Mark Fidrych was a happy-go-lucky kid from Massachusetts. 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. There wasn't an insincere bone in his body. He was supportive and thankful for his family, teammates and coaches. And the fans saw that. The most refreshing thing about him, it was all from his heart. Author Doug Wilson noticed after Fidrych's sad passing in a work accident in 2009 that no one had written his full story. He has corrected this oversight. On June 28, 1976, Fidrych became a national phenomenon thanks to a brilliant complete-game win against the Yankees on ABC's Monday Night Baseball. This excerpt of The Bird: The Life And Legacy Of Mark Fidrych examines the aftermath of that memorable night at Tiger Stadium, which triggered Birdmania and helped Fidrych become the first athlete to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
The next day, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was a national star. "Did you see that guy last night?" was asked around watercoolers, in lunchrooms, and at workplaces across the country.
Baltimore Oriole first base coach Jim Frey later said, "Everywhere I went the next day, and I got a haircut and stopped at the hardware store and then went and got some groceries, I visited a friend of mine, and we had some people over to the house -- all of them talked about one thing. I don't ever remember that happening before. I heard so many people talking about one baseball player."
First baseman Jason Thompson, who lived near Mark, told reporters that his phone rang off the hook the day after The Game. Mark didn't have a phone in his apartment, usually using a pay phone in a supermarket down the street when needed. As a nearby source of a phone, Jason spent a good deal of his time Tuesday fetching Mark.
Virginia Fidrych told a local reporter that she didn't get to bed until 5:15 AM the night of the Yankee game. "People just kept calling or coming in," she said. "I kept cooking ham and eggs for people I'd never seen before."
Mrs. Ann Jablonski, Northboro police radio dispatcher, said Fidrych's game was "all the officers could talk about this morning ... we're all very proud of him. He's putting Northboro and Worcester County on the map."
Everyone suddenly wanted to know more about The Bird. Seemingly every paper in the country dispatched someone to Detroit to find out about him. Where did he come from? What was he really like? Was it all just an act? Everyone wanted more of those funny quotes they heard about.
Tiger officials said that their phones had been ringing off the hook with fans calling wanting to know when Mark was scheduled to pitch next, reserving tickets, and trying to get in touch with Mark. Lew Matlin of the Tigers promotional office said that Mark received over 150 messages in the two days after the Yankee game.
He told reporters that he and Hal Middlesworth took Mark off to the side for a thirty-minute talk to advise him on what to expect and how to handle the situation. But the truth was, they didn't know what to expect themselves; they couldn't know what to expect -- there had never been anything like this demand for a particular player before.
Paul Fidrych, seeing what was happening, advised his son, "Don't get your head unscrewed." Tiger veterans also tried to give Mark advice on how to handle the media. "When I noticed all the attention he was getting, I tried to council him a little bit," says John Hiller. "Listen to the question and think a little before you answer and don't just blurt out the first thing that pops into your head. I also talked to him a little about how to carry himself in public, because everyone was going to be watching everything he did now. But he came from a good home, so he didn't have too much trouble. I don't think his parents had ever put him on a pedestal or made him feel he was more special than anyone else because he was a ballplayer, and so he didn't act that way. That helped his appeal."
And he certainly had appeal. Everyone loved The Bird. Mail began pouring in, everything from teenagers' marriage proposals to checks from people who thought he deserved more money. Teammates rigged up a gag telephone in his locker -- the better to handle all his personal calls. The wire services began a practice they would continue the rest of the summer of routinely running pictures of The Bird: blowing enormous bubbles while watching a game, fielding ground balls between his legs in warm-ups, sitting in the dugout with his feet propped up, yelling from the bench while a nearby cameraman covered his ears, talking with fans, signing autographs, gesturing on the mound, laughing with teammates -- in general just having a ball at the ballpark.
Articles about The Bird were printed in papers across the country that week. Most of them began by repeating many of the Bird stories of Hawkins and Ewald. Often, the articles were hastily thrown together with many mistakes regarding his family and hometown. Whatever was written became common knowledge, however, and was repeated by others whether it was accurate or embellished. Reporters were intent on building up the eccentric flaky angle and ignored statements to the contrary from Mark's teammates, such as Bruce Kimm who said, "He's not flaky," and Ralph Houk, who told them, "He's not quite as flaky as they say," and, "He's not nutty." The media as a whole recognized the great possibilities and piled on to make Mark into the greatest character baseball had seen in years. Dizzy Dean? Yogi Berra? Jimmy Piersall? Casey Stengel? Rank amateurs compared to The Bird. The giant snowball of The Bird myth was rolling downhill, picking up speed, unable to be stopped now.
Jerry Green published a feature article on Mark in Sports Illustrated and another in Baseball Digest soon after the big game. Jim Hawkins, who wrote the Tigers' weekly column for the Sporting News, began regularly pumping Bird stuff to the national audience.
