When it came to rewarding Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the Tigers were cheap, cheap, cheap

Doug Wilson's new biography of Mark Fidrych is available at book retailers now.

Doug Wilson’s new biography of Mark Fidrych is available at book retailers now.

In the new biography, The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych (St. Martin’s Press) author Doug Wilson chronicles the late Tiger pitcher’s phenomenal rise to stardom in his sensational 1976 rookie season before an arm injury prematurely ended what could have been a Hall of Fame baseball career.

Although Fidrych’s tragic story is well known and has been written about in this blog more than once, one can’t help but devour Wilson’s book to learn more about the details of one of the game’s most likable players who received the ultimate compliment from former teammate Rusty Staub in 2000. The veteran of 23 major league seasons told a reporter: “Fidrych was the greatest thing I ever saw in baseball.”

The most startling facts I learned from Wilson was how much the 1976 All Star game starter and The Sporting News Rookie of the Year was paid that year and the amount he would receive in a new three-year contract from stingy Tiger GM Jim Campbell.

Wilson reveals that Mark Fidrych’s 1976 contract was the major league minimum of $16,500 and that it was later raised during the season to $19,000 under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Comparing it to what major league players are making today it is even more shocking. In 1976 the average major league salary was $51,501 and the minimum salary was $19,000. In 2012 the average salary was $3.2 million and the minimum was 480,000.

In his 29 starts that year, (24 of which were complete games) Fidrych drew 901,239 fans, more than what four major league clubs drew all season. Wilson points out that with an average ticket price of $3 per ticket, Fidrych was responsible for an extra $60,000 a game or over one million dollars for the Tigers in ticket sales alone when you figure he averaged 33,649 fans at Tiger Stadium in games he pitched. For the rest of the games (when Fidrych did not toe the rubber) the Tigers averaged 13,893 a game.

And so how did the Tigers reward Fidrych for his unbelievable season that had the whole country talking about “The Bird”?

According to Wilson, Fidrych’s salary of $19,000 was bolstered by a $7,500 contractual agreement for staying in the majors 90 days, and later Campbell gave him a $34,500 bonus, for a total compensation of $61,000. (Just $10,000 more than the average baseball salary.)

In his office on Michigan and Trumbull after the season, Campbell cornered The Bird, closed the door on his cage, and fed him a few morsels.

Instead of hiring an agent to negotiate a new deal with Campbell, Fidrych let Campbell fly in his dad Paul to work out a deal. (I can just hear the penny pinching Tiger GM: “Don’t worry Mark, we’ll take care of you.”)

In less than a half hour, the Tigers and The Bird had a new three-year deal calling for a salary of $55,000 in 1977, which was $6,000 less than what he made in his All Star season!! And as it turns out, it was also $21,000 less than the average salary in 1977!! ($76,066.)

Mark Fidrych was simply too nice and too naïve to realize that as much as he loved playing baseball with the energy of a Little Leaguer on a warm sunny day, major league baseball is more than a game. It is a big business.

Thanks to free agency and salary arbitration, Fidrych would be one of the last ballplayers who would be unfairly compensated and exploited. Very quickly, the tables turned on front office misers like Campbell, and the players (the commodity in the business of baseball) assumed much more control in bargaining.

9 replies on “When it came to rewarding Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the Tigers were cheap, cheap, cheap

  • Cheryl Collins Arndts

    Amazing. That little pay for making the Tigers so much money. And then they wore him out. One wonders what he could have done had he not had a premature end to his career.

  • Michael

    Campbell and Fetzer took advantage of everyone. Kaline, Horton, Lolich, Cash– none of them ever made nearly what they were worth. When the Tigers traded for aging star Eddie Mathews, he- not Kaline– was the highest paid Tiger.

  • Rick

    I couldn’t agree more with all of the comments. With the possible exception of Al Kaline the Tiger’s NEVER took care of any of their players. Jim Campbell was the cheapest for the cheap and it would be interesting to know what his salary was while he was pinching the player’s. It was people like him and the equally cheap John Fetzer that helped lead baseball into free agency. Had owner’s and management just treated players fairly instead of like cattle baseball wouldn’t have half the issues they have now days. Then you throw in the idiots like Dumb Selig and you see it’s all about them NOT the player’s. As many games as I have went to over the last 40 years I guarantee I never once paid to see owner’s, gm’s or manager’s! Great article Bill, I always enjoy your article’s. Thank you

  • Gary Steinke

    I think the comment from Juan Gonzalez hit the nail right on the head. The Tigers were pretty much lily white until Sparky became manager. Campbell wasn’t the only GM in the majors who was like that. Thank God for people like Branch Rickie. Good to hear from you again Bill.

  • The Chrisman

    Great article on a great player. Yes, Campbell was cheap, but racist? hardly…Tito Fuentes made as much money as John Hiller. And “lily white until Sparky came along” is pure bullsh*t. In 1977 the Tigers had 7 rostered, “non-caucasian” players that year, not including pitchers. (more than the Big Red Machine that year)
    Do the names Rodriguez, Alvarado or Fuentes ring any bells? How about Whitaker, LeFlore, Oglivie, and Horton? All day in/day out players. Throw in a few pitchers, and it’s a big percentage of your 40-man roster.
    Fidrych was under-paid for what he brought to the game, no doubt (Rusty Staub was making $350K in 1977); but remember the Bird was still making 3 TIMES as much as Parrish, Trammel, Whitaker, Rozema, and Morris, all at $19K that year.
    Yes, Campbell was cheap, but why bring this discussion down to the gutter by claiming RACISM??? They were a reflection of the times. Unfortunately, so are you…

    GO BIRD!!… I’ll never forget when my folks took my entire team to watch you play. We saw a Jason Thompson home run land right in front of us, and you got the complete game win! I still wear my Fidrych #20 jersey to every home game I attend. RIP Buddy…

  • The Chrisman

    They’re called facts, Gary. If you are going to throw the racism card out there, be prepared to back it up.

    Your world must be a dark, hateful place…

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