By David Mullen
The 1971 Oakland A’s burst onto the baseball scene with flash and panache. They had broken baseball taboos with bright green and gold uniforms and white shoes.
The A’s moved to Oakland in 1968 from Kansas City, where they never had a winning season. They were led by the irascible Charles O. Finley, an absentee owner as stubborn as the team mascot Charlie O. the Mule. Finley split time between a Chicago penthouse and his ranch in LaPorte, Ind.
With the A’s move to Oakland, an area previously monopolized by the San Francisco Giants had a second team. Missouri Senator Stuart Symington publicly blasted Finley and called Oakland, “the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”
In 1968, the A’s finished 82-80. It was the franchise’s first winning season since the Philadelphia A’s won 81 games in 1949. While the A’s improved in both 1969 and 1970, they would finish second each year to the Minnesota Twins.
To Finley’s credit, he had an eye for talent. He drafted Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson out of Arizona State University, signed Rollie Fingers out of junior college and had earlier signed pitcher Jim Hunter, who scouts shunned because shotgun pellets were lodged in his foot from a hunting accident.
Finley sent Hunter to the Mayo Clinic. Finley thought Hunter needed a colorful nickname and dubbed him “Catfish.” Hunter went on to win 224 MLB games and was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
In the 1967 MLB draft, Finley chose a left-handed pitcher and quarterback from Mansfield, La. He was a Louisiana legend. In his senior year, he threw for 3,400 yards, 35 touchdowns and rushed for 1,600 yards. In baseball, he threw a seven-inning no-hitter with 21 strikeouts.
His name was Vida Blue. Despite Finley’s attempt to persuade the youngster to change his name to “True’ Blue, in 1971, everyone would know him as Vida.
Blue made his Major League debut with the A’s at 19 in late 1969. In 1970, he was a September call-up and made two starts: a 3-0, one-hit shutout against the Kansas City Royals and a no-hitter against the Twins, striking out nine and walking one. A’s radio voice Monte Moore labeled his fastball the “Blue Blazer.”
Blue started on Opening Day in 1971 and was shelled in 1.2 innings. The A’s lost 8-0 to the Washington Senators (a year away from becoming the Texas Rangers). Four days later, on April 9, Blue shut out the Royals, striking out 13 in a rain-shortened six inning game, which launched a 10-game winning streak. He wouldn’t lose until May 28 in Boston before 35,714 at Fenway Park.
In 1971, Pro Football had become America’s game. Baseball was suffering in attention and attendance. Only three AL teams drew more than one million fans in 1970. In 1971, Blue was the spark baseball desperately needed.
A June Saturday game in Washington D.C. drew 6,231 fans. The next day, when Blue started, attendance was 40,246. In Anaheim, the Angels drew 13,154 for a Saturday game versus Oakland. The next day, Blue drew 44,631 at the “Big A.” At Yankee Stadium, the A’s played New York on a Saturday in front of 16,318 fans. On Sunday, Blue pitched before 45,343.
At the 1971 All-Star break, Blue was 18-3 and the AL All-Star Game starter. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, TIME, The Sporting News, Ebony and Jet. He was a guest on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.”
During his Washington D.C. visit, President Richard Nixon invited Blue to the White House. Nixon noted Blue’s $14,750 annual salary and said, “You must be the most underpaid player in the game.”
Blue finished with a 24-8 record, 24 complete games, eight shutouts and an AL leading 1.82 ERA. He struck out 301 batters. Blue won both the 1971 AL Cy Young Award and the AL MVP Award. It is considered one of the most dominant pitching seasons by a left-hander in MLB history.
The 1971 A’s won the AL West by 16 games with a 101-60 record but were still very young. They were swept by the veteran Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS. Blue asked for a substantial raise for 1972 and Finley refused. Blue did not report to Oakland until late May after settling for $50,000.
In 1972, Finley sent Rick Monday to the Chicago Cubs for starter Ken Holtzman. Hunter, Holtzman and Blue would lead the A’s to three consecutive World Series titles from 1972 through 1974. Blue had two more 20-win seasons in Oakland.
Anticipating MLB’s impending free agency, Finley tried to sell Blue to the Yankees in 1976 and trade him to the Cincinnati Reds for $1.75 million in 1977. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn nixed both deals in “the best interest of baseball.” In 1978, Blue was traded to the cross-bay Giants for seven players and $300,000. Blue played for six years during two stints in San Francisco and made the All-Star team three times.
In 1982, Blue was traded to the Royals. In 1983, Blue was arrested with teammate Willie Wilson and two others for attempting to purchase cocaine. He was sentenced to three months in prison and was suspended for the 1984 season. Any serious consideration to enter Baseball’s HOF were dashed. He told The Washington Post, “Man I blew it.”
In 1987, he signed with Oakland and announced his retirement. Always popular and personable, Blue took community relations positions with both the Giants and the A’s.
The last time I spoke to Blue, he looked healthy and was characteristically happy and humble. On April 18, the A’s honored the 1973 World Championship team at the Oakland Coliseum. Blue attended, but his once chiseled frame had vanished like a Blue Blazer into a catcher’s mitt.
On May 6, former MVP, Cy Young Award winner, six time All-Star and three-time World Series champion Vida Blue died. He was 73.
Blue was an accidental superstar. Many will remember Blue for his unhittable fastball. But it is no exaggeration to believe that during his remarkable 1971 season, the 21-year-old Blue helped save the American League.