As a kid growing up in Michigan as a Detroit Tigers fan in the 1970’s, a Mark Fidrych rookie card was my holy grail of baseball collectibles.
Of course, we are talking about his 1977 Topps baseball card (#265 in the set). Topps had a monopoly on the industry back then. Sure, there were other companies, such as Hostess and Kellogg’s, which produced their own sets, but they were just minor players. Admittedly, I always was partial to the “Kellogg’s 3-D Superstars,” with their psychedelic space-age look. The sweet smell of Frosted Flakes seemed to linger on them for several weeks. Some of Kellogg’s player choices, however, were suspect. Mario Guerrero? A superstar?
I was nine years old in the summer of ’77, and Mark Fidrych had very quickly become my favorite player. The great irony is that I’d never really seen him pitch all that much. I didn’t follow baseball at all in 1976, Fidrych’s only great season. But the next year, I made friends with some of the neighborhood kids who were card collectors, and they got me started on the hobby as well. By the time I first heard about Fidrych in 1977, his career was mostly finished, although it wasn’t obvious at the time.
Nevertheless, he was still the biggest sports star in Detroit, if not all of baseball. The Kid Who Talked to Baseballs, he was a certified flake that even Ring Lardner couldn’t have made up. I had to have his card. I bought pack after pack (“Topps Baseball Picture Cards with 1 Stick Bubble Gum”), but the hunt proved fruitless. All I had to show for my labors was a “checklist” card that had Fidrych’s name on it.
I discovered, however, that there was a kid around the block who DID have a Mark Fidrych card. It wasn’t the #265 card; however. It was actually the “1976 EARNED RUN AVG LDRS” card (#7 in the set). On the right of the card was a photo of National League ERA champ John Denny of the Cardinals (who I thought was a dead ringer for Michael Stivic from the TV sitcom All in the Family). On the left was a photo of Fidrych, the ’76 American League ERA leader, looking like he’d just woken up.
Trade negotiations ensued. I surrendered a 1977 Detroit Tigers team card, along with a ’77 Willie Horton. I was now the proud owner of a Mark Fidrych card.
“You got gypped,” my friend Jeff protested when I flashed it to him. “It’s not really a Mark Fidrych card.”
“Well, duh, I know that,” I replied, unconvinced.
But the more I thought about it, the more I knew my friend was right. The “1976 EARNED RUN AVG LDRS” card wasn’t the real deal. How can it be a true Mark Fidrych card when he’s sharing it with a guy who looks like Rob Reiner?
I continued to spend my allowance money on baseball cards. The summer wore on, without any luck. I had plenty of Tiger doubles, like Aurelio Rodriguez (I actually had three) and Steve Grilli (probably six), but no Mark Fidrych. Why do you never get doubles of the real stars?
Finally one afternoon I’d had enough. I’d saved up a ton of coins. I walked down to the corner drug store, plunked down the cash, and walked out with not just one pack, not just two or three, but an entire box of Topps baseball card packs.
The Bird finally showed up in the next-to-last pack. There he was, with a block-lettered “DETROIT” across his chest, sporting a Tigers road cap with an orange-and-white English “D.” It was a Mark Fidrych #265. “Topps All-Star Rookie,” the card boasted. “A.L. All-Stars.” In his photo, there is genuine joy in Fidrych’s young face, as if he can’t believe all this is happening to him (which, best of all, was really the case). Some fat cop in blue had finagled his way into the fuzzy background of the picture, immortalizing himself. Whatever happened to that cop, I’ve often wondered?
To many baseball card aficionados, the 1977 Topps set gets short shrift. The appearance itself was inoffensive, but also not particularly inspiring: Plain white background, lackluster visuals. For a period noted for its groovy graphics, the 1977 Topps cards were curiously understated, and, in the eyes of many, boring. Also, the lack of highly-prized cards (rookies or otherwise) doesn’t help the cache of the set for collectors.
But in my biased opinion, the 1977 Topps set is one of my favorites, if only because of the memories that I have locked up in it. And the 1977 Mark Fidrych card (#265) is the best of the bunch.
Although the card became my prized possession, I made no efforts to maintain its mint condition. Over time, it became dog-eared, creased, and sullied. Its physical degradation seemed to mirror the path of Fidrych’s career. In 1981, The Bird was released by the Tigers, and eventually resurfaced with the Red Sox organization. In his final season in baseball in 1983, with the Pawtucket Red Sox, he put up truly awful numbers: 12 games, 8 starts, a 2-5 record, 9.68 ERA, and WHIP of 2.524. At age 28, arm miseries had ended his career for good.
I began carrying my Mark Fidrych card around in my wallet once I’d reached my mid-teens. It became a kind of shopworn talisman, endowed with the power to remind me, at a glance, of younger, longer summers.
As I grew older, this began to bother me a bit. After all, I wasn’t a kid anymore. Why should I be carrying a tattered baseball card around? But then, sometime in the early 1990s, I read that Bob Costas, the TV sports personality, had been carrying a 1950s-era Mickey Mantle baseball card in his wallet for decades. Thus, Costas unwittingly became my enabler. Mark Fidrych stayed in my wallet. Heck, if it was good enough for Bob Costas, it was good enough for me.
Bill James, the noted baseball historian and sabermatrician, wrote, “It was always very unlikely that Mark Fidrych would have a career of more than a few seasons. There is simply no such thing as a starting pitcher who has a long career with a low strikeout rate.” James is a pretty smart guy, and he may be correct in his prognostication of The Bird. Suppose Fidrych had remained healthy, pitched ten or eleven years, but been mostly a .500 pitcher? What if, at some point, he’d been a contract holdout? What if he’d signed a long-term deal with the Yankees? What if the business of baseball had eventually hardened him, causing him to lose his boyish enthusiasm? Surely his legacy would be different today.
But that never happened, which is what makes the allure of Mark Fidrych so strong, even after nearly 40 years. He is the Buddy Holly of baseball. The Bird died in a freak accident in 2009 at the young age of 54. And yet we still cherish our image of him as he was in1976. Even though we have collectively grown up and changed, we can convince ourselves that The Bird, in our own version of reality, never did.
I still have his rookie card, but I stopped carrying it in my wallet long, long ago. It is now encased in a vinyl holder, in a box with other cards, in a closet at home. Given its shabby condition, it has no monetary value whatsoever. I have many baseball cards that would sell for serious money, if I ever decided to part with them, but my 1977 Topps Mark Fidrych (#265) is worth more to me than any of them.