While 50 years have passed since Vida Blue put the finishing touches on one of the most magnificent seasons ever compiled by a pitcher, the images of how that kid from a tiny, segregated Louisiana town became a baseball celebrity remain as vibrant as they were in 1971.
Blue, 71, became the talk of the baseball world in what was his first full year in the Major Leagues. He went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA over 39 starts for Oakland to win both the Cy Young and MVP Awards, earning his place in a select, 11-man club of pitchers who have captured both awards in the same season. Blue was, at the time, just the fifth pitcher to earn that distinction following Don Newcombe , Sandy Koufax , Bob Gibson  and Denny McClain .
That the southpaw went on to become one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers for more than a dozen years following his splashy, coming-out season often gets lost because he never quite returned to the lofty heights he visited in 1971. Blue, however, was one of the game’s best pitchers in the 1970s, picking up 155 of his 209 career victories during that decade. Only eight other pitchers had more wins that Blue did in the Seventies and each of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nolan Ryan also won 155 games in the 1970s and he, too, is enshrined in Cooperstown.
“It’s been 50 years and I’m so honored to still be alive and be able to talk about that stuff and celebrate it,” said Blue, who had 24 complete games and led the AL in ERA, shutouts [eights] and K/9 innings [8.7].
“It was a good run. I was a young kid from Mansfield, Louisiana and when I came onto the scene it was the old deer in the headlights. But I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and just listen and learn.”
“I have no regrets, though, because I think Vida Blue the person is 10 times better than Vida Blue the baseball player.”
LIFE IN LOUISIANA
Mansfield was a tiny town in the late 1960s and remains so today with fewer than 6,000 residents, nearly three-quarters of which are African-American. Prior to Blue’s emergence with Oakland, the biggest thing to happen in the little town took place during the Civil War during 1864’s Battle of Mansfield. Blue, however, put the little town near the Texas border on the map for different reasons.
“My town was totally segregated,” Blue said. “We had an all-black church, faculty, even the cemeteries were segregated. That was the town I grew up in. But I got plenty of hugs from my family and a lot of reinforcement through hugs and I didn’t know that we were poor or underserved by the community.
“I was so preoccupied with being a kid that it never occurred to me that I didn’t have anything. I didn’t realize that I was underserved until I left home and thought ‘Oh, look at that’. I was in that little box but it was comfortable to be in that box. My world was so unique that that it never dawned on me that there was a better world out there. I was so consumed by so many positive things; to be hugged and loved went a long way.”
Blue was the star of the DeSoto High baseball team and also quarterbacked the football team. He had several schools that chased him to play football [Notre Dame and Houston among them] and several more that wanted him to play baseball, including Southern University, where Danny Goodwin, the only player to ever get drafted No. 1 overall twice, played.
When Blue’s father passed away, though, the thought playing collegiately in either sport disappeared. He had a family to support – he was the oldest of six children – and began to focus on life as a baseball player.
“I signed a letter of intent to play for Southern,” Blue said. “Louisiana had a North-South football game that summer and I played in it. That was early June and the draft was in June. I was still getting offers for college ball at that time but the [Kansas City] A’s got the pick. I was their number two pick [Brien Bickerton was first, seventh overall] and I didn’t know much. Again, that deer in the headlights.
“My high school offensive line coach negotiated the contract with Charlie Finley. That’s how that all came about. I signed in June or July and that November I went to Phoenix for instructs. It was the first time I ever left home and I was still green behind the ears. It was eye-opening.”
BLUE GOES PRO
Blue may had never been away from home, but his cross-country travels did little to impact his pitching in the fall of 1967. He appeared in nine Arizona Instructional League games, going 1-1 with a 2.65 ERA over 34 innings. The heat he displayed in high school was evident by his 26 strikeouts but so was his wildness [22 walks].
The Class-A Midwest League awaited in 1968 and Blue was hot early. He pitched Burlington to a 6-1 Opening Day victory over Quad Cities, striking out 16 and scattering three hits over eight innings. Two of the hits he allowed were bunts and he walked a pair. Blue went 9-11 with a 2.49 ERA in 24 starts for the Bees, tossing a no-hitter along the way. He also led the circuit with 231 strikeouts.
Blue began 1969 in Birmingham of the Double-A Southern League and the jump in levels did little to slow down his performance. He was 10-3 with a 3.20 ERA when the A’s brought him up to the big leagues mid-summer.
“The Southern League was exactly what it said it was,” Blue said. “Being in the south and being on the pitcher’s mound you realized that the people in the pricier seats were a little more educated and polished than the guy in right field who was using the N word and throwing batteries at us. Well, you hear those stories about the minor leagues.
