It has often been said, in the sense that I have often said it, that there is nothing more enjoyable for a baseball fan than the emergence of a great young starting pitcher. Depending on how old you are, you might recall 1984 Dwight Gooden, or 1981 Fernando Valenzuela, or 1976 Mark Fidrych. It has become much less common of late, because young starters are generally not allowed to pitch a lot of innings.
For me, 1971 is the year, and Vida Blue is the pitcher.
The Athletics drafted Blue as a 17-year-old pitcher out of Mansfield, LA, and he sped through the minors to reach the big leagues in July 1969. After an uninspiring trial with Oakland, the 20-year-old set Triple-A ablaze in 1970, finishing 12-3, 2.17 with 164 strikeouts in 133 innings. He only pitched once a week because he had military obligations in Oakland every Sunday through Tuesday.
Back with the Athletics in September, Blue made six starts, which included a one-hitter and no-hitter. He was 21 years old, and obviously one of the best prospects in baseball.
Topps had put Blue on a Rookies Stars card in their 1970 first series but even as a 9-year-old kid I would not have considered that a harbinger of success. After all, my team had put John Thibdeau on such a card a year earlier and I had not heard from him since. There was a big difference between being a Rookie Star and being a rookie star. There were no prospect blogs back then, so most fans just had to wait to see what happened next.
Moreover, no one would have considered that 1970 Topps card to have been a real Vida Blue card. It was a Rookie Stars card–there was no Vida Blue card in 1970. Years later, someone (presumably just a bunch of dealers) invented the “rookie card” as a way to inflate prices for a player’s first card, and, oddly, decided that the all these multi-player cards would count. Sigh.
In 1971, the cardless Vida Blue was a bloody sensation, the biggest story in baseball. By late May, he was 10-1, including five shutouts, and the star of this breathtaking cover of Sports Illustrated.
Following baseball in 1971 meant that you followed Vida Blue. All his game stories were highlighted in my hometown newspaper 3000 miles from Oakland, and on the local nightly news. Vida Blue in 1971 was like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, like Roger Maris in 1961, a dominant daily sports story.
Vida Blue’s name was on everyone’s lips. (And what a name!) One day in May, as Oriole pitcher Dave McNally was headed to the ballpark for a start, his wife encouraged him by saying, “pretend you’re Vida Blue.” Thus inspired, McNally tossed a four-hitter to beat the Angels.
The fly in the ointment, at least for me, was that Vida Blue still did not have a baseball card. Every month or so Topps would release a checklist for the next series, and I would scour it to see if Vida Blue was coming up. The answer for the first series, and the second series, was no.
So why did America, this kid included, fall in love with Vida Blue? He did not have the goofy quirkiness of Fidrych or the lovable body and motion of Valenzuela, two pitchers who would have great breakout seasons in the years ahead.
Blue was simply beautiful. He was movie-star handsome, and he had a perfect motion, bringing to mind the wondrous delivery of Sandy Koufax.
He had one of the best names in baseball history. Team owner Charles O. Finley made a habit of foisting nicknames on his players–Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom–and he soon told Vida that he wanted him to be known as “True” Blue. Vida’s comeback: “Why don’t you just call yourself True O. Finley.” But honestly, how can you improve on “Vida Blue”?
Blue was a breath of fresh air–the media loved him, fans loved him. He was hard-working, shy, modest. (His role model, he informed us, was Brooks Robinson.) He ran out to the mound, and ran back to the dugout when the inning was over. He also ran to the batter’s box when it was his turn to hit.
He was on the CBS Evening News, with Roger Mudd and Heywood Hale Broun.
He was on The Dick Cavett Show. I dare you to watch this and not fall in love with the guy.
On June 25, Blue shut out the Royals to reach 16-2 with a 1.37 ERA. (I will wait while you reread the previous sentence.) The team had played just 70 games, putting Blue on a pace to finish 37-4. Denny McLain had won 31 games just three years earlier, and tracking Blue against McLain was another regular part of his coverage.
