This article was written by Bill Johnson
Major league baseball’s biggest contribution to the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976 could be summarized in two words: “The Bird.” Mark Fidrych exploded on the baseball world as an unheralded 21-year-old rookie pitcher. He revealed his talent in each of his 19 victories for the Detroit Tigers, his quirkiness in his public conversations with both baseball and pitching mound, and his genius by combining the two and becoming an international phenomenon.
For some inexplicable reason, Fidrych and rookie Tigers catcher Bruce Kimm achieved a nearly unconscious rapport on the field (and a lifelong friendship off the diamond), and Kimm became the Bird’s personal catcher throughout the whirlwind season. Fidrych won the American League Rookie of the Year award that year, and Kimm started his major league career in a way never before seen, and may never be seen again.
Bruce Edward Kimm, great-grandson of German emigrant Silas Kimm, was born on June 29, 1951, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Lyle and Mary Alice (Disney) Kimm of nearby Norway. He was the third of four children, following elder sisters Nancy and Carma, and four years ahead of youngest sibling Ann.
While attending St Michael’s Catholic School in Norway, Bruce played baseball with local Little League and Pony League teams, and then spent four years with the Norway High School varsity until graduating in 1969. Growing up, as gifted athletes in smaller towns often will, he played several positions in the field. It was not until 1966, as a 14-year-old, that he became a catcher.
The high school players, as they had for years, also suited up for the Norway town team. Playing a full season slate against other small communities in the Iowa Valley League, the high school team was able — legally — to more than double their playing time together, almost forcing a higher degree of cohesion and fundamental skill. Before one particular town contest, neither Norway catcher was available to play. The coach asked Bruce to substitute behind the plate and, reluctantly, Kimm complied. On such twists, lives change forever.
In 1967-68 Kimm, now a full-time catcher, also played for Cedar Rapids American Legion team. The 1967 team was the Iowa state Legion champion, and that year Bruce earned the W.H. Proctor Award as most valuable player in the state tournament. During 1968, Bruce won the state legion’s triple crown by leading the league in batting average and RBIs, and tying for the lead in home runs.
During his scholastic career, Kimm played on six of Norway’s 20 state championship squads for coach Bernie Hutchison and, later, assistant coach Jim Van Scoyoc, and was named to the Iowa all-state team in 1968 (first team) and 1969 (second team). As a freshman in 1965, he played right field on the fall season team that brought Norway their first state title that October. In 1966, in the championship game against Mason City (a city then 20 times larger than Norway), Kimm hit an inside-the-park home run that broke a 2-2 tie, and led to Norway’s 4-2 win.
Off the field, Bruce was equally adept at basketball. In the 1969 Iowa high school tournament semifinal game against Paulina, he tied a state postseason record by scoring 46 points. That record stood for eleven years. The 1968 Norway team record posted a 25-1 record, and the 1969 team went 26-2, with their only losses coming in the state tournament. Bruce was three times all-conference (first team) and all-state (third team). As a senior in 1969, he was also on the state all-tournament team.
His greater gifts, however, were in baseball. As his stellar scholastic career drew to a close and Kimm considered college options, he distilled his choice to either the University of Iowa or Arizona State University. Chicago White Sox scout Ken Blackman proved more persuasive, though, and when the team selected Kimm in the seventh round of the 1969 draft, Bruce agreed to a contract that included both salary and eight semesters of tuition at the University of Iowa.
Chicago assigned the 18-year-old right-hander to its Rookie-level team in the Gulf Coast League, and he reported to Sarasota on July 3, 1969. In his first 36 professional games he hit .310 and earned a promotion to Duluth-Superior for the 1970 season.
He began the new decade as a reserve in Appleton, Wisconsin, while waiting for the Duluth season to open in June, but it was worth the wait. The Dukes won the Northern League title with relative ease, and in July Kimm was named league Player of the Month. At the end of the year the Duluth fans voted him Most Popular player, and in December, Topps, the baseball card manufacturer, added even more recognition by naming him to its 11th Annual Player of the Month list, along with future greats like Gene Tenace, Cecil Cooper, and Greg Luzinski.
After playing in the Florida Instructional League in fall 1970, Bruce suffered a setback in 1971 spring training. During a collision while blocking home plate in an exhibition game, he injured his left knee and missed the first nine weeks of the Midwest League season. Returning to Appleton after rehabilitation, he appeared in only 54 games, and the team’s 1971 campaign ended in playoff defeat. Despite batting only .167, however, Kimm’s defense sparkled, and the White Sox rewarded him with another off-season in the Florida Instructional League. On December 21, he married Deborah Hicks in a ceremony in Sarasota, Florida.
