Obituary: Vida Blue (1949-2023)

During the decade of the 1970s, Vida Blue was one of the most electric and successful pitchers in baseball. He won 3 World Series titles, an MVP Award and a Cy Young Award, and he is also the answer to a couple of outstanding baseball trivia questions — Who was the first pitcher to start an All-Star Game for both the American League and National League? Who was the last switch-hitter to win an MVP Award? Blue died on May 6 at the age of 73, of complications from cancer. He pitched for the Oakland Athletics (1969-77), San Francisco Giants (1978-81, 1985-86) and Kansas City Royals (1982-83).

Vida Rochelle Blue Jr. was born in Mansfield, La., on July 28, 1949. At DeSoto High School, the young left-hander was a sensation as a quarterback. He would have played baseball when he first arrived at the school, but DeSoto didn’t have a team. According to Blue’s SABR biography, the school principal assembled one in order to have Blue as the ace. It worked; Blue struck out 16 batters while throwing a no-hitter against rival Bethune on March 22, 1966. That November, Blue defeated Bethune in a playoff football game, throwing two touchdown passes and running for a third. The Shreveport Journal, on April 12, 1967, summarized Blue’s senior 1966-67 year in this way: As a football player, he completed 110 of 164 passes for 3,484 yards and 37 touchdowns. He also rushed for 1,600 yards in 155 attempts. As a baseball player, he threw 3 no-hitters, to go with the no-no and 3 perfect games he threw as a junior. Blue averaged 16 strikeouts a game and once struck out 21 Central of Natchitoches batters in a 7-inning game, marred only by 5 walks and the one batter who managed to foul off a pitch.

Vida Blue as a high school phenom. Source: The Shreveport Journal, April 12, 1967.

That sort of athletic performance attracted a large number of scouts to tiny Mansfield. There were several colleges looking to recruit him as a quarterback. The Kansas City A’s took him in the Second Round of the 1967 June Amateur Draft, and he signed for a $35,000 bonus. The deciding factor, per the SABR bio, was that Blue’s father died unexpectedly during his senior year in high school, and taking the A’s contract represented a chance to support the family. Blue used the bonus to buy his family a house and started what proved to be a short minor-league career.

Blue spent the remainder of 1967 pitching for the team’s Arizona Instructional League team before moving to the Midwest League’s Burlington Bees in 1968. He pitched like a phenom, regardless of the 8-11 win-loss record. Blue fanned 231 batters in 152 innings, which was 51 strikeouts more than the next-best pitcher in the league. He had a bit of wildness, which led to 18 wild pitches and 8 walks. But as he showed during his 4-0 no-hitter of Appleton on June 19, 1968, when Blue was in command, he was nearly impossible to hit.

Blue was one of the last spring training cuts for the (relocated) Oakland Athletics in 1969. Instead, he was sent to Double-A Birmingham and was excellent, winning 10 games against 3 losses and striking out more than a batter per inning. Oakland brought him to the majors in July, and he debuted on July 20, 1969, just a few days shy of his 20th birthday. He wasn’t sharp against the Angels that day, as he gave up 5 runs (3 earned) on 6 hits in 5-1/3 innings. The second batter he faced in the majors, Aurelio Rodriguez, hit a home run to right field. Jim Spencer also took Blue deep in the 7-3 win, and he only struck out one batter — Jim Hicks. Blue was a little better in his second start, lasting 8 innings in a 6-5 win over the Yankees. He only had a couple more starts after that, both resulting in no-decisions, before he was sent to the bullpen for the rest of the season. He struggled as a mop-up reliever but picked up the first of 2 career saves on August 23 against Baltimore. He was summoned into the game with a 4-2 lead and pinch-hitter Chico Salmon at the plate. Blue threw nothing but fastballs and slipped a called third strike past Salmon, though both players acknowledged after the game that the last strike was outside the zone.

That save was the only relief appearance where Blue didn’t give up a run, and he finished the season with a 6.64 ERA, having allowed 31 earned runs in 42 innings, including a whopping 13 home runs. “That’s [the pitcher’s mound] the loneliest place in the world… your guts are up around your tongue,” he said. Blue was by far the youngest player on a young team, as designed by owner Charlie Finley. The team had a nucleus that included Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday, Sal Bando, Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom and Rollie Fingers, all of whom were 25 years old or younger. Oakland won 88 games in 1969 and repeated a second-place finish in 1970 with 89 wins. Blue stayed in Triple-A Iowa for most of the season, earning a 12-3 record and 2.17 ERA. When he was brought back to Oakland in September, he proved that he was ready for the majors. In his second start with the team on September 11, he threw a 1-hit shutout against Kansas City, adding 7 strikeouts. Pat Kelly broke up the no-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning with a single. Blue was even better on September 22, when he no-hit the Minnesota Twins 4-0. It was just the eighth major-league start of Blue’s career. He was just one batter away from a perfect game, having walked Harmon Killebrew in the fourth inning. Finley was so happy with the result that he gave Blue a $2,000 bonus.

