Vida Blue is an essential part of telling baseball’s story
No number could ever describe the Oakland Athletics pitcher’s impact on baseball, America and Black folks
On April 14, when a 1955 Cadillac Thunderbird pulled around the warning track at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the man riding shotgun needed no introduction. Instead, just like so many of his dominant performances on the mound decades ago in that very ballpark, he introduced himself. With a glistening kelly green pullover Oakland Athletics jersey on that had his entire name on the back, Vida Blue opened the door and gave the adoring crowd a thumbs-up. He walked with the assistance of a cane and it would be his final public appearance.
Blue died May 6 from complications due to cancer. On that day at the park, he was being honored as part of the 50th anniversary of 1973 World Series championship team, a squad that was smack dab in the middle of a three-year championship run in the Bay Area, the only franchise not named the New York Yankees that has done that in baseball.
To say that Blue was a critical part of that A’s team would be an understatement. His statistics are eye-popping to the modern eye. A six-time All-Star pitcher, he’s the only player to win MVP, a Cy Young Award, three championships and 200 games on the mound. But there is no number that could ever really describe Blue’s impact on baseball, America and Black folks.
For all the Bonds, Griffeys, Thomas and Sabathias of our world, baseball hadn’t seen a star like Blue before he arrived in the major leagues and arguably hasn’t since. His heyday wasn’t just his own, it was a high point for the culture in general in America. Playing alongside another dynamic personality, right fielder Reggie Jackson, very much a star in his own right, when you take a snapshot of that span from 1969 (Blue’s debut) to 1974 in the United States, you’re reminded of a time that your uncles used to call “the good old days.”
For someone who never saw Blue, I had a very vivid image in my mind of Blue’s impact. The high leg kick, the smooth lefty delivery, the Hollywood good looks, tremendous stuff on delivery. What I didn’t know was that he possessed the kind of earnestness that only comes with someone who broke into the majors at the big age of 19. Looking back on his legacy, the honesty with which he presented himself is almost shocking when compared with the athletes of today. While the world and nation were different then, they weren’t that different and you can tell by the media at the time.
The cover of Time magazine’s Aug. 23, 1971, issue has one headline: New Zip in the Old Game. The image on the front is a watercolor painting by Bob Peak depicting Blue in his signature delivery pitching pose, wearing the white cutoff jersey with green sleeves and yellow socks, the iconic A’s look that the team brought with them from Kansas City, Missouri, when it moved to Oakland, California, in 1968. The headline on the Time story was A Bolt of Blue Lightning and reading the story, you’d think someone was telling you a fairy tale.
From the story:
The school had no baseball team at the time, but when [the principal] first saw Vida smoking them in on the sandlot, he decided to organize one to “exploit the potential of Blue.” A diamond was laid out in a corner of the football field. There were no fences to hit the ball over, and the lightpoles for the football field cut through the outfield. It didn’t matter. Once, when Blue was pitching in a game, DeSoto High Baseball Coach Clyde Washington recalls that he caught his centerfielder leaning against one of the lightpoles. “I told him to straighten up,” says Washington. “He said, ‘why, coach? The ball’s not coming out here.’ That’s how much confidence they had in Vida’s pitching. He was overpowering.”
Too overpowering, in fact. In one seven-inning game, he pitched a no-hitter, struck out 21 men — and lost. “Vida’s problem was somebody to catch him,” explains Washington.“There were a lot of passed balls and dropped third strikes.” Blue’s old batter mate, Elijah Williams, remembers that he had to “cut off the fingers of a winter glove and wear that inside my mitt, but my hand still swole up after every game.” Adds Washington: “We bought the best catcher’s mitts and give him sponges. Still his hand would swell up. He couldn’t catch again for 3 days.”
It’s not like the stories are just from the rural South either. The real-life version was a superhero as well. After an up-and-down first season with the A’s after a late call-up in 1969, when he finally got back in 1970, the accomplishments mounted again. For a stretch in September, the feats are almost stranger than fiction. In his first start, he hit a three-run homer to help his team beat the Chicago White Sox. Then he threw a one-hitter against the Kansas City Royals. Then, a couple weeks later, a no-hitter against the Minnesota Twins.
