Larry Bird: The Greatest College Baseball Player Ever?

Larry Bird doesn’t need an introduction. He is considered one of the greatest basketball players in NBA history. In 13 seasons, Bird was an all star twelve times. He was the 1979-80 Rookie of the Year and NBA MVP three straight seasons between 1983-84 and 1985-86. He was also a 3-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, winning the NBA Finals MVP twice. By the end of Bird’s career in 1992, he finished with over 21,000 points, nearly 5,700 assists, and almost 9,000 rebounds. He still ranks 17th all time in NBA history in points per game at 24.3.

The hype for Bird began in college, where he was a 2-time All American during his junior and senior year at Indiana State University, as well as the 1978-79 Naismith Award winner as the best college basketball player in the country. In 94 games at Indiana State, Bird averaged 30.3 points per game, 4.6 assists per game, and 13.3 rebounds per game. His career points of 2,850 still ranks as the 16th most scored in NCAA history. He also led the Sycamores to their only college basketball national championship appearance in school history.

What comes as a shock for many fans of Bird is that, for one doubleheader, he was a two-sport athlete in college. He revealed in his 1990 autobiography, Drive, that he played two games for the Indiana State baseball team.

For those close to Bird at the time, playing in a baseball game wouldn’t have been surprising. Throughout high school, baseball was Bird’s second sports love after basketball. He would play the game throughout his high school career before picking up softball in the summers. Even while at Indiana State, Bird enjoyed playing softball when he wasn’t accumulating accolades on the basketball court.

Despite the national title loss to Magic Johnson and Michigan State his senior year, Bird was still diligent about getting work in on the court. Throughout the spring, he would continue working on his game, getting ready to join the Celtics after he graduated. He knew he would be in the Boston green, as the team had drafted him the year before. Due to the draft rules at the time, Bird was allowed one more season at school with the Celtics retaining rights to sign him.

Night after night, Bird would head to the athletic training offices to ice after basketball workouts. Bob Warn, who coached Indiana State’s baseball team at the time, saw the amount Bird would ice, and he decided to give him a hard time about it.

“‘You’re a real wuss,'” Warn recalls telling Bird in an interview with the Indy Star. “‘Every night, I see you. You’re just here in the training room icing.'”

Bird didn’t take this comment kindly, but he chose to ignore it. The next night, Warn saw Bird icing again, and again Warn chose to haze Bird, along with giving him a challenge.

“I told him, ‘You know? Real men play games with balls this size.'” Warn said to Bird, forming his hands into the shape of a baseball. “I said, ‘Anybody can play games with balls this size.'” Warn formed his hands into a basketball. “‘You just have to have a large basketball or you can’t do it.'”

Bird knew what Warn was saying, and he agreed to the challenge. In a non-conference doubleheader against Kentucky Wesleyan on April 28, 1979, Larry Bird dressed for the Indiana State baseball team.

Bird playing first base for Indiana State / Indy Star

Bird had gained a major basketball following in the Hoosier state. Between leading the small state college to the NCAA national title game and being drafted sixth overall by the Celtics, Bird found himself surrounded by media at almost all times. It was no different when word got out about him playing in the upcoming baseball doubleheader.

“Bird’s participation in the baseball game had been heavily advertised and, as hoped, it drew a large and boisterous crowd,” said Mike Hayes, who played against Bird for Kentucky Wesleyan. “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.”

In game one, Bird started on the bench, to the dismay of the crowd. When they realized he wasn’t in the game, those in attendance began to boo.

He was brought in to pinch hit halfway through the first game. This was the crowd’s first glimpse at Bird in a baseball uniform, wearing an unfamiliar number 24 (since it was the only uniform that could fit his 6-foot-9 stature on such short notice). The at bat didn’t fair well for Bird, as he struck out. “It was like he was swinging a slow pitch softball bat,” Warn said about Bird’s first at bat. “He looked terrible.”

In the second game of the doubleheader, Bird was put in at first base, where he recorded nine putouts. In his second at bat, he ripped a single up the middle, driving in two runs and giving the Sycamores a 3-1 lead.

Then, tragedy nearly struck.

Late in the second game, there was a pop fly in the infield that both Bird and the catcher made chase for. The two collided, with Bird being knocked to the ground. He lied on the ground, not moving. He eventually made it to his feet, to the relief of everyone watching. Bird would later claim he just had the wind knocked out of him. Warn decided to remove Bird from the game before any other dangerous situations arose.

Larry Bird is listed as earning a varsity letter in baseball for playing in the doubleheader against Kentucky Wesleyan. / Indiana State Athletics

That day, Bird went 1-for-2 with 2 RBIs in Indiana State’s doubleheader sweep, taking down Kentucky Wesleyan, 5-1 and 7-1, respectively. “All the time I’d been playing basketball, I’ve never been knocked out,” Bird recalled. “One baseball game and I get it. I was really hurt. So, end of career — 1-for-2, .500 average, 2 RBI. I figured I couldn’t do much better than that.”

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