Monday was a rough day for sports fans. Former Cal and Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder, legendary Phillies’ broadcaster Harry Kalas and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych all passed away. For fans and collectors who remember him, Fidrych’s kind are far too rare.
He’ll be listed in autograph guides now as “deceased”.
It doesn’t seem real. Mark Fidrych dead. Because few in baseball had more life in them than The Bird. His death at 54 means baseball has lost one of its great characters who, for one season, was also among the best pitchers in the game.
The Bird caught lightning in a bottle in 1976, vaulting into the Major Leagues and capturing fans’ hearts with his guiless, childlike joy. Some players carried themselves as big leaguers. Fidrych carried himself like Fidrych. Just a normal guy from Massachusetts who loved to play baseball. He won the Rookie of the Year in the American League and fans packed stadiums to watch him talk to baseballs, smooth the mound with his hands and jump around after great plays by teammates. When was the last time fans sold out a big league park to watch a pitcher?
His 1977 Topps rookie card captures the curly haired ball of energy. It’s only worth three bucks because his career was cut short by injuries and no matter how popular, one season wonders don’t command big bucks. If he had pitched today, the card companies would have moved heaven and earth to get him into their season-ending update sets.
Even after his career ended in the early 1980s, Fidrych went with the flow.
He always did.
He passed up card show opportunities if the promoter planned to charge for his autograph. He signed thousands for free. After starting his own trucking company and moving home years ago, he’d still get dozens of letters each month asking for an autograph. Almost always, he responded.
In the last few years, the card companies paid him a few hundred dollars to sign insert cards like the 2008 Donruss Threads and Topps Co-Signers. For most, he wasn’t the holy grail of autographs. Not a Hall of Famer. Not a “star”. Not now maybe. But in 1976, there were none bigger.