“You don’t try for a no-hitter. If you did, you’d be second guessing yourself. You’d be shaking off pitches you ought to threw,” Blue said. A’s manager John McNamara praised Blue for adding some weapons to his arsenal besides his fastball. “His breaking ball came along good this year. He’s got a chance to be a real outstanding pitcher.”

Blue finished 1970 with a 2-0 record and 2.09 ERA in 6 starts with Oakland. Having earned a spot in the starting rotation, Blue’s 1971 season was one of the most outstanding pitching performances by a pitcher in the entire decade. He had a 24-8 record, with 24 complete games, and 301 strikeouts in 312 innings. Blue led all major-league pitchers with 8 shutouts, and his 1.82 ERA, 0.952 WHIP, 6.0 hits per 9 innings and 8.7 strikeouts per 9 innings led the American League. Blue won both the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award and was the AL starting pitcher in the 1971 All-Star Game. He won that game as well, though he allowed 3 runs on 3 innings, thanks to home runs by Johnny Bench and Henry Aaron. By the time of the Midseason Classic, Blue was starting to receive comparisons to another famous lefty — Sandy Koufax. “I do know that I couldn’t get the ball over the way he does at age 22,” Koufax said. “He’s not only ahead of me, he’s ahead of the world. He’s already made me look pretty tame.”

Baltimore’s Paul Blair, after an 0-for-4 day against Blue, offered this assessment. “There are some guys you go hitless against and it doesn’t bother you. What you tell yourself is, ‘Well, I got a piece of him,’ or ‘At least I fouled one off.’ But this guy makes you go 0-for-4 and you feel humiliated. He doesn’t give you a single thing. He strips you naked right there in public. Trying to hit that thing he throws is like trying to hit dead weight.”

Blue accomplished his tremendous season while still working on his curveball. But his fastball was just so deadly that it didn’t matter. As the A’s made another run at first place, new manager Dick Williams was willing to use Blue as much as possible, but Finley pushed back and got his way — as he almost always did. “We can’t take the chance of burning this young man up,” the owner said. “He’s far too important to us. I just want him to stay healthy.” Still, Blue threw a career high 312 innings in 1971.

Of course, Finley had other reasons for keeping Blue healthy. A syndicated article pointed out that a game started by Blue drew more than 33,000 fans to the Oakland-Alameda County Stadium. The game before, with a different pitcher, drew 4,674 fans. Finley was so enamored with his new meal ticket that he offered to pay a $2,000 bonus to have his middle name changed to “True,” so the A’s broadcasters could refer to him as “True Blue.” Blue was offended by the offer, saying, “If Mr. Finley thinks it’s such a great name, why doesn’t he call himself ‘True O. Finley?’ I won’t change.”

Source: The Boston Globe, June 4, 1973.

Oakland finally finished in first in 1970 and met Baltimore in the AL Championship Series. Blue started Game One and took the loss, allowing 5 runs in 7 innings. The Orioles swept the series, but the A’s would not be denied a second time in 1972. The team won 93 games to finish first in the AL West Division, beat Detroit in the ALCS and defeated Cincinnati in seven games to win the World Series. Blue, after all his heroics in 1971, was a secondary pitcher. A contract holdout against Finley caused him to miss the first month of the season, and Blue struggled to regain his dominance once he came to terms on a new deal, with a $50,000 contract and $13,000 in bonuses. He made 23 starts and 2 relief outings and had a poor 6-10 record, though his 2.80 ERA was a little better than league average. During the ALCS, Blue was used as a reliever, as starters Hunter, Odom and Ken Holtzman all had tremendous seasons. Blue saved Game One of the World Series, throwing 2-1/3 innings of shutout ball in relief of Holtzman and Fingers. He didn’t like the bullpen assignment during the ALCS and said so publicly but was more willing to take on the role in the World Series. He did start Game 4 and took the loss after pitching into the sixth inning. He had a 4.15 ERA against the Reds in the Series, with 5 walks and 5 strikeouts.

