In 1976, Detroit's 'The Bird' Captivated A Nation

David Greene talks with Doug Wilson about his new book The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych. The Tiger's pitcher got the nickname because of his resemblance to the Sesame Street character.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When people are moved by a performance, they get on their feet and cheer until the star comes back out to take a bow. Well, in the summer of 1976, that is what happened at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. That night, Mark Fidrych was the star.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And the Tigers act like Fidrych has just won the seventh game of the World Series. So Mark Fidrych, thanking his teammates. Look at that, he's thanking the umpires, everybody, the ground crew. And the fans want him to come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GREENE: Fidrych had pitched a complete game, breaking the winning streak of the New York Yankees - no small thing. But this was more than just a win. Even the announcers of ABC's "Monday Night Baseball" couldn't contain their excitement over this tall, lanky pitcher with the curly blonde hair. He was nicknamed The Bird because of his resemblance to a certain "Sesame Street" character. And finally, he emerged from that dugout.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And here he comes. Here he comes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Boy, this is unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He loves them. Just look at that, shaking the policeman's hand. Look at that. This kid is terrific.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GREENE: Before that night, only Detroit fans knew about this kid from Massachusetts. But for a few months after that evening, he captured the imagination of the entire country in a way no player has since.

Doug Wilson tells this extraordinary story in the new book, "The Bird," and he joins us on the line.

Doug Wilson, good morning and welcome to the program.

DOUG WILSON: Thanks for inviting me.

GREENE: You know, as a baseball fan, I mean I listen to that and I get goose bumps - that the electricity in that stadium. Can you take us there? I mean, was happening at that time in baseball that really made that moment so special?

WILSON: Well, he really did arrive at the perfect time. Baseball had been having trouble. All across the Majors, attendance was down. There was a players' strike. One year, the owners locked the players out the next year. Then along comes an unknown 21-year-old rookie out of nowhere, who just had unbelievable exuberance. He had a huge smile on his face the whole time he was playing. You could just tell he was having a ball playing baseball.

GREENE: What was the fascination? I mean, describe some of the antics that just really captured people.

WILSON: Well, the first thing that he would do when he would take the field, is he would drop to his hands and knees and take off his glove, and he would groom the dirt on the mound - fill in all the holes and smooth it out.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: But the biggest thing they did was before he pitched, he held the ball in front of his face and his lips were constantly moving. And the legend grew up that he was talking to the ball.

GREENE: Talking to the ball. Yeah, that caught fans attention. What exactly was he doing? Well, here's Mark Fidrych with an explanation in a 1985 interview for the TV program "Once a Star."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONCE A STAR")

MARK FIDRYCH: I'm talking to myself. It was like getting some nerves off you, going, God, I'm in trouble again. How am I going to get out of this? OK, calm down. Relax. And that's just what I do.

GREENE: His antics and his talent filled stadiums. But, as Doug Wilson explains, they didn't fill The Bird's wallet.

WILSON: Well, he was making the Major League minimum - $16,500 that year. And he was just happy to be there. And the reporters noticed that he was filling stadiums all around the league, drawing 50,000 fans a game. And they asked him, you know, you're making money for these guys, maybe you should ask for a raise. And he told them this is the most money I've ever made in my life. Two years ago, I was making two bucks an hour working at a garage.

GREENE: Yeah.

WILSON: So he was happy.

GREENE: His baseball career though sadly came to a pretty short end because of injuries. Tell us about that and how he dealt with it.

WILSON: Well, it really was a tragedy 'cause at the end of the 1976 season, he was the most popular baseball player in the country. And he was actually doing better than he had been in his rookie year. He had an ERA about .180. And then they were playing in Baltimore, around the Fourth of July, in the sixth inning he threw a pitch. And his catcher, Bruce Kimm, said I can remember exactly the pitch. Just all of a sudden, he didn't have anything on the ball.

And the Orioles got six straight hits. They took him out. And essentially his career was over at that point. He didn't know it. Back then they didn't have a way to diagnose problems. They just called every sore arm tendonitis. And he really struggled, tried to make a comeback for about six years. A couple of years after he retired they found out he had had a torn rotator cuff all along.

GREENE: And, Doug Wilson, when that career finally ended, he had to break it to his father who had been such an influence on him.

WILSON: Yeah, he really was close to his family. And him and his father had always had a special bond over baseball. And he was playing for the Pawtucket Triple-A team and...

GREENE: Far cry from Detroit.

WILSON: Yeah, and he was still selling out stadiums but he got to the point where he just couldn't get guys out anymore. And he called his parents and he broke the news to the whole family. And he talked to his dad and said, you know, it's over, I can't do it anymore. And said, But didn't we have a great run? And his dad kind of choked back the tears and said, yes, son, we had a great run.

GREENE: His life was also cut short by an accident. He was doing some work on a dump truck in 2009. He died at age 54. You know, you knew the story well before you began writing this book. I mean, what struck you as you started talking to people who knew and loved Mark Fidrych?

WILSON: Well, the major thing that struck me was just the amount of affection he was able to establish in so many different people who knew him, at so many different stages of his life - from people who knew him as five- and six-year-old kids to people who met him when he was in the minor leagues to his Major League teammates. He was genuine, and I think that's the main thing. People just love him.

GREENE: Could something like this story ever happen again today?

WILSON: I don't think so, not completely the way it happened. It's unfortunate. One of the big reasons is the money involved. Again, he was making about the same amount that unskilled workers were making at the time. You know, now a guy with his talent would reach the Major Leagues, his agent would've already held up the team for $20 million. And so, that would take some of the affection away.

Also, it's hard with the media now for somebody to come out of nowhere like he did. That was part of the nice thing, is nobody really knew about him before he got to the Majors.

The other thing unfortunately, too, is as fans we've been burned so many times in the last few years. It seems like every feel-good story that comes along, we find out it's not really the way it's supposed to be. And so, I don't think - I think fans would hold back just a little bit.

GREENE: Doug Wilson. His new book is "The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych." Thank you so much for talking to us about the story.

WILSON: OK. Well, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: It's springtime. It's baseball season. And it's MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm David Greene.

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