During the Bicentennial summer of 1976, Bruce Kimm knew he was privileged to be part of something unique.
There was a lot going on during that red-white-and-blue year. Gas was 59 cents a gallon, Dancing Queen was on the top of the charts, and America was turning 200 years old. And there was a tall, lanky, and gloriously goofy “Bird” flying across the cultural landscape, Mark Fidrych using his great control to win game after game and his untethered joy to capture hearts in one of the most memorable seasons in Tigers history.
Mark Fidrych may be gone, but the vivid memories of that special season live on through the person who was on the receiving end of all those wacky tosses.
“He was a phenomenal pitcher that season,” Kimm says today from his Iowa home. “I was very fortunate to have caught for him the whole season. He was really great that summer and there is no doubt in my mind that he was the best pitcher in baseball that year.”
Fidrych went 19-9 in 1976 with a 2.34 earned run average, best in the majors. He started 29 games that year, completing 24 of them. He tossed 250 innings and only walked 53 batters. He won the American League Rookie of the Year and finished second in the American League Cy Young voting. Fidrych also was only the second rookie since 1962 to start the All-Star Game. His salary was all of $16,500 in 1976, though the Tigers–who benefitted at the gate every time Fidrych pitched–later awarded him a substantial five-figure bonus.
Beyond the numbers, the “Bird” stole fans hearts in Detroit and across the nation. He groomed the mound and talked to the ball, and he didn’t find anything wrong with any of that. “People thought I was strange,” he explained. “I didn’t think anything of it until people starting saying, ‘You know what you’re doing out there?’ Yeah, I’m pitching. What do you want me to do, get the grounds crew out every time?”
“Mark just did what he had always done,” Kimm said. “He was so good and he always reminded himself when he grabbed a baseball to just play like he did when we were kids.”
Playing with Fidrych at Triple-A Evansville gave Kimm the opportunity to catch him every fifth day. His experience, combined with a bit of bad luck for starting Tigers backstop Milt May, paved the way for Kimm to make his major-league debut on May 4, 1976, just a couple of weeks after Fidrych had pitched his first big-league game on April 20.
“I remembered just getting a call telling me to come up to Detroit,” Kimm says. “They told me that Milt had gotten hurt…I was pretty excited.”
The duo played in their first game together on May 15. In Fidrych’s first start, the lanky right-hander tossed a gem against the Cleveland Indians in Detroit. He had a perfect game heading in to the sixth inning before he gave up a single to Buddy Bell. Fidrych ended up throwing a complete game, giving up only two hits in a 2-1 victory. Nobody at this point knew the magic would continue through the entire season.
“That first game was a lot of fun,” Kimm says. “Just the control he had and the way he was getting guys out. The fans were great because they made him come out for a curtain call…It had to be my favorite game of the season.”
Fans ate up his antics. “They thought I was talking to the ball,” Fidrych said. “Here I am out on the mound going, ‘OK, I got a guy on first base, now I have this guy coming up’. I was talking to myself. It was like getting some nerves off.”
Fidrych proceeded to win five of his next six starts, to move to 6-1 on the year. The media coverage increased and the ‘Bird’ craziness reached a crescendo in the June 28 game against the New York Yankees.
“The game was in Detroit on Monday Night Baseball,” Kimm recalled. “The game was on national television with media all around the stadium and about 50,000 fans in the stands.”
On the mound, Fidrych took over and did not disappoint. He threw another complete game, this time in one hour and 51 minutes, and the Tigers won, 5-1. Fidrych gave up a home run to Elrod Hendricks, but scattered six other hits to increase his record to 7-1 on the season. It was the excitement in the stadium that Kimm remembers best. “I remember all the fans just loving the ‘Bird.’ He had such a great connection with them and it was a great atmosphere. The fans didn’t leave after the game they waited and cheered until he came back out for a standing ovation. I think it was great for the city and it was fun for us to play too.”
For the 1976 Detroit Tigers, the only bright spot seemed to be when Fidrych was on the mound. The team finished fifth in the six-league American League East. But the connection between Kimm and Fidrych made the season a memorable one for both men.
Steve Grilli, a good friend of Kimm’s from the ’76 team, believes what took place every fifth day was special. “Just being able to see the two together out there every fifth day was magical,” Grilli says today. “Even though we had a so-so team, it was like opening day for us whenever the ‘Bird’ pitched for us.”
“Mark was great to work with on the field,” Kimm says. “He had some of the best control that I have ever seen. So combined with what I offered which I thought that I gave good low target, things just really clicked for us that season.”
Kimm hit what would be his only major league home run on August 17, 1976, in the bottom of the eighth inning off the Angels’ Frank Tanana, a Detroit sandlot legend. “Well, it was the first pitch that I saw from Frank,” Kimm recalls. “I was actually thinking about drag bunting before I got up to the plate, but instead I just hit it out. The fans were great as they give me a curtain call and the hit came in front of the largest home crowd of the season. It was an all-around great moment for me. It was unbelievable and it felt really good.”
The batterymates’ careers turned quite ordinary after that enchanted year. In 1977, Fidrych tore the cartilage in his knee during spring training. He returned in May, dropping his first two starts before reeling off six straight complete-game victories. It seemed that the magic was back. However, he hurt his right shoulder in the first inning of a July start, causing him to miss the rest of the season. The doctors could not diagnose the injury at the time. His ailing right arm continued to plague him over the next several summers.
Meanwhile, Kimm, a classic no-hit, good-field backstop (he hit .237 in 186 big-league games), returned to the minors after the 1977 season. He resurfaced briefly with the Chicago Cubs in 1979, then signed with the White Sox for one last big-league campaign. His last game in the majors was on September 19, 1980. A few days later, on October 1, Fidrych pitched his last major-league game, beating Toronto to close out his career with a 29-19 record. The Bird attempted a couple of comebacks, the last with a Boston Red Sox farm team, before calling it quits in July 1983. In 1985, he finally got a diagnosis on his shoulder, finding out he had a torn rotator cuff.
Fidrych went back to his home state of Massachusetts, working odd jobs and living on his farm with his wife and daughter. Kimm stayed in the game as a coach. In 1997, he was the bench coach for the Florida Marlins when they won the World Series under manager Jim Leyland. “I spent 17 years coaching or managing in both the majors and minors,” Kimm says. “But wining the World Series in 1997 was a great thrill and we had a fantastic year that year.” In 2001, Kimm was the manager of the Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A team, the Iowa Cubs. He led them to an 83-60 record, and was named interim manager of the Chicago Cubs on July 5, 2002. The team went 33-46 under Kimm and he was replaced by Dusty Baker the following year.
“I look back on it as a positive experience, no question,” Kimm says. “How many people can actually say that they managed a big league team? Yes, I believe there was something I could have done better, but overall I look at it as a positive.”
After his stint with the Cubs was over, he coached third base for the White Sox in 2003. After that, he retired from baseball. “I was very fortunate to have spent all the years has a player and a manager for so long,” Kimm says. “However, the season of 1976 was a very special time for me. The ‘Bird’ was so good that year and it was great to be a part of that.”
Fidrych died on April 13, 2009, in a strange accident at his farm. A friend found him underneath the 10-wheel dump truck that he drove for his gravel business. Fidrych had been working on something beneath the truck when his clothes became entangled in the vehicle’s spinning driveshaft, suffocating him. He was 54.
Kimm recalls that sad day.
“When my sister called me and told me that, my first reaction was: ‘Only the good die young.’ He was such a good guy to the fans and his family. He would always be signing autographs for them and he loved them as much as they loved him. It was a very sad day but I’m proud of the fact I got to have such a great on-the-field relationship with him.”