In June 1972, he was returned to the AA team in Knoxville, Tennessee. The organization’s faith in Kimm appeared well-placed when he was selected to play in the Southern League All-Star game.
On September 1, 1972, Kimm’s future path veered west when he was sent to the California Angels as the player to be named later in a trade earlier in the year. Over the winter, the Angels sent Bruce to the Arizona Instructional League, but the offseason was far more memorable for the Kimms as they welcomed their first child, son Matthew Tyson (a future draftee of the Philadelphia Phillies), on November 30. In November 1975, Bruce and Debbie had a second child, daughter Heidi, and followed her with another son, Joshua, in 1979. As of 2010, the Kimm clan has grown to include five grandsons and two granddaughters.
Bruce never did suit up for the Angels, however, as he was traded to the Detroit Tigers during spring training in 1973 in a straight-up swap for Billy Brooks. Kimm played most of the season for the Southern League (AA) champion Montgomery Rebels, and finished that year with the Toledo Mud Hens of the Triple-A International League. In 1974, he started in Montgomery and, after 334 games, was promoted to the Evansville Triplets (which had replaced Toledo as Detroit’s AAA team) of the American Association. His contract was moved to the parent club in the off season.
The year 1975 found Bruce in Evansville. He was loaned to Tucson, San Francisco’s Pacific Coast League affiliate, for five games, but promptly returned to the Triplets due to an injury on the Tigers. Following his return to Evansville, the Triplets rallied from a nine-game deficit to win the American Association title. The team capped their season by defeating the Tidewater Mets in the Little World Series (American Association vs. International League for the Triple-A championship).
In 1976 Bruce started the season in Evansville, but after starting backstop Milt May broke his ankle and became sidelined for the year, the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Kimm was summoned to Detroit and made his major league debut against the Minnesota Twins on May 4.
On May 15, Fidrych won his first major league start in dominating fashion, tossing a complete game two-hitter against the Cleveland Indians, with fellow rookie Kimm catching all nine innings. During the game, Fidrych introduced some flair to the game, conspicuously talking to the baseball and patting down the mound on hands and knees. The unusual behavior drew some local attention, but the baseball world took full notice after his 11-inning complete game win over the Brewers on May 31. The Fidrych-Kimm battery then mowed down the American League competition, as the Tigers beat Bert Blyleven and Nolan Ryan in consecutive games, and then reeled off five consecutive wins, culminating in a nationally televised game against the Yankees on June 28. “Every time I catch we draw 50,000 people,” is how the catcher explained, tongue firmly in cheek, the record-breaking crowds in Detroit to Sports Illustrated.
Without Kimm behind the plate, Fidrych took the loss in the 1976 All-Star game. After his reunion with Bruce, however, the Bird finished the season with 19 victories. In a 2009 interview with writer Dave O’Hara, Kimm said, “I was his personal catcher. He was the best pitcher in baseball at that time and he had the best pitches and control of any pitcher that I’ve ever seen. He was always a great guy and teammate, Mark never let the special treatment go to his head.”
Kimm finished the 1976 campaign with a .263 average in 152 at-bats, and also notched his only major league home run, a solo shot off the Angels’ Frank Tanana in August in front of more than 52,000 fans, snapping a 2-2 tie and enabling Fidrych to pick up another victory. Immediately following the season, Norway held a Bruce Kimm Day celebration on October 10, just as they’d done for Hal Trosky 42 years earlier.
The next year, 1977, Kimm started the season as a backup, and didn’t catch Fidrych’s first two starts. After the Bird’s two early losses, Kimm caught the pitcher’s next six starts. Fidrych won all six. After two more losses, however, Fidrych confessed to having a “dead arm,” later diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff, and he was placed on the disabled list. With the Bird grounded, and Kimm hitting only .080, the catcher was optioned to Rochester, the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA affiliate in the International League.
Returned to Evansville in 1978, Kimm improved his batting average to over .240, but the team was eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the season. Bruce played for the Triplets again in 1979 but, as his batting average passed the .280 mark, he was sold back to Chicago — this time to the Cubs — on August 30.
Despite the pain from a bone spur in his elbow, he appeared in nine games for the Cubs that September, and made the final out of the season against the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates — the eventual world champions — as Pittsburgh clinched the pennant. At the end of the year, on December 3, he was reclaimed by the White Sox in the Rule 5 draft, and then played winter ball in Puerto Rico.
In 1980 Kimm played in 100 games for the White Sox, but, despite hitting a respectable .243, he appeared in what became his final game professional game on September 19, against the Minnesota Twins, filling in for defensive purposes late in the game. He played winter ball, this time in the Dominican Republic, after the season, but hurt his right shoulder while trying to break up a double play.
