Detroit Tigers: 40 Year Anniversary of The Bird’s Debut

Jun 13, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Baseball sits on pitchers mound at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Baseball sits on pitchers mound at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the first start of Detroit Tigers Mark Fidrych, the pitcher who spoke to the ball.

Fidrych, who was lovingly known as The Bird, pitched a complete game against the Cleveland Indians on this day in 1976. He allowed only two hits and one run that day. His line included five strikeouts and one walk.

The first hit of the day came from Buddy Bell, who commented on the way that The Bird behaved on the mound. “He really messes up your concentration. He’s always talking to himself. … All you could hear was, ‘OK, ball, we’re going to do this.'”

In the days before the Internet and social media, Fidrych was an oddity in the game. He was loved not only for his performance as an outstanding pitcher but also for his antics on the field. Unfortunately, the pitcher only had that one magical year that earned him the second place finish in the Cy Young.

Not only did he talk to the ball, but he manipulated the dirt on the mound with his bare hands. The lanky 6’3 blond resembled the Sesame Street icon Big Bird, which is how he earned his iconic nickname. 

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In the book The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, author Doug Wilson captured what made The Bird so likable. “He was quoted as saying, during the height of his baseball success, he’d have been just as happy pumping gas as pumping fastballs by major league hitters. And he meant it.”

One of my favorite anecdotes about Fidrych regarded the reason he wanted baseballs that were hit to go back to the umpire. Fidrych told reporters: “That ball has a hit in it. I want that ball to get back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls. I want him to talk to the other balls. I want the other balls to beat him up. Maybe that’ll smarten him up so when he comes out the next time, he’ll pop up.” It is easy to see why fans of baseball – not just the Detroit Tigers – were so fond of him during his short time with the team.

In 1976, Fidrych not only captured the hearts of baseball fans, he also captured the eyes of the award givers. He was named the Rookie of the Year and was the AL starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. Many of his teammates in that game have since been inducted into the Hall of Fame – players like Carlton Fisk, Rod Carew, Goose Gossage, and Rollie Fingers.

His numbers in 1976 are still legendary. He started in 29 games and completed 24 of them. He finished the year with a 2.34 ERA, which was tops in the AL. He allowed a total of 12 home runs and he walked only 53 of the 996 batters he faced. He did all of this with a salary of $60,000.

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His life ended on April 13, 2009, when he was only 54. He was living on his farm in Northborough, Massachusetts and working with a friend who owned a construction company. According to his obituary, “Fidrych was found dead beneath a 10-wheel dump truck.” He will never be forgotten by the world of baseball.