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1971-Most Valuable Players

April 29, 2009

1971-mvps

The only way the images shown here could be more alive would be if the baseball Joe Torre just swatted ricocheted off the wall to your right and smacked you upside your head, or if Vida Blue took one more step out of the frame and into your life.

When I was a kid, that’s basically how I experienced these cards anyway, especially the Vida Blue card. Was he waving at me? Was he flashing a peace sign? Was he about to saunter just a little closer, out of the card and into my room, and touch me on the forehead with the two upraised fingers of his left hand, like he was some kind of blessing-giving pope of happiness and cool?

What actually ended up happening was that I stepped toward him, unconsciously seeking out that blessing. He wasn’t hard to find, his spectacular season in 1971 setting him up for a decade of charismatic superstardom. And as the years went on and his stardom waned, his numbers exerted a tenacious pull, especially the season referred to in the card here, from 1971, a few years before my time. In that year Blue was as good as anyone ever has been, especially in the first half of it when he won sixteen of his first eighteen decisions. He finished the season with an ERA of 1.82 and 301 strikeouts. Going into that season, only five men since 1900 had surpassed the 300-strikeout mark (Rube Waddell, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Sam McDowell; Mickey Lolich joined Blue in the 300-K club in 1971), and none of them had done it as early in their lives as the 21-year-old Blue. I’ve been a baseball fan during some incredible seasons by young pitchers in their first full seasons—Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela, and Doc Gooden jump to mind—and I would have to think Blue’s 1971 campaign must have been as exciting and supernaturally promising as any of them. Oddly enough, had he managed to keep up the pace he set in his first full year, I don’t think he would have exerted the same lasting pull on me. He would simply be an All Time Great. As it was, his one legendary year, followed by several good to excellent years, lends Vida Blue some added magnetism as a cult hero. He may not be on display in Cooperstown but he’s available to offer a blessing to anyone who makes an effort to step toward him.

Joe Torre took a different path to his career year, climbing toward it through several seasons as a good and ever-improving major league player. This is what life is supposed to be like, right? You work hard and keep trying and eventually you reach the top of the mountain. In the face of voluminous evidence that the world is much more cruelly random than that, there was a reassuring sense of rationality to Torre’s climb to the top. If Blue with his youth and his psychedelic name and his peace sign represented a New Age and the belief in an ecstatic instant flash of enlightenment and vision, the veteran Torre represented the clean-cut old guard, what the Nixon camp called the “silent majority”: You punch the clock, you do your time, you mind your own business, you don’t dance around naked with pupils the size of dimes, and eventually you carve out a life for yourself.

The two MVPs made up a fitting cross-section for the times, odd-named iconoclasts on one side, Regular Joes on the other. As the years went on, the lines between these two cultural entities got blurred. Hair either got shorter or longer, depending on which side of the divide you were on, and the divide itself got blurrier, and everyone started to look a little unkempt and haggard. That’s certainly how I remember Joe Torre looking when he was manager of the entertainingly terrible Mets of the late 1970s, and Vida Blue, after leaving the A’s, always seemed to have a slightly dazed expression on his face, which was always cocked a little to the side, as if you had just said something that he didn’t quite catch.

From there, Torre repeated the long grinding, upward path of his playing career in a long, grinding managerial career that saw him steer a few teams to a succession of failures and mild successes before hooking on with the Yankees for a run that clinched him an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame. Unlike Torre, Vida Blue has not remained in the game’s spotlight. This has helped, paradoxically, ensure that he will live forever as the 21-year-old who had all the magic of the world in his fingertips.

23 comments

  1. I always loved the line in Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” about a less than attractive female looking “like Joe Torre with t!ts.”


  2. Josh,
    Your post prompted me to do some more research on Vida Blue and if Wikipedia is correct:

    In his first 2 starts during a 1970 September call up he pitched a 1-hit shutout and a no-hitter (with only 1 walk).

    His middle name is Rochelle.

    When later pitching for The Giants he wore his first name only on the back of his uniform.

    He currently lives in Costa Rica.

    I also like the fact that he was teammates with Blue Moon Odom on The A’s.


  3. Blue was still around in the early 1980’s when I started paying attention. He was just a so-so pitcher with a cool name then. I remember the White Sox announcers talking about how a doubleheader was going to be (Bud) Black and Blue for the Royals (6-5-83, according to baseball-reference.) I didn’t know how good he’d been until I got a baseball card that featured Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, and Vida Blue, three former MVPs who were then with the Giants. Except for an ebay auction, I can’t find any good pictures of that card.


  4. Blue was also the first guy to start an All-Star game for both leagues (’71 and ’75 for the A’s, ’78 for the Giants). Not sure if that has been accomplished since. Without looking, I’d guess that Clemens might have equalled the feat.