The injury caused Kimm to be dropped from the White Sox major league roster. With his shoulder still not healed, he retired from baseball. In 1981, now out of baseball, Bruce drove a bread truck and sold life insurance.
In 1982, the Tigers named him manager of their Lakeland team in the single-A Florida State League. He was, actually, offered the opportunity to either play again or manage but, due to his sore shoulder, chose the latter. The next season, 1983, he managed the Cedar Rapids Reds, of the Midwest League, to a 76-64 mark. At that point, the major league team noticed, and Kimm spent the next five years in Cincinnati.
Under manager Vern Rapp, Kimm was named the Reds’ bullpen coach. Even after Rapp’s dismissal on August 15 and the appointment of Pete Rose as player-manager, Bruce’s depth and breadth of baseball experience was so great that he was retained by the new manager. He stayed on as bullpen coach through 1986, and Rose promoted him to third base coach for the 1987 and 1988 seasons. In 1988, Kimm got his own taste of the major league All-Star game when he was selected as the National League’s bullpen coach.
In 1989 he began a prominent association with manager Jim Leyland, and served as Pittsburgh Pirates bench coach through 1990. The 1990 team, one that included Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, won 95 games in the regular season before losing to the Cincinnati Reds in the six-game National League Championship Series.
In 1991 and 1992 Kimm was third base coach for the San Diego Padres, and in 1993 returned to managing, this time for Greenville Braves of the (AA) Southern League. Greenville lost in the league playoffs, but Kimm was promoted to AAA Richmond as third base, hitting, and infield coach under manager Grady Little. In the 1994 International League championship, Richmond swept Syracuse in three games to claim the title.
In 1994 he also enjoyed the first of three (to date) career awards when he was enshrined in the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. That recognition was followed by his 1999 selection to the Iowa Legion Baseball Hall of Fame, and his 2003 induction into the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1995 Kimm was named manager of the Southern League’s Orlando Cubs, and the team’s 76-67 record was enough to earn Bruce the league’s Manager of the Year award. Following a winter managing in the Arizona Fall League and one more season in Orlando, Bruce rejoined Jim Leyland with the Florida Marlins as bullpen coach during their improbable World Series championship season. Following another season with the Marlins, which included another stint as National League bullpen coach in the All Star game, and 1999 as bench coach with the Rockies, he spent the 2000 season as an advance scout for Colorado.
In 2001, Kimm was named manager of the Chicago Cubs’ AAA team in Des Moines, Iowa. That the team finished the regular season with a blistering 83-60 record made Kimm the next hot coach poised to get a shot managing in the majors. The Sporting News named Kimm its Best Minor League Managerial Prospect, and on July 5, 2002, when the Cubs fired Don Baylor, Chicago promoted Kimm to manage the major league team.
The Cubs were losing when he took over, so the 33-45 mark they posted during his tenure was not terribly surprising, but by September 23, Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News had already written about his status on the hot seat.
Throughout his long baseball career, Kimm was widely regarded as a hardnosed catcher, a player willing to do whatever it took to win. Bruce was a talented athlete, and worked hard every day of his baseball career, but he earned his nicknames “Gamer” and “Champ” due to a competitive ferocity rare even in the elite circles of major league baseball players. It was frustrating for the manager. Despite his tireless efforts to motivate the team, the players did not respond on the field. As is too often the case in professional sports, it is much simpler to fire the manager than punish the players, so Kimm was released after the season.
He returned to the White Sox (as third base coach) for 2003, but retired after the season. As of 2010, he lives in the Norway area, and fills his days with family, golf, hunting, and fishing. After thirty four years in professional baseball, he succinctly summarized his career : “What a ride.”
But Kimm’s baseball life is far from complete. As one of the founding owners of Perfect Game (which now includes son Tyson, himself a draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1995), he leads an extensive scouting and college-preparatory enterprise that organizes and conducts elite, showcase youth baseball tournaments, and manages a scouting service that reports on thousands of players every year. With tens of thousands of U.S. prospects already in the database, the company intends to expand internationally in the coming years. While Bruce Kimm’s playing career was successful, and his managing career more so, his greatest contribution to baseball may still lie ahead.
Dow, Bill. “Mark Fidrych’s Personal Catcher, Bruce Kimm, Remembers ‘The Bird.’” Baseball Digest, August 2009.
Johnson, William. Interview with, and notes from, Bruce Kimm. April 2010.
The Sporting News (various issues)
Sports Illustrated (various issues)
Volz, Susan, ed. Norway, Iowa 1863-1990. Self-published.
The Topps Company