Job security is hard to come by, especially in professional sports. But in 1976, catcher Bruce Kimm had it made with his front row seat of history with the Detroit Tigers.
That summer, Kimm was the personal catcher of Mark Fidrych, who had arguably the most impressive rookie season in baseball history.
“No one got to see how amazing The Bird was more than me,” Kimm said recently in an interview.
“And to see Mark pitch was unlike anything in the history of the game.”
If you happen upon Bruce Kimm’s page at Baseball Reference, it looks fairly uninteresting. He played fewer than 200 games in the major leagues. He never was a full-time catcher, and he hit only one home run. But numbers don’t tell the story in this case.
Not many big league players come from Iowa, where there’s more farmland than baseball diamonds. But Kimm, who was born in Cedar Rapids, made a name quickly as one of the state’s best high school ballplayers in the late 1960s. The sturdy Kimm was a four-year starter on the Norway High School team, and in 1968 he won the triple crown playing for the state American Legion champions. The White Sox drafted Kimm in the 1969 amateur draft, enticing him with a small bonus and the promise to pay for his tuition at the University of Iowa.
As often happens though, Kimm was bounced around the minors, going from the White Sox to the Angels, and finally being traded to the Tigers during spring training in 1973. By then he was a 21-year old catcher with a strong arm and a reputation for being able to handle pitchers. He was also tough, earning the nickname “Gamer.”
In 1975, Kimm was a member of the Evansville team that won the American Association title and went on to prevail in “The Little World Series” over the Mets top farm team. The following season in spring training he competed to make the Detroit roster, but just missed the cut.
But Tigers starting catcher Milt May broke his ankle early in the ’76 season, and Kimm was summoned to the big leagues.
“I couldn’t sleep for a few days,” May said of his first taste of being in The Show. “I had been working to become a major leaguer for so long, and when it happened, I didn’t want to miss any of it.”
Kimm made his major league debut on hallowed ground, at Tiger Stadium in Detroit on May 4, 1976 in an evening game against the Minnesota Twins. He caught Detroit reliever Bill Laxton that night, but it wouldn’t be long before he and Fidrych would team up wearing the Old English D.
Kimm and Fidrych had been teammates with the Evansville Triplets in 1975, which at that time was a Triple-A affiliate for the Tigers. Though they didn’t become best friends or anything in the minors, the act of working together as a battery helped Kimm and Fidrych bond. That collaboration proved helpful in ’76 on a much bigger stage.
Fidrych’s Big League Debut
On May 15, Fidrych toed the rubber for his first major league start, and Kimm was behind the mask. The two rookies went all nine innings and “The Bird” allowed only two hits to defeat the overmatched Indians. In the game, Bruce had a single in three trips to the plate.
Why was Fidrych called “The Bird”? Kimm remembers that the nickname was with Mark when he met him in spring training in 1974.
“Mark was gangly and odd,” Kimm says. “He had a funny way of walking [and] his hair was curly and messy. He [also] had those skinny legs, like a bird. Or like Big Bird.”
Fidrych famously captivated Detroit and Tigers fans with his odd behavior on the mound. He appeared to be talking to the baseball (he was actually talking to himself to encourage his performance), he would walk across the infield to shake the hand of a teammate after they made a good play behind him, and The Bird liked to manicure the mound to his liking. No one had ever seen anything like Fidrych.
“[Mark] wasn’t just a crazy guy,” Kimm says. “He was a really good pitcher. He had excellent control, and he painted the corners and rarely threw a ball above the knees. He was so easy to catch.”
Kimm’s only major league homer has a special place in that season, because it was a game-winner for his rookie pal.
On August 17, on a Tuesday night in Detroit, Fidrych took the ball to face the Angels. The opposing pitcher was Detroit native Frank Tanana, who at the time was a long-haired, young, flame-thrower. The two pitchers dueled late into the game in front of a frenzied crowd of 51,822 fans, all of whom undoubtedly came to see the famous rookie pitcher and his mound antics.
In the eighth inning, Kimm deposited one of Tanana’s fastballs into the left field lower deck for a solo homer. The blast gave the Tigers a 3-2 lead and The Bird retired the Angels in the ninth to secure his 14th win. As was customary that summer, Fidrych was coaxed out of the dugout to take a curtain call after his win, and when he did he summoned Kimm (whom teammates called “Champ” for his spirit) to the top step of the dugout to receive cheers too.
“That was magic,” Kimm remembers.
Becoming a manager
After two seasons as a backup catcher with the Cubs, Kimm accepted an offer from Jim Campbell of the Tigers to become a manager in the Tigers organization at Lakeland (after deciding his playing career was over due to a sore shoulder). A few years later he landed a job as a coach for manager Vern Rapp with the Cincinnati Reds. He later coached for the Pirates under Jim Leyland, and also with four other organizations.
In 2002, after Don Baylor was fired, Kimm was named interim manager of the Chicago Cubs. He guided the team to a 33-45 record. That year, prior to the Cubs promoting him from their Triple-A team to replace Baylor, The Sporting News named Kimm its Best Minor League Managerial Prospect.
Kimm has been recognized for his contributions to the sport numerous times. In 1994, Bruce was elected to the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, and in 1999 he was named to the Iowa American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame, followed by an induction in 2003 into the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame.
Kimm remains connected to baseball, through coaching amateur players or young players who are eyeing being drafted. He lives in Norway, Iowa.