“I pooled money with two other players Bobby Brooks, we called him Little Hammer because he was a big Hank Aaron fan, and Dwain Anderson, a shortstop who couldn’t get a job because we had Bert Campaneris. Brooks couldn’t break in either because we had Joe Rudi and Reggie Jackson. We found a widower and she had a room, and we would do chores around the house for her. We lived close to the stadium and we were in a black neighborhood. I don’t ever remember going to downtown Birmingham, though. That’s how small life was and the box I was still in. I knew about the south so it was a no brainer for me. They didn’t have to worry about me crossing any lines.”
Blue appeared in 12 games as a 19-year-old for Oakland that summer and had flashes of success while going 1-1 with a 6.64 ERA in 42 innings. He surrendered 13 homers, though, and found himself back in the minors to begin 1970, a year that proved to be as pivotal and crucial in many respects as 1971 would be.
He spent most of 1970 with the Iowa Oaks of the Tripe-A American Association and went 12-3 with a 2.17 ERA in 17 starts. He missed some time due to some wear and tear and that, along with getting called up to Oakland, left him a few innings shy of winning the league ERA title. Still, he led the league in strikeouts [165 in 133 innings] and winning percentage while allowing only 88 hits.
Blue learned how “to pitch” that summer, too. He moved away from being just a hard thrower and the result was the 1971 foundation being laid in September of 1970. He made his Major League season debut on Labor Day in a doubleheader opener against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. While he connected for a three-run homer in that affair, the Sox roughed him up. Blue lasted only 4 1/3 innings, giving up four runs on seven hits and a pair of walks.
A one-hitter against Kansas City followed – he gave up a two-out single to Pat Kelly in the eighth – and Blue had his first win of the season. Then came a no-decision at Milwaukee before a Sept. 21 game against Minnesota in which Blue tossed a no-hitter. He struck out nine and only a fourth-inning walk to Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew stood between Blue and perfection. Blue outdueled eventual Cy Young winner Jim Perry, who also tossed a complete game in Oakland’s 6-0 victory.
“It seems like yesterday,” Blue said of 1971. “The toughest part was being in new territory. In Burlington or Iowa you didn’t really have media to worry about. Now, all of a sudden, you come into the Big Apple and guys [reporters] are waiting for you. It didn’t matter if the team gets in late, you have to be obliging enough to give them quotes.
“It was a great time, though. I was on the cover of Look, Life, Newsweek, Time; all the stars were aligned for a kid from Louisiana. I tried to absorb it and enjoy it. I still get copies of those magazines to sign. That might pick up this year because it’s the 50th anniversary.”
The greatest year of Blue’s career started with a whimper, though. He pitched at Washington in the season-opener, took the loss and was gone after 1 2/3 innings having given up four runs [one earned] on three hits and four walks.
That game would be only one of the minor inconveniences for Blue that season. He won his next 10 decisions [11 starts], tossing five shutouts over that stretch. His ERA for the season stood at a microscopic 1.03 heading into a May 28 start at Boston, where he surrendered a season-high four earned runs for his second loss.
Blue went on another wild run after that loss, going 9-2 through the end of July. Included in that stretch were 11 shutout innings against California in which he received a no-decision on July 9. He followed that with a start in the 1971 All-Star game at Detroit. While the game is largely remembered for Reggie Jackson’s towering home run onto the roof of Tiger Stadium [he was actually pinch-hitting for Blue], it was Blue who got the start and picked up the victory despite allowing homers to Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron.
“That All-Star game was pretty cool and fortunately I got a lot of face time from that All-Star appearance,” Blue said. “Hank Aaron hit a homer off me, his first in All-Star competition and Johnny Bench hit a homer that went almost as far as the one Reggie hit. Some people said that Tiger Stadium wasn’t a pitcher’s park but it was nothing to be ashamed of to give up a home run to Aaron and Bench.
“And, I got to face my childhood hero, Willie Mays. You could tell his legs were gone by that point but he was still my favorite. He’s just Willie Mays.”
Blue remained hot into August, winning three of his first four starts that month, including his 20th on Aug. 7 against the White Sox. He was 22-4 by Aug. 15 and the idea that he could win 30 games had become a talking point around baseball. However, he went 2-4 over his last nine starts as his ERA ticked up from 1.70 to 1.82.
“By the end of the year I probably hit that wall,” said Blue, who finished the season with 312 innings pitched. “My body was burnt out. I was done. Players today pitch five innings, qualify for the win and hope that the bullpen can bridge some innings together. I don’t know if they are playing for the love of the game but I played for the love of the game.
“Some guys see this as strictly business but I played for fun. If I knew then what I know now I would have had a different approach. I have no regrets, though, because I think Vida Blue the person is 10 times better than Vida Blue the baseball player.”
