The Bird Takes Flight: 1976, The Season of Mark Fidrych

Mark Fidrych

Image courtesy of Baseball History Org

The Bird Takes Flight: 1976, the Season of Mark Fidrych
| Published May 6, 2014 |

By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor

The world of baseball is filled with eccentric, superstitious and offbeat characters. Some of them were also very good players while others, well, were not very good. This has always been the case with baseball, a sport which seems to spawn more than its fair share of colorful oddballs. From the deadball era to the present day, offbeat personalities have been part of the fabric of baseball lore.

Perhaps the most eccentric player of the early twentieth century was Philadelphia’s Rube Waddell. He was known to chase fire trucks during games and leave in the middle of games to go fishing. During one exhibition game, Waddell had his outfielders sit down while he struck out the side. Waddell was also a great pitcher. He led the American League in strikeouts six consecutive years and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946. Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige and Casey Stengel are three other eccentric characters from baseball’s past.

I certainly don’t go as far back as Waddell, Dean, Paige or Stengel. However, as a lifelong baseball fan, I have seen a lot of goofy things from players, too. During the 1970’s, for example, players such as Bill Lee, Jay Johnstone and John Lowenstein were always good material for baseball writers. Perhaps the flakiest of the players from that era was Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who produced one fabulous season for the Detroit Tigers in 1976. This year marks the fifth anniversary of his death.

Fidrych appeared to have come from out of nowhere. As a non-roster invitee to the Tigers spring training in 1976, he was one of many minor league players simply trying to impress the team brass and pitch the best he could. Fidrych, a native of Massachusetts, was a tenth round draft pick in the major league baseball rule IV draft in 1974, chosen on the advice of Joe Cusick, Detroit’s New England scout. He pitched professionally that season for Bristol in the rookie-level Appalachian League. While pitching for Bristol, Fidrych was given the nickname, “Bird,” by his coach, Jeff Hogan, who thought the tall, lanky, blonde-haired pitcher resembled Big Bird from “Sesame Street.”

In 1975, Fidrych was initially assigned to Lakeland in the Florida State League, where his statistics were good but not eye-catching. However, after sixteen starts he was promoted to Montgomery, Alabama in the AA Southern League. Fidrych pitched in seven games at that level, appearing solely out of the bullpen. Eventually, he was promoted to Evansville in the AAA American Association. Indeed, Fidrych was being promoted quickly. He was pitching successfully in the minor leagues but not setting the world on fire, either. The parent Tigers, though, were on a pace that would see them lose 105 games that season, so any player showing major league potential was bound to be promoted. In the offseason, Fidrych worked at a gas station.

When spring training began in 1976, Fidrych was in camp as a non-roster invitee, meaning he was not on the Tiger’s 40-man roster. As a younger minor league player, he was in spring camp to receive instruction from the major league coaching staff and gain experience facing tougher competition. Typically, non-roster invitees are not expected to make their team’s opening day roster. But Fidrych pitched so well that spring he made the team and earned a spot on the opening day roster for the Tigers.

During the first six weeks of the season, Fidrych made one appearance in relief and worked a total of one inning. But on May 16th, scheduled starter Joe Coleman came down with the flu. Manager Ralph Houk pulled Fidrych out of the bullpen and made him the starter that day, against the Cleveland Indians. Fidrych took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Although the Indians broke up the no-hit bid, Fidrych and his teammates won the game, and the lanky, curly-haired pitcher became an instant hit. “The Bird” quickly became the talk of baseball.

Mark Fidrych was armed with a 93 mile-per-hour fastball and a sharp-breaking slider. It was his personality, however, which made him stand out and which catapulted his popularity. Baseball had entered the era of free agency with players changing teams and fans finding it difficult to keep up with fluctuating rosters. Fans also began to sense greed creeping into the game with skyrocketing salaries and players giving their loyalty to whichever team would give them the biggest payday. Fidrych did not employ an agent to handle his contract, telling people that he knew best his value as a player.

His approach to pitching was unusual, to say the least. He could sometimes be seen on the pitcher’s mound talking to the baseball or manicuring the mound with his hands. The Bird would also take a moment to shake his teammates’ hands after they made an impressive play. On numerous occasions when his catcher had to chase a foul pop-up, Fidrych raced to home plate, retrieving the catcher’s mask and cap and handing them to the catcher so he wouldn’t need to bend down to get them. Fidrych was notably modest for a professional athlete, and his sense of humor was legendary. Fans noticed that they were watching a professional athlete who never took himself very seriously and played the game with zest and a devil-may-care attitude. His most visible trademark was his boyish, almost impish grin. The local media reported that Fidrych lived in a modest apartment in Detroit during the season, and he was regularly spotted driving an old car.

