Baseball brings us the best names, and in big league history, that’s one that ranks at the top.
Grant Balfour, an Australian and a journeyman MLB pitcher. Bud Weiser, an outfielder before World War I for the Phillies. Montreal first baseman Razor Shines. Yankees’ pitcher Urban Shocker, a teammate of Babe Ruth on the Yankees’ powerhouse 1927 championship team.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of others. But only a handful of MLB players, ever, wore just his first name on his jersey.
The most prominent was Vida Blue, not only Mansfield’s finest, but undoubtedly one of the greatest baseball players this state has ever produced.
Blue gave one of those unique Number 14 Oakland Athletics’ jerseys to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame when he was enshrined in 1990. It’s going to return to the display area this summer at the $23 million museum on Front Street in Natchitoches, as the shrine marks its 10th anniversary.
Vida Blue died Saturday night, age 73, in the Bay Area of California, where he was something of a cultural and sports icon. His baseball credentials carried him to the outskirts of Cooperstown.
A six-time All-Star, Blue won 209 games in the bigs, and was an integral part of Oakland’s early ‘70s dynasty. That’s a term which fits when a team wins three straight World Series (1972-74).
Not only did he win the 1971 Cy Young Award in the American League, but he was also the AL Most Valuable Player that season. All he did was lead the AL with a 1.82 ERA while going 24-8, also topping the league in complete games (24) and shutouts (8). Blue was the starting pitcher for the AL in his first All-Star Game. He made the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazine.
All that at the ripe age of 22. He already had a no-hitter to his credit, thrown in his first full MLB season, 1970. He combined on another no-no in 1975. He made his final big league appearance Oct. 2, 1986, for the other team in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Giants.
Blue is in the Athletics’ Hall of Fame and included on the Giants’ Wall of Honor. He isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he is unquestionably one of the remarkable figures in the game in his lifetime.
His colorful personality, and his tendency to make brash statements, made him a team and fan favorite in Oakland. At times, he was also in the good graces of A’s owner Charlie Finley, who also had more than a little flair for showmanship and supreme confidence. It was Finley who decided putting “Vida” on the back of the Number 14 jersey was a distinctive touch for a spectacular talent.
Later, it was Finley who tried to trade Blue to the Reds and the Yankees. Both deals, which would have tipped the balance of power almost absurdly to those two teams of the late ‘70s, were vetoed by everybody’s least-favorite baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn.
Nobody in Oakland, Cincinnati or New York named their kid “Bowie.” Anyone who did elsewhere was doubtlessly thinking of Jim Bowie, hero of the Alamo.
Few players last 17 years in the big leagues. Fewer still overcome personal problems, tied to drug use, a short (suspended) prison sentence, and a full year (1984) in MLB’s purgatory. There’s that word, suspended, again.
But Blue’s MLB story, with such a spectacular first act, also has a redemption theme. At the height of his career, he accompanied Bob Hope on a USO tour of Vietnam. He became noted for his steady involvement with a wide range of charitable activities for good causes, and that never stopped.
He worked for the Giants in community service for a while, notably being involved in administration of a little league system that served 28,000 kids in the Bay Area.
Former Oakland All-Star pitcher Dave Stewart, who made it to the big leagues in 1978, offered a powerful tribute.
“If you’ve ever spent one minute with him, you’d think that you’ve known him for a lifetime. He’s a giving man, very, very genuine, very, very heartwarming. Vida never met a stranger. He really, really poured himself into people and that’s what you love about him and that’s the impact that he had on me,” Stewart said on MLB Network’s High Heat show.
Vida Blue wasn’t perfect. He never threw a perfect game in the big leagues, either. But throughout his life, he brought joy almost every step of the way, including in an Arizona barber shop.
The owner was excited that Blue was coming by, and let it slip to a kid visiting the shop, then made him promise not to share the news. It was an impossible request, leading to a predictable response.
Kids in Scottsdale, parents and fans lined up down the block to meet the great Vida Blue.
It was just 20 years after he threw his last pitch. Now, that’s adoration.
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