Blue started Game 1 of the American League Championship Series and lost, allowing five runs in seven innings to the Baltimore Orioles. It closed the book on his season and he would never have another like it. He held nearly everyone in check that year save for a few folks like the late Jim Spencer, who was 8-for-13 against Blue with a homer and a pair of RBIs. Lou Piniella hit .500 against him in 10 at-bats and Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew hit .357 but the overwhelming successes against Blue were few and far between.
A few weeks after the Worlds Series, Blue took home his hardware. He received 14 first-place votes for Cy Young to squeak by Detroit’s Mickey Lolich, who went 25-14 with 308 strikeouts in a whopping 376 innings. Chicago’s Wilbur Wood [22-13] garnered the only other first-place vote. The path to the MVP wasn’t as tough. Blue outdistanced teammate Sal Bando, 14 first-place votes to four, and remains the last switch hitter to win an American league MVP.
“I was back in Louisiana when they were giving out awards,” Blue said. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal one way or another. Okay, I won a Cy Young. I was in the right place at the right time and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I am pretty lucky to have gotten the awards but things happen for a reason.
“And being the last switch hitter is nice but someone will come along and break that record. It’s good [trivia] to win a drink in a bar, though.”
The Oakland A’s dynastic run was underway despite losing to Baltimore in the 1971 ALCS. The A’s would win three consecutive World Series crowns – only the Yankees [1998-2000] have equaled that feat – and would also win the AL West in 1975. Blue played a major role in most of that run despite feuding with Oakland owner Charlie Finley and holding out prior to the 1972 season.
He rejoined the club in May after contentious negotiations and never really got untracked. Blue did appear in 25 games [23 starts] in 1972 but was 6-10. He pitched mostly out of the bullpen during the ALCS and World Series as Oakland defeated Cincinnati in seven games.
“Charlie Finley was a combination of Ted Turner, George Steinbrenner, Donald Trump and Al Davis,” Blue said. “He was quite the character. He was a self-made guy, the Al Davis of baseball. He was always trying to make a buck for his team and went against things everyone else was doing.”
Blue experienced a return to normalcy in 1973, 74 and 75 winning 20, 17 and 22 games respectively as the A’s captured two more World Series Crowns. However, he finished a distant sixth in Cy Young voting in 1975 as Jim Palmer took top honors and former teammate Catfish Hunter finished second while teammate Rollie Fingers was third in the voting.
MOVING ACROSS THE BAY
The A’s saw their historical run end following the ’75 season though Blue had a fine year in 1976, going 18-13 with a 2.35 ERA. Finley, however, had been breaking pieces of the team off, trading players and auctioning them off whenever possible leaving the A’s as a shell of themselves. Blue would be impacted as well after leading the league in losses  in 1977.
“The ultimate goal is to make it to the World Series and we won three in a row, which was outstanding,” Blue said. “In my first four years we had quite a run and in ’75 we got beat by the Red Sox. That gave them the right to play Cincinnati and I think we had a chance to [continue to] win. But Catfish Hunter went to the Yankees, Reggie Jackson went to Baltimore, Fingers went to San Diego, Joe Rudi went to Anaheim, Bando went to Milwaukee. We were scattered all over the place and in the winter of ‘78 I got traded to San Francisco.”
Blue made a successful debut across the bay, winning 18 games in San Francisco in 1978 and 46 through his first three seasons but he would never taste the success, either personally or on the team level, that he did in Oakland. He was ultimately traded to the Royals and returned to the Giants for two uneventful seasons before retiring following the 1986 season.
“The Giants had a good young team but they didn’t realize how good they were,” Blue said. “They had Jack Clark and Larry Herndon and the staff was me, Bob Knepper, John Montefusco, Ed Halicki, Randy Moffitt, and Gary Lavelle. It was a pretty balanced team but none of them had ever played championship ball. It was interesting because none of them knew what winning baseball was like.
“Kansas City were lost years. I wasn’t received the way I thought I was going to be received. They had George Brett and Amos Otis; it was a pretty decent team and I thought I was going to be the missing piece. I worked my tail off in Kansas City. It wasn’t that I wanted them to bow down to me I just don’t think I was treated the way I anticipated I was going to be treated and it didn’t work out.”
Blue was imprisoned for nearly three months after an off-the-field drug issue arose during his time in Kansas City. He was also suspended by then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for the 1984 season before returning to the Giants in 1985.
“Life has its ups and downs and you have to roll with the punches,” Blue said. “I know now that I have better character than I had then. I am ashamed of what happened but you have to go on with your life. That’s part of what life is about – lowlights and highlights.”
And Blue certainly had more of the latter than the former, particularly in 1971.