Vida Blue, who as a rookie with the Oakland Athletics in 1971 threw an unhittable fastball and became baseball’s hottest player, died on Saturday. He was 73.
The Athletics announced his death but did not say where Blue died or provide the cause.
Vida (pronounced VYE-da) Blue was one of the stars of an Athletics team that won the World Series three straight years, from 1972 to 1974. But his performance in those years never reproduced the adulation and hoopla of his first full season.
After losing on opening day to the Washington Senators in 1971, Blue, a lefty, reeled off eight wins in a row. In his first dozen games, he threw five complete-game shutouts. By the summer, he was leading baseball in not just shutouts but also wins, strikeouts, complete games and earned-run average.
Sports Illustrated and Time magazine put him on their covers. He turned 22 that July.
On the field, he was a man in a hurry. Unlike almost all other pitchers in baseball history, he ran to and from the mound. His delivery concluded with what writer Roger Angell of The New Yorker described as a “leap.”
Opposing hitters spoke mystically of how Blue’s fastballs would disappear or jump over their bats. Reporters speculated about why he carried two dimes in his pocket when he pitched, with some suggesting it was a charm to help him win 20 games. Across the country, attendance at his outings swelled to levels that stadiums had not seen in years. Fans of an opposing team, the Detroit Tigers, chanted outside the clubhouse, “We want Vida!”
The A’s appeared in the playoffs for the first time since 1931, ultimately losing to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship. Blue pulled off the feat of winning, in his first full season, both the Cy Young and the Most Valuable Player Awards (beating out his teammate Sal Bando to become the M.V.P.).
Blue earned the paltry sum of about $15,000 as salary, and he prepared for a major payday. President Richard Nixon called him “the most underpaid player in baseball.”
Yet he had already fought with the colorful, obstreperous owner of the A’s, Charles O. Finley, who offered Blue $2,000 to legally change his name to Vida True Blue, hoping to use the moniker for advertising.
Blue was named after his father, who died in Blue’s boyhood. “I honor him every time the name Vida Blue appears in the headlines,” Blue told Time. “If Mr. Finley thinks it’s such a great name, why doesn’t he call himself True O. Finley?”
After the ’71 season, Blue said he should make $115,000. Finley countered with $50,000 and made the dispute public. Blue held a news conference and declared that he would retire from sports to become a vice president for public relations at a steel company.
Ultimately, Blue and Finley settled on $63,150.
After Blue’s run of wins in ’71 — it seemed possible at one point that he would reach the belief-defying milestone of 30 — he started the ’72 season late and went a pedestrian 6-10. He pitched well but not spectacularly as a reliever in the postseason, which concluded with the A’s winning the World Series.
“That man has soured me on baseball,” Blue told The New York Times about Finley in 1973. “No matter what he does for me in the future, I’ll never forget that he treated me like a damn colored boy.”
Blue went on to cement a reputation as a standout regular season pitcher, recording 20 or more wins in three of his first five seasons. He was a contributor to the A’s subsequent success in the playoffs.
And even without changing his name, Blue was one of several memorably named Athletics. Among them were Blue Moon Odom, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Mudcat Grant and Rick Monday.
Blue was traded to the San Francisco Giants in 1978 and recorded another strong year, going 18-10 with a 2.79 earned-run average. But he would soon be better known for his life off the field.
In 1983, as a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, Blue and several of his teammates were questioned as part of a federal cocaine inquiry. He pleaded guilty to possession of the drug, leading to 81 days in prison and a yearlong suspension from baseball.
It was a surprising turn of events for a man whose maturity and poise had been praised when he was a 22-year-old superstar.
In his 2011 autobiography, “Vida Blue: A Life,” Blue suggested that he had struggled with substance abuse for many years. “Along with all the glory that I’d achieved, there was a growing darkness reaching for me,” he wrote. “And the light began to dim as early as 1972” — the year of his fight with Finley.
Vida Rochelle Blue Jr. was born on July 28, 1949, in Mansfield, a small town in northern Louisiana. His family lived on an unpaved street, and his father worked at a steel mill. Vida’s reputation as an athletic prodigy prompted his high school to form a baseball team. His overpowering speed on the mound caused outfielders to zone out, knowing nobody could hit him, and the hand of his catcher to hurt for days after games.
He was also a celebrated quarterback, but his plans to play college football changed when his father died at the age of 45. Vida’s mother, Sallie Blue, told him that now he was the man of the family.
When he was around 18 years old, he got an offer from the Athletics with a $35,000 signing bonus, according to Time. He gave much of it to his family.
Blue retired before the 1987 season. After his career as a ballplayer, he worked as a television analyst for the Giants. He was denied a place in the Hall of Fame, and he spoke to journalists periodically about his perception that his drug use was to blame.
Information about Blue’s survivors was not immediately available.
As an older man, Blue spoke to a group of high school students at the prompting of a friend, The Washington Post reported in 2021. One boy was going through a dark period at home. Blue took him aside and discussed his own struggles in his youth. Both of them wound up crying.
“I worked my tail off to polish that image back up and renew the name Vida Blue Jr.,” he told The Post. “It’s a constant battle to do that every day.”