Which rookie pitcher had the biggest impact in baseball history? Some people would say Fernando Valenzuela for how he inspired “Fernandomania” and also helped to bring a new group of fans to attend baseball games. Going to a game during his 1981 rookie season was more of an event then it even was a game. While he was a good pitcher for the rest of his career, he never quite hit the peak of his rookie season again. Frankly, almost no pitcher could have matched the way he began 1981, winning his first eight starts while fashioning a 0.50 ERA. No pitcher could ever maintain that pace over a season but it’s not likely that mark will ever be broken.
However, a scant five years earlier, an American League hurler had a similar run during the middle of his debut season. He did not start the season in the way Valenzuela would but he was a precursor in how much national attention a rookie pitcher could generate. Like Valenzuela he exuded a certain charisma on the mound. While Valuenzuela’s motion included seemingly closing his eyes while looking skyward, this pitcher would do his own grounds keeping on the pitcher’s mound and even talk to the baseballs as he was about to throw them. He was also known for enthusiasm in congratulating his teammates and for his long, blond locks of hair. Even his nickname was memorable. “The Bird”, based on the popular character from the Sesame Street TV series.
That’s right, during the bicentennial summer of 1976, the exploits of Mark Fidrych enthralled us all; not just baseball fans. Long before we all turned cynical, an entire country started following the starts of the young New England- raised kid.
There is a video of a Fidrych start against the New York Yankees on a Monday night in June, 1976. Fidrych, just be being himself, became an overnight national sensation with that appearance.
A wire photo from that summer, currently on eBay shows The Bird smiling as he signed autographs for a huge line of fans—in Anaheim.
The hardest part for the collecting community in 1976 was we knew we would have to wait until 1977 for the first Fidrych Topps baseball card. Once it arrived the following winter, the mania which surrounded it, also became a great hobby lesson which still rings true today. Even in my formative stages as a collector, I was always amazed a Fidrych rookie, still easily available inside packs, could be the same price at hobby shows as such players as Harmon Killebrew or Luis Aparicio. These were future Hall of Famers while The Bird’s future was already in doubt because of a 1977 spring training injury, but everyone wanted him. That in a way was my first understanding of what we call “prospecting” today with some Detroit area dealers bidding a significant amount of money for any of those Fidrych rookies.
Today, mint, graded examples of The Bird’s rookie card often sell for $150-175, with lesser grades scaling downward. He also appears on a 1977 Topps Cloth Sticker, which isn’t as expensive, the 1977 Hostess and Kellogg’s baseball sets, some oversized MSA disc cards issued through various company promotions in 1976 and ’77 and a team issue or two.
He had a few more cards in the late 1970’s and early 80’s but we now know Fidrych’s career was over by 1981, finished by an arm injury. Sadly, his life ended just a few years ago too, but the memories of a far more innocent time are still worth holding on to through those first cards.