No player in history was a better investment than Mark Fidrych. In his magical rookie season, Fidrych earned the minimum salary of $16,500. In his home starts he drew an average of 31,000 fans – 12,000 more than the team attracted when he wasn’t on the mound. In excess of 400,000 more fans flocked to Tiger Stadium in 1976 than in 1975, most of them to “Bird-watch.”
Tiger General Manager Jim Campbell, who never met an economic corner he couldn’t cut, was grinning from ear to ear over his fortune. Though he famously bought Fidrych a few new suits (one of them bright green), he refused to give his pitcher a raise, citing a policy against in-season pay increases.
But Fidrych was more than a boon to the bottom line. He was a spectacle. Thirty-five years ago this season he delighted Detroit fans with his brilliance and his antics. He was a pitcher, but he was also a showman. Though he’s gone now, he will never be forgotten, he holds a special place in Tiger history.
“He’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen,” teammate Rusty Staub said of Fidrych. “I’ve never seen anybody electrify the fans like this.”
Fidrych was three Marx Brothers rolled into one. He had the mop top of Harpo, made incoherent statements like Chico, and had the universal appeal of Groucho. He was a ball of energy: his lean frame prancing on the mound as he pointed and waved toward home plate, telling himself and the baseball what to do. He ducked and leaned from side to side, his knobby knees seemingly popping out from his uniform pants. BEfore each inning he would get on those knees and manicure the mound, scraping the dirt into concentric piles. He was like a genius baseball gardener.
“In all my years in baseball I’ve never seen anything like it,” manager Ralph Houk marveled. “I don’t think even Walter Johnson started this fast.”
By early July he was 9-2 which earned him the start for the American League in the All-Star break. He baffled enemy batters, earning him praise and pans. Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson said, “He’s good for baseball, I hope he wins 30, but not against us.” A few Yankees had a different take after The Bird shut them out. Thurman Munson called him “bush” and Graig Nettles tried to break Fidrych’s concentration by talking to his bat and stepping out of the batters’ box to interrupt his rhythm.
But fans were universal in their adoration. Girls screamed at the sight of the gangly hurler. Fan letters flocked to the Tiger offices, flooding the club staff. Fidrych commented that he would never be able to respond to them all. “13 cents times 1,000 letters is a lot of money,” he chirped.
The frenzy that swirled around him was unprecedented in baseball annals. He was asked to make curtain calls after his crisp two-hour pitching gems. On days he wasn’t pitching he has to hide away in the dark corners of the dugout lest he and his teammates be hounded by fans the entire game. His road show was just as popular – he drew more than 40,000 fans to a start in Minnesota and 35,000-plus in Cleveland. The Bird Tour was a huge hit.
The Tigers were a mediocre team in 1976, eking out 74 wins, 19 off the right wing of The Bird. But it didn’t matter to their faithful. During the Bicentennial summer of ’76, Mark Fidrych was a history maker.