VIDA ROCHELLE BLUE JR.
Of late, I’ve been writing about those whose time on our planet has run out.
Sands of the hourglass, I suppose.
To name a recent few.
It’s not that I’m obsessed with death.
Rather, sometimes it takes the finality of a passing to further illuminate the lives and bring them into sharper focus.
Vida Blue fits neatly into this understanding.
He came from nowhere–Mansfield, LA–to become the best pitcher in baseball in 1971.
He made himself a Bay Area legend.
A left-handed starting pitcher from 1969–1986, he was an integral member of the Oakland As–owned by the bombastic Charles O. Finley–who won it all in 1972-’74.
Three consecutive World Series championships.
The next team to accomplish that–and the last to do so–was the Yankees (1998–2000).
The Bombers also won four in a row (1936-’39).
And five in a row (1949-’53), the longest streak in MLB history.
Although 1971 was a year for the ages with Blue winning both the AL MVP and Cy Young Awards, it began before that.
[1971: 24–8; 1.82 ERA; 24 Complete Games; 8 Shutouts.
312 Innings Pitched–the most in nearly 60 years by a pitcher in his first full season.]
Four years earlier he was drafted but was such a dynamic football quarterback at DeSoto High School in Mansfield–he threw for 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns while running for 1,600 yards–that Notre Dame, among many others, wanted him.
But baseball could offer money.
For a paltry $25,000 bonus–even then, for a talent like his–he signed with the Kansas City Athletics to help out his family after his father’s death.
The eldest of 6 children, he assumed the mantle of family provider.
By September of 1970, he had twirled a one-hit shutout and ten days later, a no-hitter in the big leagues, the fourth-youngest pitcher ever to author a no-no.
He was 20.
When Hall-of-Fame manager Tony LaRussa watched Blue pitch for the AAA Iowa Oaks on a May night in ’70, he saw him strike out 14 Evansville batters in nine innings and get two hits at the plate.
Said LaRussa, pretty much a career minor league player–now 78–about that night,
“There are minor leaguers, there are big leaguers, and then there’s that higher league of All-Stars and Hall of Famers.
And that was Vida, and he was 20 years old.”
His next season was meteoric to say the least.
And there was nothing fancy about it.
Dave Duncan, Blue’s former catcher, now 77–and a longtime big league pitching coach– espoused this:
“If he threw 120 pitches, 115 of them were fastballs.
He hardly ever threw a curveball and didn’t have a changeup.
He had great control of it–he’d put it right on the hands of right-handers and right on the hands of left-handers.
And he didn’t miss.
He was amazing.”
Buck Martinez, a former catcher, struck out all three times he faced Blue in 1971.
And 15 times overall.
His most against any pitcher in a 17-year major league career.
Martinez does recall an occasional curveball amid the tsunami of overpowering heaters.
“You could hear it spin, it was so tight.
Everybody wanted to see Vida pitch, even if he was gonna stick it to you.”
Vida Blue died last Saturday (May 6) at 73 from cancer.
Last month he visited the site of his former glory–the decaying and soon to be doomed Oakland Coliseum–for a celebration of the 1973 champs.
Fifty years ago.
Worn out from chemo, he was weak and frail.
An aide at his left elbow, clutching a long cane in his right hand, he did it.
With his uncommon athletic grace.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in May 2023.]