#CardCorner: 1977 Topps Mark Fidrych
Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.
This is the greatest card from 1977.
I had waited all year for it. Mark Fidrych. The Bird. It would be better if he were in his home white uniform, but Topps photographers shot as many players as they could in New York City, so here he is, presumably called out for a photo before a game, standing along the visitors’ dugout in Yankee Stadium. But there is so much to love. There is the all-caps “A.L. ALL-STARS” on the bold red banner, a red that shouts, pay attention! Here is someone extraordinary! And there is the huge trophy, the Topps All-Star Rookie Cup, the symbol of early accomplishment.
And of course, Fidrych himself. Those amazing curls that seem to grow from beneath the cap, cascading around his face. And the smile. Not one of those stiff, posed pictures that were so typical of the 1970s Topps cards. No, there is personality here. A naturalness. A lack of pretense. And if it’s not a full smile – the huge, beaming grin Fidrych had as he tipped his cap to the crowds after games – it was a genuine, comfortable, relaxed smile nonetheless. It’s a face that is kind, generous, welcoming. There was nothing artificial about Mark Fidrych.
But no one could hit him. Literally, through six innings. He finally gave up a leadoff single in the seventh. When the game was over, he had a 2-1 victory, allowing two hits in nine innings. He struck out five, but by keeping the ball low, he induced 16 groundouts.
And that’s how it started. The first of six straight complete games, including two 11-inning contests (he’d go on to lead the American League with 24 complete games). The first of 19 wins. Through July, he only had three losses, in which he gave up a total of four runs, three earned (and had zeros runs of support). It was the beginning of a run – a movement, really, a phenomenon – when he was embraced not only by Detroit, but by fans everywhere. In the summer of 1976, a bicentennial year with red-white-and-blue bunting, no one was bigger than the Bird. Tiger Stadium would fill to bursting when Fidrych pitched, then empty out again for the rest of the week. On the road, crowds would flock to see the Bird.
He was pitching brilliantly, but above all, people came to see Fidrych, the phenomenon - the charisma, the energy, the things he did that no one had ever seen before: Grooming the mound, talking to himself, gesturing with the ball, applauding teammates for good plays, patting them on the back, chewing gum and blowing huge bubbles, tugging at his cap, staring in for the sign while moving the ball in and out, in and out.
But most players took Fidrych’s behavior in stride, even players not normally known as gracious. About Fidrych’s unusual on-mound behavior, George Scott said, “I like it. That’s confidence. A lot of people call it flaky and a lot of people call it loony, but I like it.” Reggie Jackson: “He’s a very enjoyable person and I look forward to facing him.” Billy Martin: “He does some strange things on the mound, but if they help him win, more power to him.”
In the meantime, fans were enthralled. In pre-ESPN days, most people were only reading about Fidrych, up until his unforgettable Monday Night Baseball debut on June 28, 1976. Everyone had been talking about The Bird. Now the entire nation could finally see this phenomenon in action. 48,000 fans crammed into Tiger Stadium, many with home-made signs or waving iron-on T-shirt stickers that were given away at the gate. Throughout the game they chanted, "Go, Bird, go!"
Through all the attention, the hoopa, the mania, Fidrych remained unassuming and authentic. After striking out Hank Aaron, Fidrych said, “Whoa! I struck out Hank Aaron! Here he is, I mean, a superstar, right? And here I am, a little guy, pitchin’ to him.” He had an apartment with almost no furniture and no phone. He said if he wasn’t playing baseball, he’d be working at a gas station, and he meant it, and he was excited about it. He was constantly deflecting credit: “It takes nine other guys to win, not just me. Hey, did you see some of the defense they gave me. . . . Hey, they are making me.” The handshakes and hugs to his teammates expressed genuine gratitude.
The rest has been well-chronicled. The knee injury, the torn rotator cuff, one painful comeback attempt after another. The later Topps cards of Fidrych carry a tinge of sadness, of “what if?”
Then he died, much too soon, in an accident at his farm when he was just 54 years old.
But focusing on those things misses the point. Because Mark Fidrych was enthusiasm and optimism, humility and happiness. Even after he left the game, he maintained a boyish innocence and authenticity. He embodied wide-eyed wonder at being able to play baseball, and complete joy, captured in that first baseball card, much anticipated by fans, with that bold red All-Star label and all those curls and that smile that says, “I haven’t woke up yet. I’m just lovin’ it.”
Larry Brunt was the Museum’s digital strategy intern in the Class of 2016 Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development. To support the Hall of Fame Digital Archive Project, please visit www.baseballhall.org/DAP