He was phenomenally popular around the league. His first start in Boston (May 28) resulted in the highest Fenway Park attendance (over 35,000) in three years, with thousands in the street unable to get in. His start in Washington on June 6 drew 40,246, compared with 6,221 the day before for Catfish Hunter. And on and on.
But still, no card in the third series. Or the fourth.
Blue was named to start the All-Star game in Tiger Stadium, facing off against Pirates star Dock Ellis. A week earlier Ellis had suggested that he would not get the start because baseball would no allow two “brothers” in these prominent roles. (Aside: it is hard to imagine a game in which Dock Ellis was not the “coolest” starting pitcher, but this one was at least a close call.)
Blue and the AL won the game, though it is most famous for all the home run (including two surrendered by Vida to Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron).
After beating the Tigers on July 25, his record was 19-3 with a 1.37 ERA. (No really, that was his record.). He had a couple of memorable no-decisions in July, including an 11-inning, no-run, 17-strikeout effort that the A’s finally won 1-0 in 20 innings.
On August 17 President Nixon invited the A’s to the White House–there was no reason for this, Nixon just loved baseball players. He made a habit of having a specific greeting for everyone, making it clear that he knew who everyone was. When he got to Vida he said “You are the most underpaid player in baseball.” Nixon was not wrong–Blue’s salary was $14,500.
Blue’s quest for 30 wins slowed down, though he kept pitching well. He won #20 with a 5-hit shutout on August 7, but later in the month he dropped two consecutive 1-0 games to fall to 22-6 which ended any hope of 30 wins.
He did, however, make the cover of Police Gazette.
(Note: Blue is pictured on the lower left.)
Blue closed out his season at 24-8, 1.92, with 301 strikeouts, winning the Cy Young Award and MVP for a team that won its first division title.
Topps finally issued his 1971 card (#551) in the fifth series, meaning it probably got on store shelves in July, maybe August. I never got it, and I did not even lay my eyes on the card for a few years. It is beautiful, with Blue looking like he had the greatest life on earth. He probably did.
The first Blue card I ever saw was in 1972, when Topps issued his real card and an IN ACTION card in its second series.
The Blue story would never again be quite the feel-good tale it was in 1971, thanks in large part to his “owner”, Charlie Finley.
Despite his polite and shy disposition, Blue was a proud man who believed he deserved a lot more money. After his wonderful season Blue asked for $115,000, the going rate for top starters at the time. Finley offered $50,000 and never moved.
A lot of people write about Finley today like he was a colorful kook, and he was that, but he was also petty, cruel, and generally despised by everyone. He screamed at secretaries, managers, commissioners, players. Blue called him “Massa Charlie”, and I am in no position to doubt Blue’s intimations of racism, but Finley treated everyone badly. He would hand out gifts to players when he felt like it, but it was always on his terms. His most publicly disgraceful act — the shaming and firing of Mike Andrews in the middle of the 1973 World Series — was still ahead, but Finley treated people like crap every day.
Heading to 1972, Vida Blue was the biggest star in the game, and everyone was excited to see what he was going to do next.
But Blue was nowhere to be found–he held out all spring while Finley ridiculed his ungrateful pitcher in the press. With no leverage and no hope, Blue finally signed a few weeks into the season, for a small bonus and Finley’s original $50,000 offer. (When doling out credit for players later attaining limited free agency, from Curt Flood to Marvin Miller to Andy Messersmith, don’t forget about Finley, whose players became increasingly militant in the face of his abhorrent treatment.)
For those of us who fell in love with Vida in 1971, it is difficult to sufficiently convey how much Finley cost us, cost baseball. Blue had a fine career — 209 wins, six All-Star teams, three World Series titles — but the funny quips, the running, the joy, all seemed to be gone. Blue has repeatedly said that Finley took all the fun out of the game for him. When Finley got all his players to wear mustaches in 1972, another form of paternalism, Vida refused.
Years later, like many players of his generation, Blue got messed up with cocaine and likely cost himself a few more years.
I hope Vida lives forever and has much happiness, that he can look back fondly on a career filled with successes. But make no mistake: Vida Blue deserves a statue in Oakland for 1971 alone.
I’ll never forget it.