"His arm will never last with that throwing motion."
-My step-dad, the genius amateur baseball scout pontificating on Vida Blue
"He throws as hard as anyone I've ever faced."
In 1974, Vida Rochelle Blue was an established superstar with two championships under his belt, and a third would be earned that year. Only one season removed from his second 20+ win season, he'd been pitching in bad luck, and poor run support all season. After losing his first four decisions of the season, he went 7-4 in May and June, leading up to the fourth of July game at the "Big A" in Anaheim. Just ten days earlier, he'd gone eight strong innings against former Athletics manager Dick Williams' California Angels, earning an 11-3 victory, but then followed that up with a 2-0 loss at Kansas City.
Mr. Blue had been a multi-sport star in Mansfield Louisiana in high school. He was legendary there, as a quarterback who in his senior year, threw 35 touchdowns, with 3,400 yards passing, and rushed for an additional 1,600 yards. It was said that he could throw a football 75+ yards. From his knees! He also threw a "Perfect" perfect game for his high school, when he struck out 21 batters (the maximum possible) in a seven-inning no-hitter.He had originally planned for a career in football, but when his father passed away suddenly, he opted to sign a contract with the Kansas City Athletics in the 1967 draft.
In 1971, Blue became the talk of the baseball world. Having already thrown a 1-hitter against the Royals and a no-hitter against the Twins the year before, he followed that auspicious beginning with a season for the ages. After getting shelled in the A's season-opener at the Washington Senators (soon to be the Texas Rangers), he then won ten consecutive decisions, and 16 out of the next 17. He ended the season 24-8, with a 1.82 ERA, and a Cy Young award and an MVP award under his belt. Note was taken of him outside of baseball also, as he made the cover of both Time Magazine and Newsweek.
The next season began with a holdout, as Charlie Finley refused to renegotiate his contract. Blue spent a few months selling bathroom fixtures, and when he did return, it was mostly to bullpen mop-up duty and a 6-10 record, although his ERA was still a respectable 2.80. He was a 20 game-winner again, in 1973, although his ERA climbed to 3.28, as the Oakland Athletics won their second consecutive championship against the New York Mets, in what would prove to be Manager Dick Williams' last games as A's skipper.
My family (mom, dad, brother, sister and I) had traveled from Yreka, in Northern California, 665 miles to Orange County on July third, 1974, to visit extended family. I was pleased and surprised when my folks accepted my suggestion that we go see the A's play on Independence Day. It was fortunate that I suggested it when I did, because when we called the ticket-office, there were only nine tickets still available before we purchased our five. It was my first time inside Anaheim Stadium, although I'd spent a lot of time riding bicycles in the stadium parking lot when we lived in Garden Grove a few years before. Our seats were as far from home-plate as you could get, and still be inside the stadium, down the right-field line, against the back wall. We could stand up and look outside the stadium, into the parking lot. My step-dad made the aforementioned quote as we watched Vida warm up.
The game began inauspiciously, as the Athletics went down 1-2-3 in the top of the first. Then Mr. Blue struck out the side, on 10 pitches. And we all sat forward in our seats. Athletics 0, Angels 0. End of 1.
In the second inning, Reggie Jackson led off with a strikeout, then Joe Rudi spun Angels starter Dick Lange's cap on a screamer into center field for a single. Athletics first baseman Gene Tenace, then singled, moving Rudi to third, and advancing to second himself, on the throw to third. After a groundout by Angel Mangual and a walk to Ted Kubiak to load the bases, second string catcher Larry Haney hit a ground ball to Angels shortstop Dave Chalk, who couldn't find the handle, allowing Rudi to score. A's center fielder Billy North, and shortstop Bert Campaneris hit consecutive singles, and just like that, the A's were up by four. Vida Blue once again, set the Angels down in order, with two flyballs and a groundout. Athletics 4, Angels 0. End of 2.
In the top of the third, the Athletics scored two more runs, on a Reggie Jackson walk, Joe Rudi's second single of the day, and an Angel Mangual 2-RBI single. Once again, Vida has an uneventful inning, fly ball, strikeout, groundout. Athletics 6, Angels 0. End of 3.