The relationship between Blue and the A’s was poisoned by that contract holdout. Blue later said that the meeting took place in Finley’s office in Chicago, with Finley surrounded by papers and statistics. Finley, according to Blue, said, “Well, I know you won 24 games. I know you led the league in earned run average. I know you had 300 strikeouts. I know you made the All-Star team. I know you were the youngest ever to win the Cy Young and MVP. I know all that. And if I was you, I’d ask for the same pay raise. And you deserve it. But I ain’t gonna give it to you.”

Blue acknowledged that the holdout for a better contract hurt his season. “But as a person, the holdout was worth it to me. I don’t compare a person’s pride with dollars and cents. I still want to be respected as a young man… I think I gained some respect.”

Blue bounced back from his subpar season, and he bounced back well. He won 20 games in 1973, giving the A’s three 20-game winners, along with Holtzman and Hunter. He led Athletics pitchers with 158 strikeouts — one more than Holtzman. “When he pitches, you know you might be in on some baseball history, because every time he starts there’s a chance it’ll be a perfect game or a 20-strikeouts game. He’s that good,” said A’s catcher Dave Duncan. The A’s repeated as World Champs, beating the New York Mets in the World Series… and also the Dodgers in the 1974 World Series. Blue went 17-15 with a 3.25 ERA that season to help the A’s become 3-time champs.

During this time, relations between Blue and Finley continued to degrade. There were reports that he would be traded to the Texas Rangers in March of 1973, during another contract holdout. Blue also struggled during his postseason starts, giving rise to criticisms that he couldn’t pitch in the “big games.” He fired a 2-hit shutout against the Orioles during the 1974 ALCS for his only career postseason win, but he was in a subdued mood after the game. When Finley arrived in the locker room to shake Blue’s hand, the pitcher did so without much emotion. When a reporter asked if there would ever be joy in baseball for him again, Blue answered, “Only one thing could do that. No, two things. If somebody takes over the team. Or if I get traded.”

The magic failed for the A’s in 1975. The team still finished in first place in the AL West but were swept out of the playoffs by the Red Sox. Blue topped the 20-win mark for the final time of his career with 22 victories and was named as an All-Star Game starter once more. His 3.01 ERA was seventh-best in the AL, and his 189 strikeouts were fifth. He threw the first 5 innings of a combined no-hitter against California on September 28. Glenn Abbott, Paul Linblad and Rollie Fingers finished the gem. After the season, Finley started the brutal tear-down of the Athletics. Most of his superstars refused to sign contracts for 1976, including Blue, which would have made them eligible for free agency following the season. Instead, Finley traded away Jackson and Holtzman, and on June 16, he sold Joe Rudi and Fingers to Boston for $1 million each and Blue to the New York Yankees for $1.5 million. At the time, Blue had a 6-6 record and 3.09 ERA. Before Blue could play in a game for his new team, MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and vetoed the deals. That decision led to lawsuits and plenty of verbal sparring from Finley, but after a month, all three players returned to the A’s.

Blue finished 1976 with 18 wins, a 2.35 ERA and 166 strikeouts. After the season, all the A’s stars left via free agency… except for Blue. He had signed a 3-year, $515,000 contract with Finley in 1976, which brought him the financial security he wanted. Finley, though, used that contract as leverage in the sale of Blue to the Yankees. Kuhn voided the deal, but the contract remained, leaving Blue stuck on an A’s team that, devoid of major-league talent, had one of the worst offenses and defenses in the American League in 1976. Blue had one of his worst seasons, leading the American League with 19 losses, 284 hits allowed and 119 earned runs allowed.

Blue tried to sue his way out of the contract and become a free agent, alleging that Finley was acting as an agent of the Yankees when he signed the pitcher to the extension. Finley, for his part, continued to try and trade Blue, agreeing to send him to Cincinnati in January of 1978. Kuhn voided that deal, as well. “The commissioner always talks about the best interests of baseball,” Blue said. “But what about the best interests of Vida Blue?”

Finley finally worked out a deal that Kuhn wouldn’t veto. The San Francisco Giants took the pitcher in March 1978 in exchange for six players, plus cash, plus another player to be named later. The move helped save baseball in San Francisco. The Giants drew just 700,000 fans in 1977, the worst attendance in the National League. The team more than doubled the number of fans in 1978, drawing 1.7 million. Blue gave them their money’s worth, too. He had an 18-10 record, with a 2.79 ERA, 4 shutouts and 171 strikeouts. He started the All-Star Game for the National League and finished third in the Cy Young Award voting, finishing behind Gaylord Perry and Burt Hooten. Not only was he back to pitching well, he was finally care-free. THe Giants as a team were playoff contenders until a late-season slump that knocked them into third place.

