tigers in 1974, when the teammates noticed his resemblance to Big Bird on Sesame Street.
Fidrych wasn’t even on the roster before the final spring training cut in 1976. He was invited to spring training as a non-roster pitcher and wore number 62, a high number usually given to players who aren’t expected to make the team. After learning he had made the team, he told a Detroit News reporter in an April 1976 interview that “If they want me to be bat boy all season I will.”
After losing to Boston, 2-0, 10 days after his first start, he reeled off eight straight victories. But it was his performance on national TV against the mighty New York Yankees — chattering to the ball, grooming the field, and handcuffing Yankee batters — that attracted the attention of fans from all over the country.
“That’s not a member of the Detroit ground crew,” proclaimed ABC Monday Night Baseball’s Warner Wolf as the young pitcher got down on his hands and knees and began smoothing the dirt on the pitching mound. “That’s Mark Fidrych!” It took him only one hour and 51 minutes to beat the Yankees, 5-1, before 47,000 raucous Tiger fans. But the festivities didn’t end with the last out. The fans refused to leave. They kept clamoring “We want Mark,” who insisted that the rest of the team join him on the dugout steps. His teammates then pushed him out onto the field to thunderous applause.
The Bird had arrived. The 6’3″ right-hander with flowing blonde curls was the talk of baseball in 1976. Fidrych’s unorthodox style kept batters guessing and baseball fans were thrilled. He was an exceptional talent. No Detroiter was ever more popular than The Bird was that summer, not Ty Cobb, not Hank Greenberg, not Al Kaline, not Denny McLain, not even Alan Trammell. He had the Motor City revved up. Everyone everywhere wanted to talk about the Bird. There was no one quite like him. He talked to the ball, telling it where to go, manicured the ground around the mound each inning, sprinted on and off the field, strutted around the mound after each out and applauded teammates on good plays. And he won.
“When I’m out there, the mound belongs to me,” he said.
He sold out Tiger Stadium twice in six days that summer, as 98, 887 flocked to see him perform. The Bird didn’t let them down. The frizzy-haired youngster had the fans in a frenzy. After each performance fans refused to leave until the Bird came out for a curtain call.
“Fidrych popularized the curtain call in baseball,” said Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1977. “Now it’s become a baseball tradition. A baseball game is not just a contest — it’s a happening.”
The Bird was considered a bonafide flake, known mostly for his conversations with the baseball and the brevity of his career. He was fresh, funny and he was good.
“He’s not as flaky as they say,” insisted manager Ralph Houk. “When he’s on the mound, he doesn’t know there’s anyone else around. He talks to himself to help his concentration. And as a rule, we play good in the field behind him. Players like to play behind a guy who throws strikes.”
Fidrych was always in the game, yelling encouragement to his teammates or trying to rattle opponents. Tiger Stadium security guard Jack Sutherby, right, protects his ear with a towel during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers June 3, 1976.
He did more than pitch well. He sparked the Tigers and helped prove they could win consistently.
“It’s exhilarating being out there with him on the mound,” said Tiger right-fielder Rusty Staub. “It’s hard not to be up when he pitches. There’s an electricity he brings out in everybody. Everyone can see the enthusiasm in Mark. He brings out exuberance and youth in everybody.”
Once he got started there was no stopping him. By early August, he had 11 victories and only three losses. He had completed all of his 15 starts and had a major league best earned run average of 1.80. Fidrych was named to the All Star team and had the honor of starting as a rookie. He turned out to be the losing pitcher, but his legions of fans quickly forgave him.
Few players have been able to thrill fans the way Fidrych did.
The Bird’s record remained flashy despite a couple of tough defeats by scores of 1-0 in July. Loss number three was 1-0 to the Baltimore Orioles in Detroit on July 29. A crowd of 44, 068 was on hand. The Bird yielded six hits, struck out 8, and walked only one but was the hard luck loser on a late Tiger error.
Attesting to his gate appeal is the figure 334,123 — the number of fans who passed through the turnstiles for his last eight starts. That’s better than 41, 000 per game. But the appeal wasn’t limited to Detroit. He filled ballparks wherever he went. He made baseball fun again. Other teams asked in advance for the Detroit pitching rotation so they could hype Fidrych’s appearance in their own ballpark.
Recalls Tiger catcher Bill Freehan, “My phone started ringing at 8 a.m. and didn’t stop all day. Everyone wanted tickets to see The Bird pitch. I bought 52 tickets for friends and relatives.”
Fidrych signs autographs before a game with the Yankees June 30, 1976.
But there was more to Fidrych than just statistics and quirky mound acts. Even though he was doubling the usual Tiger attendance every time he pitched, Fidrych was still making the minimum major league salary of $16,500. He amused teammates with his off-the-field antics. He was always poking his fingers in coin return slots when he passed a pay phone — just in case someone had forgotten to reclaim their dime. He purposely spit tobacco juice all over the front of his shirt. “I wanted the guys to know I chewed,” he explained. When he forgot his ID and wanted to buy a drink, he borrowed ID from teammates whether he shared a likeness to them or not.
The Bird had charm and style. He drove a Japanese subcompact car, made less money than a teacher and always wore jeans, T-shirts and worn out sneakers.
Fidrych admitted the car was out of character with his image. “It fits my salary, not my personality,” he explained. “I’d like a motorcycle, but I really like to drive a truck, an old beat up one. That’s me. I’m a truck man.”
When he wasn’t busy talking to the ball or yelling at opposing teams, Fidrych kept his mouth busy with bubblegum.
Everybody loved him as he was. Even Fidrych doesn’t know why he electrified baseball in his rookie year. “I have no idea,” he said in a 1999 Detroit News article. “Me and the fans had something, what do you call it? We clicked. We had a great vibe.”
For four months in 1976, June, July, August and September, he touched fans in a way they had never been touched before or since. And then it was over almost as soon as it had begun. He suffered arm problems and had only 10 major league victories after his Rookie of the Year showing.
Fidrych and Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres, starting pitchers in the 1976 All-Star Game, pose during workouts.
(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )
By Mary Bailey / The Detroit News Online