I’m talkin’ baseball—like Reggie, Quisenberry
Talkin’ baseball—Carew and Gaylord Perry
Seaver, Garvey, Schmidt, and Vida Blue
If Cooperstown is calling, it’s no fluke—
they’ll be with Willie, Mickey and the Duke.
—Terry Cashman, “Willie, Mickey and the Duke (Talkin’ Baseball),” 1981.
Out of 24 major league rookies to throw no-hitters, Vida Blue had the greatest sophomore season of the group—including the only Hall of Famer among them, Christy Mathewson. That sophomore season made him a national phenomenon, a Time cover star, a Cy Young Award winner, the American League’s Most Valuable Player . . . and a particular victim of then-Athletics owner Charlie Finley’s notorious caprice.
Blue died at 73 Sunday. He’d never again equal that surrealistic 1971, after his owner left him feeling worthless during offseason contract talks that took a turn called nasty even by Finley’s contradictory standards. He’d be a good pitcher who never again got anywhere near the greatness his 1971 promised.
On 21 September 1970, Blue struck nine Twins out (including Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew twice), walked one, and landed a 6-0 gem supported by a run-scoring double play in the first and a five-run eighth, finished when A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris—in the middle of a very unlikely 22-homer season (he averaged five per 162 games lifetime)—yanked a three-run bomb with two out off the Twins’ Jim Perry.
Slightly over a year later, Blue finished that Time season credited with his 24th win, before what looked like a certain American League Championship Series Game One triumph turned into disaster: leading the Orioles 3-1 entering the bottom of the seventh, Blue and the A’s were torn for four runs, two scored by Hall of Famers Frank and Brooks Robinson, en route a 5-3 loss that led to being swept out in three.
Still, Blue sat atop baseball’s mountain. No Show sophomore sat higher. As Time put it with a corner banner on his cover issue, the 21-year-old lefthander put “new zip in the old game.” He’d posted a staggering 1.82 earned run average, a 0.95 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and a 2.20 fielding-independent pitching rate. On the mound he looked taller than his six feet with his knee-up, arm-whip delivery. And, with a fastball considered the hardest that didn’t belong to Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
As would be said of another ill-fated child prodigy, Dwight Gooden, over a decade later, Blue was great before he’d even had much chance just to be good. He stood at 22 as the youngest man ever to win an MVP and the youngest (until Gooden over a decade later) to win a Cy Young Award. Analysts determined that one out of every twelve tickets to American League games were sold for his starts.
Even President Richard Nixon got into the act, when learning Blue’s 1971 salary ($14,500) was barely above rhe rookie minimum. Nixon called Blue “the most underpaid player in baseball.”
Then it came time to talk contract for 1972, in the days before Curt Flood lost his reserve clause challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court and well before Andy Messersmith pitched contract-less and prevailed to finish what Flood started. No player that offseason would better evoke the once-fabled malaprop of radio comedy legend Jane Ace: “You’ve got to take the bitter with the better.”
Audaciously, Blue engaged an agent and asked for a $100,000 salary for 1972. It happened, according to Jason Turbow’s Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, when Blue’s veteran teammate Tommy Davis—seeing him drowning in endorsement offers—introduced him to a California attorney named Bob Gerst, who agreed to represent Blue for a flat fee instead of percentages per.
You can only imagine how little Finley loved that idea. The same Finley who’d crowed during Blue’s sensational season, “Don’t you worry about him making money. He is going to make money. He is going to get more than money. He is going to get great things from this game. I’m going to see that he gets great things. I’m going to protect him.”
Come 8 January 1972, Finley proved just how much he’d protect Blue. Aghast as it was that Blue had Gerst in tow, Finley simply couldn’t resist talking down to the earnest lefthander.
Well, I know you won twenty-four games. I know you led the league in earned-run average. I know you had three hundred strikeouts. [Actually, 301, but let’s not get technical.—JK.] I know you made the All-Star team. I know you were the youngest to win the Cy Young Award and the MVP. I know all that. And if I was you, I would ask for the same thing. And you deserve it. But I ain’t gonna give it to you.
“He said it with a smirk,” Blue would say later, “and, man, it made me want to slide under the table.” This was the kid who’d gone on a USO tour of Vietnam with comedy legend Bob Hope and, when Hope asked how come he didn’t get more money from Finley, cracked, “Well, Mr. Finley claimed I was only using one arm.” Who knows how much of a strand of truth that crack contained?
The talks became contentious enough that Finley took them public while Gerst helped swing a profitable non-baseball job for Blue to prove he wasn’t kidding around. A’s players were torn between believing Blue should get every dollar he thought he was worth and wishing he’d sign for Finley’s proffered $50,000 just to be among them.
Blue even announced he would leave baseball for that job with a successful bathroom fixtures manufacturer. (Wags suggested Blue was going down the toilet.) Finley’s pressures included making Davis—maybe the team’s most valuable bench player in 1971—a scapegoat for introducing Blue to Gerst, and rather nastily. He ordered a very unwilling manager Dick Williams to wait until the A’s arrived at the ballpark, for a spring exhibition game three hours from home, before telling Davis he was released—and leaving Davis to find his own way home. (Turbow recorded that the A’s traveling seceretary loaned Davis his car.)