He was a switch-hitting pitcher who threw 143 complete games in the bigs.
Blue’s legacy is woefully underplayed by MLB overall, a guy who managed to be the most obvious standout on a squad that featured Jackson, the famously mustachioed Rollie Fingers and of course their wacky owner Charles Finley, the kind of human who tried to get Blue to change his name legally to True Blue for marketing purposes. The lefty from Louisiana wasn’t just popular in the streets, he was a hell of a friend.
“My first experiences with Black pitchers were Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal, though he wasn’t Black, he was Dominican. But those were my two first recognitions of Black pitchers,” Dave Stewart, legendary A’s pitcher, said in the days following his friend Blue’s death. “And then the ’80s came and it was Blue Moon Odom. But Blue was a different species than Blue Moon. He was left-handed. God, he threw hard as hell. He was the true definition of a power pitcher. I remember his first games in the big leagues.
“But Reggie Jackson, who I had a relationship with since 1968 and knew very well as a kid, [I] became privileged enough to get tickets from him and rides home from him after games. Sometimes he’d pick me up even before games to bring me to the ballpark. I ended up having the privilege of meeting Vida when I was like 12 or 13 years old.”
For Stewart, the relationship was more than one of convenience. He and Blue were effectively the two youngest people around the club, but one was in little league and the other on the mound at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
“My parents are from Louisiana, from New Orleans and Lake Charles. And as you know, Vida is from Louisiana. And there’s something about people from Louisiana that, in my opinion, was and is still totally different from anybody that you’ll meet across this country, which is, they are welcoming people and everybody’s a friend. And Vida treated people like that no matter [what] … [He was] Very respectful of his elders and very kind to youth,” Stewart explained. “And when you’re a kid, you’re just excited about being around a major leaguer. But when I really recognized who Vida was is when I became a professional and had the opportunity from one professional to another to really experience Vida, and experience Vida with people in his environment around his peers. And Vida was one of the kindest, giving people that I’ve ever been around. And there’s no bad days with Vida publicly.”
When you ask people about him, reactions vary from anywhere between flippant and bemused. Mainly because, what do you say? His personality and name were such a force in the sports world that you didn’t need to say much more than his name to conjure up the feelings of his heyday. Sure, it was a different time, but it was also a time when athletes could be a little bit more honest and the concept of “access” was a completely different world.
In 1971, Blue won the American League MVP. He also won the Cy Young and led the league in ERAs. A fantastic season by all accounts. But he held out for more money, because his owner was clearly getting him at a discount, which led to a very public feud that involved a holdout. On the cover of the October 1972 Ebony magazine, the headline reads Next Year Is Going To Be Different on a story written by none other than Blue himself.
In an era in which magazines were oversized and ran nearly 200 pages long, right there on Page 133 is a full-page picture of Blue standing next to a weight bench, wearing nothing but purple Speedos and showing off his smile. The story goes into the specifics of his contract negotiations and his feelings about his career and what he wants to work on as a man, never mind a player. A shockingly honest and fun look at what life was like to be a walking Black star from humble beginnings. Coincidentally enough, also in that issue, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Sounder, the movie based on the 1969 Newbery Award-winning novel of the same name.
That film, which starred Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, chronicles the life of a sharecropping Black family in Louisiana and their struggles to keep food on the table and their family together. There’s even a baseball scene in the film, in which Winfield shows off his stuff in a local league with his people watching. An adorably gripping look at Black life in the South, the similarities to Blue’s life are fascinating. The film received several Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture.
“Through my life I’ve been able to pick up different things from a lot of different people. People that have really, really touched my life. And with Vida, it’s just, not that he said it, but he displayed it, that everybody is special. Everybody from the bum on the street to the president of the United States. And I don’t know that he ever got a chance to meet any of our presidents, but Vida treated everybody special,” Stewart said.
In the Ebony story, he challenges himself to be a better player while chronicling his own feelings about what the toll of everyday life in the big leagues is for a young man of his age, with so many eyeballs on him regularly.
“If everything works out right, my team, the Oakland Athletics, will be preparing to win the World Series when this story happens,” Blue wrote. “If they are not, I’ll have to shoulder a part of the blame.” They did win the World Series in 1972. That year, the next year and the one after that, too.
