In the summer of ’76, The Bird ruled the roost

Bob Uecker interviews Mark Fidrych at Tiger Stadium after he defeated the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball.

It has been said that there’s a little boy inside every big leaguer. This was never more true than in 1976, when a skinny, fidgety, frizzy-haired pitcher named Mark “The Bird” Fidrych took The Corner – and the rest of America – by storm.

The Tigers’ rookie had unexpectedly made the trip north from spring training. After a couple of relief appearances, the right-hander got his first start on a drizzly Saturday afternoon against Cleveland. He tossed a two-hitter for his first major-league win, a performance that impressed Detroit manager Ralph Houk as much as it charmed the soggy spectators at Tiger Stadium.

Fidrych pitched quickly. The only time he wasted between deliveries was spent manicuring the mound or patting and smoothing the dirt. Otherwise, it was pitch, get the ball back from the catcher, get the sign, and pitch again.

At 21, he retained the natural exuberance of a child. He flailed his pencil-like arms and stomped around like the ungainly giant fowl he was named after, Sesame Street’s Big Bird. He talked to the ball, trying to coax it into cooperating: “Get down, ball. Get down. Stay low, ball. Stay low.” The antics obscured his skills. In a tight game, The Bird was unflappable. “He could throw the ball in an area this small, one pitch after another,” Houk once marveled. “The ball would just naturally sink, and he would put it right in there, over and over again.”

His defining moment came in a nationally televised Monday night game against New York on June 28, 1976. The Bird mowed down the first-place Yankees, 5-1, to run his record to 8-1. Afterward, as jam-packed Tiger Stadium quaked with chants of “We want Bird!” he was interviewed by sportscaster Bob Uecker (scroll down to view the interview).

“Where’s Curt Gowdy?” Fidrych asked, referring to NBC’s longtime announcer.

“This is ABC,” Uecker said.

“Well, where’s Curt Gowdy?”

“I’m sorry,” Uecker said. “He’s not here.”

“He does Monday Night Baseball,” Fidrych insisted.

“You got the wrong network, Bird.”

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbCdwCRqBGI

That game turned a local sensation into a national phenomenon. The Bird began appearing on magazine covers and was only the second rookie pitcher chosen to start the All-Star Game. The media portrayed him as a refreshing change from the game’s emerging plutocracy of millionaire free agents. He had a rock-star following, with crowds of worshipful young fans chanting “Go, Bird, go!” and demanding curtain calls when he won. Girls raided barber shops to get locks of his curly hair and sent him presents by the sack load. His locker inside Tiger Stadium was crammed with cakes, cookies, letters, stuffed animals, pictures, balloons, and flowers. Teammate Rusty Staub, who’d been around a bit, said: “I’ve never seen a city turned on like this.”

Fidrych finished the season with a 19-9 record. He completed a league-high 24 of 29 starts and rang up a 2.34 earned run average, the best in the majors. Throughout, he remained unaffected by the commotion caused by his fresh and free-spirited ways. He continued to drive his Dodge Colt from his unfurnished Belleville apartment to the ballpark and to ration his $16,500 salary to cover such essentials as T-shirts and bottles of Stroh’s. Meanwhile, the Tigers made a financial killing. Attendance increased 40 percent at The Corner, a spike attributable to The Bird. The front office rewarded Fidrych with a substantial bonus.

Sadly, Birdmania evaporated nearly as quickly as it appeared. The following spring he injured his knee shagging fly balls and underwent an operation. The injury affected his pitching motion and ultimately ruined his arm. Despite flashes of brilliance, he never was the same. He won only 10 games over the next four seasons before drifting into the minors and then out of baseball. He died in a freak accident on his Massachusetts farm one spring morning in 2009, leaving behind a wife, a daughter, and a melancholic sense of loss among an uncountable number of middle-age baseball fans. “I don’t think you’ll ever see someone like that come around again,” said one of his contemporaries, recalling the magical summer of 1976. “He was just great for the game. That year, when you thought about baseball, that’s the first name that came to mind.”

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side. He is the author of many articles and books, including biographies of local sports legends Joe Louis and Ty Cobb and histories of Tiger Stadium and Detroit's Negro leagues.