“It’s a whole different setup here,” he said of the Giants in March of 1979. “Here, they show human feelings for a player, don’t treat them like commodities. Over at the other place, guys were only dollar signs. I was just another face in the crowd there.”

Blue slumped in 1979, with a 14-14 record and 5.01 ERA. He led all pitchers by allowing 132 earned runs. He rebounded with two more All-Star seasons in San Francisco. He was 14-10 in 1980 and 8-6 in the strike-shortened 1981 season, with sub-3 ERAs each year. But injuries were starting to cut into his playing time, and his fastball wasn’t the dominant pitch it once was. The Giants traded Blue to Kansas City on March 30, 1982, along with pitcher Bob Tufts, for Craig Chamberlain, Atlee Hammaker, Renie Martin and Brad Wellman.

In his first season with the Royals, Blue won 13 games and lost 12, with a 3.78 ERA. His strikeout totals were way down, as he fanned just 103 in 181 innings. He struggled badly in 1983, with an 0-5 record and 6.01 ERA. He even lost his role as a starting pitcher, but the exile to the bullpen couldn’t fix things. The Royals released Blue in early August. “Vida has put together some good innings and pitched well for parts of games,” said manager Dick Howser. “But the results weren’t there.”

There was worse to come. Blue was caught up in a investigation of widespread drug abuse in the Royals clubhouse and sentenced to 90 days in prison. He also spent time in rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. Blue acknowledged that he had been a casual cocaine user and an alcoholic. While the other Royals who had been punished were allowed back into baseball, Blue sat out the entire 1984 season. “I just pray I get another chance. I have something to prove… mostly to Vida Blue,” he said.

The Giants brought Blue back to baseball with a invitation to spring training in 1985 as a non-rostered player. Though he hadn’t played at a high level for several years, he made the team as a reliever, and he eventually pitched his way back into the starting rotation. Blue spent two seasons with San Francisco as a league-average starter. He had an even 18-18 record during that time, and he reached a couple of key milestones. On June 30, 1985, he struck out Houston’s Jim Pankovits for the 2,000th strikeout of his career. He also won his 200th game on April 20, 1986, throwing 5 scoreless innings in a 4-0 win over the San Diego Padres. He signed with the Oakland A’s to keep his comeback going in 1987, but he abruptly retired that February.

Blue played for a total of 17 seasons in the majors. He accumulated a 209-161 record and a 3.27 ERA. He started 473 of his 502 career appearances, and he threw 143 complete games, 37 shutouts and 2 saves. Blue struck out 2,175 batters and had a career ERA+ of 108. He made 6 All-Star Teams and was a Top 7 finalist in Cy Young Award voting five times in his career. Additionally, he batted .104 and hit 4 home runs in his career. In the postseason, Blue had a 1-5 record and a 4.31 ERA in 17 games, including 10 starts.

Blue joined the Senior Professional Baseball Association in 1989, hoping that a really good performance might lead to a return to the major leagues. At 40 years old, he was a couple of years younger than Nolan Ryan and the same age as Rick Reuschel, both of whom were still pitching. He spent a couple of seasons playing ball there, and while it didn’t resurrect his playing career, Blue eventually rejoined the Giants in the community relations department. He enjoyed working with children and kept in touch with many of his teammates.

Blue was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. Additionally, as one of the Black Aces — the group of Black pitchers who were 20-game winners — Blue was about to be honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Bob Kendrick, NLBM director, said on a recent episode of his Black Diamonds podcast that he was about to select Blue to join the museum’s “Hall of Game,” which honors African-American ballplayers who also captured the swagger of the Negro Leagues.

When Blue was a promising rookie in 1971, the great Roger Angell wrote about him in The New Yorker, as follows: “Vida Blue. The name could have been invented by Ring Lardner or Damon Runyon on a good day. It can be sung with feeling (I have heard it) to the tune of ‘Lida Rose,’ the quarter from ‘The Music Man.’… Vida worked with immense dispatch, barely pausing to get his catcher’s sign before firing. His motion looked to be without effort or mannerism: a quick, lithe body-twist toward first base, a high lift and crook of the right leg, a swift forward stride — almost a leap — and the ball, delivered about three-quarters over the top, abruptly arrived, a flick of white at the plate. The quick, late cuts of batters suggested what they were up against — a sensitive yet thoughtful selection of tempi.”

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