In 1976, for one unforgettable season, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych shone brighter than Elvis, Liz or Ali – maybe brighter than all three rolled into one.
Fidrych’s ascent into the baseball elite had been remarkable. Detroit Tigers’ manager Ralph Houk kept Fidrych in the bullpen during the season’s early weeks before giving him his first start in mid-May against the Cleveland Indians. Fidrych tossed a two-hitter to beat the Indians, 2-1.
Along his way to stardom the “Bird,” as Fidrych soon became known, pitched back-to-back 11-inning victories and also defeated the Twins on a Tigers’ earlier visit to Minneapolis.
By July 20, the date of his second start against the Twins, Fidrych had rocketed to national stardom thanks to a national television appearance on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball against the New York Yankees. In between talking to the ball and patting down the mound, Fidrych dominated the Yankees 5-1 in a mere 1:51 to put his record at 8-1. Fidrych figured prominently in another national showcase, the All-Star Game, when manager Darrell Johnson gave him the starting nod, a rare honor for a rookie. In a departure from form, Fidrych pitched ineffectively in his two-inning stint.
During the 1976 summer, I traveled frequently to Minneapolis on assignment from my New York office. On a late July trip, the buzz around town was that Fidrych would pitch that week against the hometown Twins.
With Fidrych-mania at its peak, I couldn’t miss being among the fans at the old Metropolitan Stadium. I asked my plugged-in banking friends who had behind-home-plate box seats if they had an extra ticket. No way! Ticket brokers laughed. They offered to put me on their list but warned it was already 150 names deep.
By game night, I was still ticketless. I drove out to the Met, confident I’d find a scalper. But only buyers milled around. I walked through the parking lot hoping that tailgaters would have a no-show. Again, I came up empty.
Resigned to listening to the game on the radio, I headed back to my car. At the last minute, I tried the only thing left. I walked to the ticket booth to ask if there was one seat available. The reply: “This is your lucky night. I have exactly one.”
Because of an overflow crowd, a common phenomenon at Fidrych performances, the game started a half hour late. And it was further delayed by a pre-game stunt. To commemorate Fidrych’s 13th start, Twins’ owner Calvin Griffith ordered 13 homing pigeons released from their cages perched on top of the mound.
The Twins, featuring a hard hitting line-up that included Rod Carew and Tony Oliva, roughed Fidrych up early. But the Tigers pecked away, and eventually put the game out of reach after a Rusty Staub home run. For all practical purposes, Staub’s homer ended the game. Final score: Tigers 8-Twins 3. Fidrych’s line: 9 IP; 10 H; 3 ER; 2 BB; 2 K.
After the game, Fidrych showed why he was such a media favorite. A reporter asked Fidrych what he thought of Oliva who went 4-4 with a run scored and an RBI. Replied Fidrych: “Who’s Oliva?”
In 1976, Fidrych led the American League in ERA (2.34), complete games (24) and won the Rookie of the Year Award. By most accounts Fidrych, 19-9, should have won the Cy Young Award, but it went instead to Jim Palmer.
By early 1977, Fidrych developed arm trouble and won only ten games over, his next four seasons. Fidrych died in 2009, age 54, in a freak accident at his Massachusetts farm; his maximum salary during his Tigers’ career was $125,000.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research historian. Contact him at [email protected]