Blue got some relief from baseball’s first-ever players strike, over a 17 percent pension hike, the players finally agreeing to settle for a little over half that. Finley kept the pressure up, acquiring once-glittering but shoulder-ruined righthander Denny McLain and trading popular outfielder Rick Monday to the Cubs for pitcher Ken Holtzman. Finally, commissioner Bowie Kuhn interceded.
“It wasn’t that Finley’s $50,000 offer was outrageous, the Commissioner said,” Turbow wrote, “but that ‘Finley had a way of making it seem so’.” Blue finally came away with a $63,000 1972 salary. “He treated me like a damn coloured boy,” the lefthander told two California newspapermen when the deal was done. “Charlie Finley has soured my stomach for baseball. Tonight isn’t tell it like it is. Tonight is tell it like I feel.”
After being part of three straight A’s World Series titles, after being one of the players whose sales post-Messersmith Finley tried but Kuhn foolishly blocked*, and after a trade to the Giants that saw him become the first pitcher to start All-Star Games for each league, Blue would move on to the Royals—and become one of five teammates sent to the slammer on drug charges after the 1983 season.
Blue struggled with cocaine addiction until he retired before the 1987 season. He became a pre- and postgame television analyst for Giants games; he became known for philanthropy in the Bay Area and as a role model for children he worked with through a Giants’ outreach program. His marriage (the couple walked under a an arc of bats held by Giants players as they walked to the Candlestick Park mound) ended in divorce; he may have beaten cocaine but struggled further with drinking.
Maybe the Finley contract contretemps roots it. He became “bitter and withdrawn,” noted John Helyar in The Lords of the Realm, “eventually developing a drug problem that landed him in court.” Except that, somehow, away from the field, Blue remained likeable and magnetic.
“Vida’s such a wonderful guy,” said Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda to the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea in 2005, after Blue was dinged for driving under the influence. He’s been through a lot, but he likes to keep things inside. I went through some tough times myself, and sometimes you’ve got to open up and accept help from your friends.”
And, your children. Blue had a son and two daughters; the son, Derrick, told Shea, He’s got great people skills, and I think that’s been a downfall. People have let him get away with more. People come to me and say, ‘He’s a great guy. He took us out drinking and partying.’ I cringe. That’s what’s wrong with being professional athletes, my dad included.”
A one-time A’s teammate, ill-fated pitcher Mike Norris—one of the early 1980s “Five Aces” said to be ruined by temperamental manager Billy Martin’s callousness toward pitchers and their workloads and by his own issues with drugs—wondered to Shea just how much substance abuse ruined Blue when Finley hadn’t.
I wanted to be the best black pitcher in the history of baseball, the first to win thirty games, but I screwed it up. So you kick yourself in the ass about it. Maybe I could’ve been in the Hall of Fame. It sounds cocky, but winning twenty games wasn’t hard for me. [Substance abuse] led to my arm injury. Being addicted, you’re not going to eat or sleep. You can’t play this game without eating or sleeping. Vida had the best fastball I’ve ever seen, and that includes [Hall of Famer] Nolan Ryan or anyone else. It was inevitable he’d go to the Hall of Fame. I believe . . . Finley turned him off to baseball. If he left him alone, there’s no telling what would have happened to this beautiful person.
Most recently, Blue took part in an A’s celebration marking the half-centenary of their 1973 World Series winners. Who knows what went through Blue’s mind and heart, riding in a classic, antique Thunderbird convertible, around a ballpark left gone to seed, hosting an A’s team left in ruins by an owner who might, maybe, make Finley resemble a kindly grandfather by comparison?
“I know he hung on for that last anniversary celebration like the absolute gamer he was,” tweeted Dallas Braden, another ill-fated A’s pitcher, whose Mother’s Day perfect game was the highlight of a career rendered brief by a shredded shoulder, and who’s since been an A’s game analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area. “Rest easy, Mr. Blue.”
We wish Blue’s family comfort in knowing the man will be remembered for what he was, for what his boss did to him, and for how he tried every time his addiction demons flattened him to flatten them right back. And we wish Blue nothing less than a deserved rest in the Elysian Fields, with the Lord’s embrace, forgiveness, and love.
* In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James probably said it best about Bowie Kuhn’s quash of the notorious Charlie Finley fire sale bid of 1976:
[It] was an ignorant, bone-headed, destructive policy which had no foundation in anything except that Kuhn hated Charlie Finley and saw that he could drive Finley out of the game by denying him the right to sell his [star] players.
What Kuhn should have done, if he had been thinking about the best interests of the game, is adopt the Landis policy: rule that players could be sold for whatever they would bring, but 30% of the money had to go to the players. Had he done that, the effect would have been to allow the rich teams to acquire more of the best players, as they do now. But this policy would have allowed the rich teams to strengthen themselves without inflating the salary structure, and would have allowed the weaker teams, the Montreal-type teams, to remain financially competitive by profiting from developing young players.
“The Landis policy” refers to longtime commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s suggestion—un-acted upon, of course—after Pacific Coast League star Earl Averill refused to report to the Cleveland Indians unless he got a percentage of the sale price the Indians paid the San Francisco Seals to buy him. It may have been the single smartest idea Landis ever had, and it fell on the proverbial deaf ears.
The players on Finley’s fire-sale market were Blue, Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers, and outfielder Joe Rudi.