The image burned in our brains of Blue features him in an A’s uniform. But his legacy certainly didn’t end there. It continued, nearby, right across the bay.
“He throws a fastball, like it was shot from a gun/ everybody’s talking, that he’s No. 1/ He’s good looking, throws BB too./ … Vida’s still a youngster, yeah he’s just a boy/ But let me tell you, he’s the real McCoy.“
The opening lyrics of Albert Jones’ 1971 song, obviously titled “Vida Blue,” are simple but brilliant. An upbeat R&B/funk jam released by Tri-City Records, its soulful guitar licks and melody eventually served as the opening track to the San Francisco Giants postgame show on KNBR 680, where he did on-air work with Bill Laskey, whom he overlapped with for one season playing together at Candlestick Park.
Laskey and Blue were fast friends and you can hear it in Laskey’s voice when he talks about the man he considers one of kind. Blue’s career ended in The Town, but not before he won National League Pitcher of the Year from The Sporting News, after starting for the NL in the 1978 All-Star Game in San Diego.
Laskey had admired him as a young man and even a teammate, but after they both retired, their buddy cop relationship took off.
“After we retired out of baseball, the Giants, I still lived here. Vida was still in East Bay. The Giants asked us to be commissioners, kind of ambassadors and we were ambassadors for the Giants. And we started hanging out,” Laskey said. “We started doing appearances at the ballpark. We were doing sweep visits. We started doing corporate batting practices. And I’d be hitting ground balls. He’d be hitting fly balls and we’d throw BP at the end. And we just started hanging out and we just got along. We were always at the same places. Heck, we did boccie ball tournaments.”
Lawn bowling, with Vida Blue. Can you even imagine? We’re talking about a guy who wore his first name on the back of his jersey for a time, and also, got married on the pitcher’s mound at Candlestick with his former teammate Willie McCovey as his best man. If that’s not a baseball life, I don’t know what is.
Laskey and Blue did six years together on TV, including the stretch in which the Giants won the World Series in 2012. They ended up on the parade broadcast together, and ever the human, Blue was still humble enough to remember what brought him there in the first place.
“We’re on the big screens at City Hall with hundreds of thousands of people. And somebody texted me and said, ‘look at this,’ ” Laskey told me earlier this month. “And they had hundreds of thousands of millions of people. And here we’re on the screen, and I go, ‘Vida, look.’ And I never saw a man clam up, quiet down. He’s like, ‘Oh, my God, look how many people are watching us. Look at this. Look at how many people are watching.’ And I said, ‘relax.’ The next segment he clammed up, he didn’t want to talk. And I’m like, s—. So he ended up loosening it up, we got it done. We ended up winning an Emmy for the parade.”
Natural talent is exactly that, and Blue had it in droves. In nearly 20 years in the bigs, he only made 19 errors. He also had 37 shutouts in his career and threw 300 innings in a year. These things just don’t happen anymore. For a guy who could most likely have played pro football, the numbers are staggering.
But the politics of life got in the way of Blue’s legacy being correctly remembered across the baseball world. He’s not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame after various run-ins with the law and substance abuse began to affect his personal life.
“You know what, I’ll tell you this. He’s the friend you want. He’s the guy that’ll be there in a second. He’s the guy that had a heart of gold and he was the guy that when he needed help, he’d call me. I mean, we were friends. We were best friends,” Laskey recalled wistfully. “I tell people I didn’t care if he was Black. He didn’t care if I was white. We knew that we had each other’s backs all the time. When he needed something, he would call me. And I had a couple problems. He was there for me when he had his DUIs; when he was put in jail, I was there to visit him. We had a bond like two brothers.”
Maybe one day the powers that be will have sense enough to put Blue in Cooperstown, New York. Maybe some up-and-coming public servant will find a way to put a statue of Blue and that leg kick somewhere outside of a ballpark in the Bay one day. It was estimated that when he pitched for Oakland, even on the road, 15,000 more people would show up to see him.
Whatever we think history provides us for America’s pastime, there’s no world in which the story of baseball can be properly told without Blue. Both teams in the Bay Area have put a patch of his name on their jerseys for the rest of the season. But no piece of clothing can ever match his importance to the fabric of MLB.