Wildly popular in Detroit, “The Bird” became a national phenomenon after shutting down the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball on ABC in a widely-watched game. Attendance that night in Detroit was 47,855, but ABC's viewership ran into the millions across multiple time zones, and even a few Yankee fans were impressed with Fidrych's talent and style. A week later he shut out the Baltimore Orioles, this time to a standing-room-only sellout of 51,000 at Tiger Stadium. That night he gave up only four hits, and by then word of his talent had spread to every fan of baseball. He began making numerous promotional and television appearances. Fidrych was subjected to constant media and fan attention, but it did not distract him from his pitching. He was already receiving a lot of hype in the age before media saturation from the internet and cable TV. By the All-Star break, Fidrych was 9-1 with an ERA of 1.85 and he was named the American League’s starting pitcher.

The Tigers' attendance and bottom-line benefitted from The Bird’s pitching and popularity. Upon the conclusion of the 1976 season, the team’s front office estimated that the Tigers averaged nearly 34,000 fans for Fidrych’s 19 starts at Tiger Stadium. For the remainder of their home games, they averaged just under 14,000 per game. He also drew huge crowds on the road. Other teams received a surge in ticket sales when the Tigers were in town and they often asked that the Tigers’ pitching rotation be changed to guarantee a start by Fidrych at their stadium. Fidrych alone outdrew nearly four other teams, two of which, the Twins and Athletics, each drew fewer than 800,000 fans for the season. The Bird accounted for over $1,000,000 in Tiger Stadium ticket sales by himself, at an average ticket price of $3.00.

At the conclusion of the 1976 season, Mark Fidrych had compiled a record of 19-9, an earned run average (ERA) of 2.34 and 24 complete games. His ERA and complete games figures led the American League. Fidrych was named the American League Rookie of the Year and he finished second in the voting for the Cy Young award, which is given to the best pitcher in each league for a given season. He appeared twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated and he was the first athlete to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. He didn’t turn 22 until August of that year.

However, fate can be cruel and fame fleeting. Fidrych reported to spring training in Lakeland in 1977 after a hectic offseason of promotional appearances and interviews. One afternoon, he decided to shag fly balls in the outfield. The result was torn cartilage in one of his knees.

After returning from the knee injury, Fidrych opened the 1977 season with a 6-4 record and a 2.89 ERA. Six weeks into the season, in a game against Baltimore, he felt his arm “go dead” as he described it later. Though the injury wasn’t diagnosed accurately as a torn rotator cuff until 1985—an injury that typically signals the end of a pitching career—it effectively ended Mark Fidrych’s career at the moment it was sustained. Still, the Bird pitched in three games in 1978, winning two of them. His last appearance in a major league game occurred on October 1st, 1980, in Toronto, where he won the game, 11-7. Fidrych was 26 years old.

Mark Fidrych’s shoulder injury went undiagnosed and untreated while he attempted his comeback. This meant the injury had no chance to properly heal, and as a result of continually aggravating the rotator cuff, he was ultimately forced to retire from baseball. Some have speculated that it was the knee injury which led to the shoulder injury, thanks to Fidrych attempting to overcompensate in his pitching mechanics. Whatever the cause, he never blamed anyone for his misfortune. In fact, he admitted in 1986 that he might simply have been too eager to return from the injury. “Maybe it was my own stupidity. I kept throwing and didn’t want to give up…”

After retirement, Fidrych maintained his uncomplicated lifestyle. He worked as a pig farmer and truck driver. In addition, he was often seen helping with Little League baseball players in his hometown of Northbrook, Massachusetts. He became a husband and father as well. It wasn’t just his career that ended prematurely. In April 2009, Mark Fidrych was found dead from an apparent accident while working underneath his truck at the age of 54.

Mark “The Bird” Fidrych left an enduring legacy in his one meteoric season, which ought to show all of us that we should appreciate what we have while we have it.

Fidrych played baseball with an irrepressible grin, genuine enthusiasm and spontaneity which endeared him to fans. His utter lack of pretension and humble approach to playing baseball were refreshing attributes in a professional athlete and manifested his respect for the game. Watching “The Bird” reminded us that baseball is, at its heart, a game and it should be respected and valued for the sheer joy of playing it.

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Crash Landing: The 1969 Seattle Pilots; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; March 5, 2014.