In the fourth inning, Vida Blue strikes out two more Angels hitters, giving him six K's so far, and no Angels reach base.
In the top of the fifth inning, Reggie Jackson leads off with a single, and Joe Rudi follows with a long line drive home run off Angels reliever Skip Lockwood to straightaway center field. The Angels go down in order once again, groundout, strikeout, fly ball. Athletics 8, Angels 0. End of five.
Athletics catcher Larry Haney led of the sixth with a single, but Billy North popped out to shortstop, and Bert Campaneris grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. In the bottom half of the inning, my family, the only A's fans in the stadium, as near as I could tell by team cap inventory were aware that so far we'd seen a perfect game thrown by Vida Blue. He retired the first two hitters on routine grounders, then struck out pinch-hitter Sandy Alomar, looking. But WAIT! Second string catcher, Larry Haney, playing for a weary 27-year-old Ray Fosse, allows the called third strike to go to the backstop! In Haney's defense, the pitch is called a wild pitch, but howinthehell is a called third strike a wild pitch?!? Alomar beats the throw to first base, and a clearly shaken Vida Blue grooves the next pitch to pinch-hitter Winston Llenas, who of course, hits it over the left field fence. Bye bye, perfect game, bye bye no-hitter, and bye bye shut-out. Blue ends the inning with another strikeout, and Haney holds on to this one. Athletics 8, Angels 2. End of six.
In the seventh, the Athletics would go down in order, but the Angels, having found their bats, would score two more runs on a Frank Robinson single, an infield single by Bobby Valentine, and an Ellie Rodriguez double. Athletics 8, Angels 4. End of seven.
In the top of the eighth, Angel reliever John Cumberland immediately walked Gene Tenace and Angel Mangual, bringing Ted Kubiak up. Kubiak worked the count full, then stroked a single past a diving Angels third baseman Paul Schaal, scoring Gene Tenace. However with runners at the corners and no one out, the A's grounded meekly into three infield outs in a row. In the bottom half of the inning, now merely mortal Vida Blue gave up a leadoff single to Winston Llenas, but then sets the Angels down in order, adding another strikeout to his final total of eleven. Athletics 9, Angels 4. End of eight.
In the ninth inning, with two outs, Joe Rudi stroked his fourth hit of the day, another hard-hit ball through the box, but Gene Tenace grounds into a fielders-choice to end the top half of the inning. The Angels meekly go down on four pitches, to end the game. Athletics 9, Angels 4. End of game.
Blue finished with a complete game, giving up four earned runs, after six innings of perfect game. He recorded his eighth win of the season, and he finished the year with a 17-15 record and a 3.25 ERA. Joe Rudi continued to make his case as the most underrated left fielder in baseball, with a 4 for 5 day, including a two-run homer, and three runs scored.
The next year (1975), Vida Blue would return to his dominating self, finishing the season with 22 wins against 11 losses. It would prove to be his last 20-win season, although he would win 18 twice more in his career. His last start of the year was memorable, because he combined with Glenn Abbott, Paul Lindblad and Rollie Fingers to no-hit the Angels in the last game of the regular season, 5-0. He was the first pitcher to start an All-Star game for both the American League and the National League (in different years, of course).
In 1976, Finley would attempt to sell Blue to the New York Yankees, and to trade him to the Cincinnati Reds, but Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided both transactions in the best interests of baseball, and to spite Charlie Finley. In 1978, Finley traded Blue to the San Francisco Giants, and Blue won The Sporting News' Pitcher of the Year award.
In 1982, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals, and was arrested for attempting to buy cocaine from an undercover policeman. He was released by the Royals, and signed as a free agent with the Giants in 1985, where he finished his career. His last contract was with the Oakland Athletics, so he could retire as an A.
Vida Blue currently lives in the Bay Area, and does charity work there. He is employed with ComCast SportsNet Bay Area as an analyst. He remains one of my all-time favorite Athletics.