Everyone remembers Michael Jordan’s decision to leave the Bulls and pursue a career in baseball, but it was Larry Bird who tried his hand at the game on April 28, 1979, and became a one-day legend in the process. That story is largely lost to time — and even better, he did it mostly because of a dare.
Bird’s status as an Indiana sports legend was cemented by the spring of 1979. The small forward had just led Indiana State to a 33-1 season, with the team’s sole loss coming to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Everyone knew Bird was destined for greatness in the NBA, but that didn’t stop Indiana State baseball coach Bob Warn from roasting him. It began as gentle ribbing, poking fun at Bird’s propensity to spend a majority of his free time getting ice and massages in the ISU training room. Then one day, Warn called Bird a “wuss” for his seemingly endless postgame recovery and threw down the gauntlet when he picked up a baseball.
“Real men play with balls this size,” Warn said, glaring at Bird. It was merely an escalated version of Warn’s usual brand of teasing, but Bird had enough and was ready to prove a point. “I could do that. I could play baseball,” Bird responded, taking the coach by surprise.
It would have been easy for the story to end here, with a healthy round of shit-talking and little else. But Bird, ever the competitor, wanted to prove a point. And Warn, firm in his belief Bird would look foolish on a baseball field, was willing to give him the chance to embarrass himself.
The pair made an agreement: A non-conference doubleheader was looming against Kentucky Wesleyan, a perfect low-risk opportunity to put Bird in a baseball uniform. The team didn’t have equipment big enough to accommodate Bird’s 6’9 frame, so they stretched out the longest pair of pants they could find, procured the largest hat on campus, and trotted out onto the field one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Only a few photos exist from the game, but seeing it live would have been legendary.
Mike Hayes, a Kentucky Wesleyan player, recounted the game, vividly remembering Bird’s bizarre, ungainly swing.
“He definitely had a softball swing,” Hayes recalled. “It looked almost like a straight uppercut.” The massive strike zone should have given pitchers a field day, but they soon realized Bird wasn’t there to goof around. He was there to prove a point.
Warn noted that Bird played baseball with the same energy he brought to the court:
“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 didn’t let the team down. Far from it. When the doubleheader was over, he’d finished 1-for-2 with two RBIs while recording nine putouts from first base in the second game. It wasn’t just that Bird played; he stunned everyone watching that day.
The .500 batting average still exists in Indiana State history books as one of the highest ever recorded by a player for the team. You won’t find much on Larry Bird’s short-lived baseball career, but those who were there won’t soon forget. For one day, Bird got to prove he wasn’t just a basketball player icing up in the locker room; he was a star at anything he wanted to try.
Bird signed autographs for fans in attendance and Kentucky Wesleyan players before walking off the field that day. Two months later, he signed his NBA contract with the Boston Celtics. And the rest is history.