Everything anyone wrote added to the frenzy.
People magazine sent a photographer and reporter to Mark's apartment, and they informed the world that he indeed lived simply in an apartment with a mattress on the floor for a bed, sheets over the windows instead of curtains, no television, and no phone. Mark told a reporter that he was generally neat, but sometimes did let his dishes stack up. "But they don't stack up too high," he added. "I only have four."
The tales of Mark's fun-loving antics were eagerly gobbled up by the press and the public. They loved it when Mark told reporters why he always threw the ball back to the umpire to exchange for a new one after a base hit. "That ball has a hit in it," he explained. "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."
Mark, realizing he was on to something, began having fun with the reporters. "If I don't talk to the ball," he asked, "who will?" He told them, "If I want it to, I'll say, ‘Ball, you curve.' If it doesn't curve right, I say nasty things to the ball when the catcher throws it back to me."
When asked the inevitable question of "Does the ball ever talk back?" Mark answered, "The only time that happens is when it's going over the fence, it yells back to me that I shouldn't have thrown that pitch."
Dave Anderson wrote an article in the New York Times entitled, "Detroit's 'Bird' Capturing Hearts." He reported that Mark was driving a compact Dodge Colt -- and sweating out the payments. His mother told Anderson, "He had a '69 Chevy, a yellow two-door, but he didn't think it would get him to Florida for spring training so he bought the new car." His mother also volunteered that Mark enjoyed tinkering with cars and "when something isn't working, he talks to the car just like he talks to the baseball." She added that Mark had always loved baseball: "When he was small, he used to go to bed with his baseball hat on and with his glove under the mattress." Virginia concluded by telling Anderson, "I just hope Marky doesn't change. He sent me a dozen roses for my birthday two weeks ago. I put one of the roses in the Bible he gave me for Christmas, and when he phoned, I told him, ‘Marky, please don't change.' He told me he wouldn't."
Through it all, Mark Fidrych was open and available with everyone -- always trying to please. If he made one joking statement and it got a laugh, he repeated it for the next bunch of interviewers -- and there was always a next bunch waiting. Mark's apparent innocence and his obvious joy on the field -- having fun playing
baseball -- struck a nerve. His lack of pretense was appealing compared to the serious athletes who appeared to view the game only as a business. When he told reporters he was happy with what he was making, he was sincere and the public ate it up. Imagine, while everyone else in baseball was only concerned with how much money they could get, here was a guy who was happy with what he had. He was exactly what the public wanted, at the exact right time. His own father had told everyone what was plain to see: he loved the game so much he would play it for free.
Why do we want our baseball players to play for free? We don't ask that of athletes in other sports. We don't expect a pro wrestler to say, "I love pile-driving people's heads into the ground so much I would do it for nothing." Hockey players and football players deserve to get paid for playing their violent games. But we want our baseball players to play for free -- to love it so much that they would do it for nothing. Because we certainly would. We all did, back when we were kids. We played for nothing then and we certainly would do it now. But in 1976, baseball players were not only playing for outlandish sums of money, they wanted more and were willing to jump teams to get it. All except The Bird. He alone loved baseball so much that he didn't care about the money.
Late in the week, a wire service article announced shocking but heartwarming news to the country with the headline, "Detroit Hero Fidrych Does it All for $16,500 a Year." It explained that although Mark was happy with his salary and did not want a raise, he did express concern over how he was going to answer all his fan mail on his limited bud get. "Ten letters a day times thirteen cents is a lot of money," he said.
It was also reported that he had turned down five offers from would-be agents in the days after the Yankee game. "Only I know my real value and can negotiate it," he told reporters, who gleefully relayed the information to their readers. If only all players felt that way -- we could keep those suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying snakes away from the game.
Joe Falls finally weighed in and gave tacit approval of The Bird. Then, he devoted his next three columns to the subject and even allowed, "Forgotten in the fuss over his strange antics on the field is the fact he looks like a pretty good pitcher." As the week progressed and the unprecedented fury continued, Falls admitted that "no player, on any team, anywhere, has had quite this impact on the game as The Bird has in these last few days" and, "Mark Fidrych has taken a hold on this town as no athlete has done in years." But, refusing to bow like all the rest, he cautioned, "Let's hope he is a true character and none of this is a put-on," and also wondered, "How long can he keep his act going?"
Houk mentioned to reporters, "I have to say I'm concerned about what's been happening to him. So far, all the publicity hasn't seemed to bother him. But ever since that TV game, there's been a deluge. He's been taking it all pretty good, but I'm still a little worried about how he might react. I've never seen anything like it in all my years in baseball."
And all of this was in the three days after The Game.
-- Excerpted by permission from The Bird: The Life And Legacy Of Mark Fidrych by Doug Wilson. Copyright (c) 2013 by Doug Wilson. Published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes.