Monday, October 3, 2016

When Larry Bird Played College Baseball

Quick, name the only man to ever win the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Award, three NBA MVP Awards and have a college baseball batting average of .500.

If you answered "Larry Bird," congratulations, you read the title of this article.

While most people know Bird accomplished the first two, many find the third somewhat surprising.



It's true but, in all fairness, a bit of explanation is in order.

First, some housekeeping business. Look up "Larry Bird" in baseball-reference and it says that he played one double-header of college baseball in the spring of 1979 against Western Kentucky. While I frequently use baseball-reference to fact-check things and have great respect for those guys, in this case they have made a colossal mistake: the games were not against Western Kentucky, a division I school from Bowling Green, but Kentucky Wesleyan, a division II school from Owensboro. I know that's a seemingly insignificant factoid for our story but it bothers me because I went to Kentucky Wesleyan, arriving there in the fall of 1979. I'll admit few people probably care about that mistake, except for me and a few other Wesleyan grads.

Back to the story: a long time ago, in the Jurassic period of American sports, before year-round commitments to under-6 soccer travel programs and shoe company-sponsored AAU basketball teams for elite 6th graders, athletes frequently enjoyed playing all sports and it was not uncommon for the best athletes to participate in more than one sport in school. Larry Bird had been a pretty fair baseball player as a kid. He played baseball in high school and he continued to play softball during the summers after high school. Even as he became the most heralded college basketball player in the country, dropping north of 30 points a game as a sophomore and junior at Indiana State, he and his brother played on a several softball teams that dominated local leagues and traveled throughout the midwest for tournaments in the summer.

The 6'9 Bird played outfield and first base in softball and had a good home run stroke. One source said he hit 12 home runs in 20 Terre Haute city-league games before his senior year. Softball was not without peril for a man who hoped to make a future living shooting basketballs, however. Bird seriously injured a finger during a softball game, either before his senior season or during the summer before starting in the NBA. He was playing left field and charged a sinking line drive. Some say he got his right hand in the mitt too soon, some say he dove and the right hand twisted under his tumbling body. Afterwards, the index finger on his right hand, his shooting hand, was forever misshapen and unbendable. Bird never said anything about the injury publicly, but Boston fans noticed the peculiar angle of the finger when he shot free throws and he later admitted that he was forced to rework his shot.

 Check out the gnarly protrusion of the knuckle of his upraised index finger below:


Bird loved baseball and, at the relatively small school of Indiana State, he was friends with most of the baseball players as well as the coach and regularly attended baseball games. One day as he was working out in the fieldhouse, the baseball coach, Bob Warn, passed and the two exchanged insults and laughs. One thing led to another and Warn challenged him: "You'd better get a bat." Bird answered, "Hey, I'll do it." A plan was hatched for Bird to join the baseball team for an upcoming doubleheader. Warn later admitted that his motivation was to increase interest and attendance for his team but that he also enjoyed having Bird around.

This was the spring of 1979, Bird's senior year. Bird had been selected by the Boston Celtics as the sixth pick of the 1978 NBA draft, eligible for the draft under the rules of the time because his original class had graduated (he lost a year due to transferring from Indiana) but he had decided to return to finish his college career.

In the spring of 1979, Bird and the Celtics were working intensely at hammering out a deal. The negotiations had stalemated and were becoming tense. Bird's agent, Bob Woolf, was requesting a 6-year deal for $6 million. The Celtics remained adamant that they wanted to pay only about $500,000 a year. The Celtics were well aware, however, that if he remained unsigned their claim to Bird would expire the minute the 1979 NBA draft commenced on June 25.

At the time, Bird was on top of the sporting world. He had just led his Indiana State team to a 33-0 record and the NCAA championship game in Salt Lake City before losing to Magic Johnson's Michigan State team in a game that ushered in a new era of popularity for basketball.


And his popularity in Indiana in the spring of 1979 can not be overstated. This was still the "Hoosiers" era in the basketball-crazed state--Indiana citizens held their collective breath each spring while the all-comers single-class high school tournament played out, making eternal legends of high school heroes like John Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Scott Skiles, Damon Bailey and, especially, Bobby Plump (the guy who made the last-second shot for the Milan Indians, aka Hickory Hoosiers, in 1954). It was also the hey-day of Bobby Knight at Indiana University. So when small-town Indiana star Larry Bird led Indiana State to the NCAA  finals, well, it just couldn't get any bigger than that.


The Indiana State baseball team had a 23-6 record going into the day. Kentucky Wesleyan's mark was somewhat less impressive. Since as much myth as truth usually grows out of such events, I consulted several contemporary newspaper accounts as well as talked to a college friend, Mike Hayes, who played for Wesleyan that day.

The games were played on a cold, damp Saturday afternoon on April 28, 1979. An unwelcome breeze blew in off the west-Indiana farmlands and added extra chill to the players and fans. It had rained the day before and there were puddles down the lines and in the on-deck areas. But Larry Bird was scheduled to play, brightening the spirits of all present. Bird's participation in the baseball game had been heavily advertised and, as hoped, it drew a large and boisterous crowd. More than 2,000 fans showed up; infinitely more than the usual crowd of a few girlfriends, a few parents and, if it was a nice, sunny day, a couple of coeds hoping to work on their tans. Fans spilled out of the grossly inadequate bleachers and into the grass surrounding the field. Despite the weather, a circus-like atmosphere prevailed. Bird had been honored the night before with a banquet and there was little doubt about who the crowd had come to see.

When they realized Bird was not starting the first game, many in the crowd booed. But he soon entered the game, and baseball lore. Bird had been given the biggest uniform they had, but the team had never suited up a 6'9 guy before. The pants stretched to just below his knees. The jersey, also the largest available, was number 24, not the 33 he made famous on the hardwood. His curly Big Bird hair spilled from under the cap.



Bird played first base and struck out in his only at bat in the opener. Possessing an enormous strike zone and determined to take his hacks, he was easy prey the first time up, taking  three technically-flawed swings and receiving a standing ovation while walking back to the dugout. In the Indiana State dugout, the regular first baseman turned to the coach and said, "I did that five times last week and nobody ever clapped for me."

"He definitely had a softball swing," Hayes remembers. "It looked almost like a straight uppercut."



The large media presence irritated Bird, who did not want to take anything away from his temporary teammates. Coach Warn later told reporters that Bird was definitely not interested in playing the game as a show. "He plays the game just as he does basketball, with every ounce he has. He's very intense. He was remarking to one of the players before the game that he just wanted to do well; he didn't want to let the team down."

"Bird would go behind the dugout to get away from the photographers," says Hayes. "He was trying to act like it was just a normal game, but they kept trying to get into the dugout to take pictures."

Any chance the Wesleyan pitchers were tempted to take it easy on the famous Mr. Bird? "No way," says Hayes. "This was a real game to us. There's no way anyone would have let up on him. Besides, we all knew it would be a great thing to be able to tell your grandkids that you once struck out Larry Bird. And I don't think he would have wanted that either. He was completely serious. This was a real game to him too."

While Bird and other players might have tried to view it like any regular game, it was impossible for fans and opposing players to ignore the elephant in the room, or rather, on first base. "Pat O'Neil [who later coached nearby Brownsburg to several state titles sporting guys like Tucker Barnhart, Drew Storen and Lance Lynn] got on first and shook his hand," says Hayes. "Somebody in our dugout said, 'Why don't you kiss his butt too?'"

"But Bird was nice about it. He acted like a regular guy. I got on in the second game and when I was leading off and he was holding me on, we talked. He was friendly. We talked about the weather and stuff you usually shoot the breeze with any first basemen about."

Bird started the second game at first base. Batting with men on second and third and the Sycamores trailing 1-0, he bounced a ball into center field that brought home two runs. "It was about a 55-hopper up the middle that snaked through," says Hayes. "Of course in the box score it looks just like a frozen rope."

Adding to the Hollywood-worthy legend, was a memorable--and scary--collision between Bird and his own catcher that Bird later wrote about in his 1990 autobiography, Drive: The Story of My Life. On a foul popup to the right side, Bird and the catcher both gave chase. Neither heard or heeded the call of the other and they crashed into each other. Bird lay sprawled on the muddy turf as thousands of fans, including his horrified agent who was in the stands, gasped.

"Yeah, he did run into the catcher," says Hayes, "but it wasn't as dramatic as they made it out later. It was right in front of our dugout and we could tell that it wasn't serious. But he laid there for a minute on his back with his arms straight out and everybody held their breath waiting for him to get up. Finally, he looked over in our dugout and grinned. He might have even winked. Then he stood up and everybody in the stands started breathing again."

Indiana State won both games, 5-1 and 7-1. Larry Bird concluded the day 1-for-2, with 2 RBIs. According to the newspaper account, he recorded nine putouts at first base the second game.

"After the game he hung around signing autographs," says Hayes. "Some of our guys went over and got an autograph. That's something that didn't happen after any other games."

Despite the rousing success, it would be Larry Bird's only day of college baseball. A little later he inked his deal with the Celtics and the rest is basketball history.


And the .500 batting average was safe forever.

3 comments:

  1. Great story. Not much to add, except this small mention: in listing Indiana high school basketball legends, I would certainly have included Rick Mount.

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  2. Thanks. Mount could certainly shoot (if he had played with the 3-point line they would have had to add extra digits on all the scoreboards). Of course Indiana basketball has so many legends--I also considered throwing in Steve Alford, George McGinnis and the Van Arsdale boys as well.

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  3. Seems that fine athletes like Bird could excel at most sports. When I was playing varsity baseball at Seattle University in the 50's, Elgin Baylor came out one day to practice with us. He hit some balls that I think are still going. If Elgin has elected to play our well ranked team would have done even better. As readers will know Baylor went on to NBA Hall of Fame status and, along with Jerry West, pretty much made the L.A. Laker franchise. Before Chamberlin scored 100 points, Elgin held the NBA record of 72 points in one game. A nice man and a superb athlete. It was good to have him as one of our classmates at SU.

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