Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review of "The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych"

Every now and then, the MLB channel shows that game in 1976 where Mark "The Bird" Fidrych dominated the Yankees and charmed the audience during a nationally televised game at Tiger Stadium.  Whenever I see the broadcast, I immediately go back four decades to that night and remember how I felt watching the same game live on television.  That was just one game of many memorable nights that summer.  I have been following the Tigers Since 1968 and Mark Fidrych's rookie season was the single most thrilling player season of my lifetime.  It's difficult to explain the Fidrych experience to those who were not there to see it, but author Doug Wilson has now done that with his new book "The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych".

Mr. Wilson, an ophthalmologist by day and Society for American Baseball Research historian, introduces Fidrych as a child in Northboro, Massachusetts.  We learn that the enthusiastic hyperactive Fidrych that we saw on the mound was no different as a youth.  He couldn't sit still in the classroom and was always getting into some sort of mischief, but his positive and fun-loving personality made it impossible for teachers or anyone else to dislike him.

The author writes that Fidrych was much more comfortable outdoors than in the classroom and his favorite activity was sports.  An early teammate described Fidrych as a nine-year old pitcher: "He was always moving.  Maybe it was nervous energy, but he was just a fidgety guy.  Smoothing the mound with his hands, talking (whether to himself or to the ball) - it was all there as a kid".  Nobody was bothered by it though, because they all knew it was natural.  Besides that, he was striking out most of the kids on the other teams.

Wilson goes on to describe Fidrych as an all-around athlete in high school, but most of all he was a star pitcher.  Playing in a time before the hyping of the amateur draft though, Fidrych did not think too seriously about his baseball career after school: "Unaware of the interest of any scouts, Mark figured his baseball career was over when the Worcester season concluded.  He continued his job at the gas station and also worked for a construction company, making three bucks an hour.  He happily threw himself into the work that appeared to be his destiny."

After being drafted in the tenth round by the Tigers in 1974, Fidryrch moved quickly through the Tigers system and Wilson details each stop along the way from Bristol in 1974 to Lakeland, Mongomery and Evansville in 1975.   While the Tigers knew Fidrych was good, he an unknown to most fans.  His numbers were not eye popping and this was the 1970s before the internet and its multitude of prospect sites was born.  In the minds of fans, The Bird came out of nowhere to become a rookie sensation in 1976 and that it is a large part of what made his season so appealing.

As you might expect, most of the book centers on Fidrych's fantastic 1976 season.  For those who were fans in 1970s, you will relive Birdmania where he regularly drew 50,000 fans for a team with an average attendance of 15,000 at the time.  Those who are too young to remember will be introduced to one of the remarkable personalities in baseball history. 

You will smile at his antics on the mound and his funny quotes off the mound.  Wilson reminds us however that Fidrych was more more than just a character.  He was a hard-working incredibly competitive pitcher with fantastic talent.  Even without getting into the impact of his personality, his 1976 season ranks among the best Tigers seasons of all-time right up there with Hal Newhouser in 1945-1946, Denny McLain in 1968 and Justin Verlander in 2011. 

The overriding theme of this book is that from childhood to post-baseball career is that Fidrych was always the same person.  Interview after interview with players, coaches, fans and friends confirm that The Bird was completely genuine and down-to-earth and well-liked by everyone with whom he crossed paths. You'll enjoy the later chapters which touch upon his marriage, his farm, his trucking company and charity work as much as the baseball chapters.   

The Fidrych story was one that needed to be told and Wilson does it right in his well-researched, well-written and heart-warming book.  I highly recommend "The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych" to all Tigers fans and baseball fans in general.


  1. I watched it on TV too, the curtain call game. My wife and I were in a motel room in Winnipeg, we had just moved there and didn't have an apartment yet. When he gets pushed out of the dugout at the end of the game - well, if you can watch that without your hair standing on end, you don't have a soul.

    1976 was a strange season - lousy team, but Ron LeFlore made the cover of the The Sporting News for his 30-game hitting streak, Fidrych was a crossover phenomenon, and those two plus Rusty Staub were All-Star game starters. I think that it's the only truly enjoyable year that I've ever experienced with a losing team.

    I'll always remember Ralph Houk's quote in The Sporting News when the unknown Fidrych made the roster in April 1976. "They tell me that he's a major league pitcher. We're going to find out."

  2. Charles, That original curtain call game is one I'll never forget. Another great moment was the interview after the game. That's a classic interview - so unscripted and down-to-earth.

    1976 really was a fun season. I vividly remember Leflore's hitting streak as he was another one of my early favorites.


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