Birds, particularly those of the Meleagris genus, will be on many of our minds and tables this Thanksgiving weekend. But back in November 1976, the avian creature that everyone was talking about was Detroit Tigers hurler Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who’d just won the American League Rookie of the Year award after going 19-9 with an MLB-leading 2.34 ERA in 250 innings, and throwing 24 complete games in 29 starts. (He also finished a distant second to Jim Palmer in American League Cy Young balloting, and 11th in MVP voting; had advanced metrics been part of the conversation in those days, he might have actually stood a decent shot of winning all three awards.)
To say that “The Bird” was a big sensation in 1976 would be a severe understatement. As I wrote in my new book, "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76," Fidrych was one of the few ballplayers of the era to truly transcend the sport; his brilliant pitching, boyish charm and quirky charisma resonated “well beyond the baseball world and across multiple generations, turning him into a pop-culture icon to rival Peter Frampton, John Travolta and the Fonz.”
A complete unknown at the beginning of the ’76 season, the curly-haired 21-year-old righty from Northborough, Mass., was already fielding TV and movie offers by August. In 1977, Fidrych would become the first athlete not named Muhammad Ali to make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Unsurprisingly, Fidrych’s meteoric rise also inspired several tribute songs. Though the Trashmen’s 1963 proto-garage hit “Surfin’ Bird” became his unofficial theme in the summer of ’76, several contemporary artists tried to cash in on his massive popularity.
Least imaginative among these was a band called The Fowls, who re-retitled their lunk-headed cover of “Surfin’ Bird” as “The Bird is the Word” for maximum commercial appeal. (Later that season, they re-purposed the tune and the backing track for “The Yanks Are Champs,” a single honoring the Bronx Bombers’ first pennant since 1964.)
Perhaps the best known of the Fidrych tribute tracks is “The Bird,” a light disco-pop novelty number by a duo called Fanz, released on a Grosse Point, Mich., label called Cloud Born. The song’s lyrics reference Fidrych’s apparent habit of talking to the baseball, as well as his ample cross-generational appeal; and while the record doesn’t exactly live up to its promise of “an exciting new sound” (as per a pre-release ad in the July 29, 1976 edition of the Grosse Point News), “The Bird” does boogie breezily by like a Fidrych-flung off-speed pitch.
Far more obscure — at least to me, as I’ve never been able to have the pleasure of actually hearing it — is “Go Bird Go” by the long-forgotten duo of Carl & Brenda, which was released that fall on the Country Detroit Label. Seeing as this copy went for $56 at auction last year, I’m probably not likely to add it to my collection any time soon…
My favorite Fidrych tribute record, though — and one I inexplicably forgot to mention in "Stars and Strikes" — is Shirley Stringham’s “Mark The Bird,” released on Kay Vee Records in September 1976. Stringham, a cabaret performer who also did radio and TV jingles (including one for H. Salt Fish and Chips), delivers a breathy disco paean to the rookie righty that sounds like a less-polished cousin of the Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More,” which was a massive hit during the summer of ’76. But while some 50,000 copies of “Mark The Bird” were supposedly pressed up for distribution, Stringham’s single failed to trouble the charts. She did, however, get to cut one more disco single for Kay Vee — the grammatically challenged “I Hate It Until I Ate It” — before vanishing into obscurity.
Dan Epstein writes about baseball and music and other cool stuff and you should definitely follow him on Twitter.