    In the ’71 midsummer classic he and Dock Ellis made up the first-ever (and to date only?) all-black-guy starting pitching matchup in an all-star game.

    Blue also must be the only pitcher to ever fan over 300 batters in one season and then be unable to top 200 in any other season.


  5. Josh- 15 of the 63 300+ strikeout seasons were in 1884. If you exclude those guys, the only pitcher with a 300-K year and no other 200-K seasons is Lady Baldwin. Lady and Rochelle stand alone.


  6. Thanks, piehead. I’d never heard of Lady Baldwin.

    I should probably know this, but does anybody know why there was such an explosion of K’s in the 1880s? The single-season strikeout list is absolutely saturated with dudes from that era:
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/SO_p_season.shtml


  7. The lunatic Charlie Finley wanted Vida Blue to change his name to True Blue.


  8. You were right- Clemens did start an All-Star Game in each league, one each with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros. Randy Johnson started two in each league, with the D-Backs and Mariners.


  9. I’m startled to find out Blue never topped even 200 strikeouts again. My first set of cards was ’76, and I was very interested in all the players labeled “All Star,” and Vida was one of them, so he always stuck out to me. As the years when by, he started showing up less glamorously all the time, on Giants cards and I always wondered how somebody once great could no longer be great and started to learn it happened all the time. I wonder if he was one of those guys who just pitched too much too early and perhaps if he came up now when he’d be monitored, he’d be at the top of his game for ten years instead of one.


  10. Vida always wore his first name on his shirt, with every team he was on.


  11. sb1902:
    I was reading Bill James’ writeup of Blue in his Historical Abstract, and he mentioned watching Blue pitch for the Royals in the 1980s, when his pitches still looked fearsome but he could no longer quite put them where he wanted to, especially a mind-bending curveball. It made me think his gradual descent from Olympian heights was not a case of burnout so much as the natural tendency for athletes to have a perfect balletic control over their bodies for a while before just sort of losing it as they age. This certainly happens with gymnasts, and I think it happens with some pitchers. A recent, pronounced example of this is Dontrelle Willis.


  12. Didn’t Blue hold out in ’72?


  13. Who was the last switch hitter to win the A.L. MVP?…. Vida Blue


  14. Vida always wore his first name on his shirt, with every team he was on.

    by 64cardinals April 29, 2009 at 11:21 am

    I stand corrected. He did initially wear Blue on his shirt when he first came up with the A’s, but switched to Vida at some point.


  15. Josh, there was a confluence of pitching rules in the 1880s that allowed strikeout numbers to soar. In 1883 and 1884 restrictions on pitching motions were gradually abolished, and they were still throwing from 50 feet away. In 1893 the pitching rubber was moved to 60’6″, and K rates moved back down.


  16. sansho1:
    Thanks for the info. Now that you mention it I realize I’d heard that explanation before, but pre-1900 stuff seems to go in one ear and out the other with me.


  17. Vida held out for a while leading into 1972. He was negotiating a new contract with Finley. Finley was a hard-nosed stubborn negotiator. He would go so far as to get into the minds of his most talented athletes and demoralize them, such that they started to question their talents, trying to convince them they were not really an all-star and they were more of a bench chup or a AAA player. He was nuts. Finley did this to Blue in 1972. He ordered that Blue go to the bullpen! After his unreal 1971 season. Why???? In the post-season in 1972, Blue appeared in 4 relief appearances against the Tigers and 3 relief appearances against the Reds and 1 start. All about money and power with Finley. He was a good but scary business man, who made millions selling a new type of insurance product. Finley also threatened Reggie Jackson to put him in the minors. He was crazy. Also, Blue confessed that his drug problems started in 1972.

    Always thought Vida had one of the coolest names ever.

    Vida’s in Costa Rica? That’s were I am. Would love to talk baseball with him . . .


  18. I had to look into the Costa Rica thing, seeing I’m here now. According to one reporter’s post, Vida still packs a crowd, even in Latin America. It appears he has been involved with a major construction company here and a baseball instruction school. Soccer is king here, but there is a push to see more baseball. Appears that Vida is very close friends with Reggie Jackson’s older brother.

    I searched and it appears there has never been a player from Costa Rica.

    Here is the post I found:

    “lunes, julio 21, 2008
    Famous Baseball Player Vida Blue. Proud owner of Paradigma Properties
    On July 10th 2008 Mr. Vida Blue with the San Francisco Giants and formerly with the Oakland A..s baseball team and Baseball Hall of Fame, arrived and visit our offices, projects and to get to know Costa Rica, He will helping to promote this great sport in coordination with the Costa Rica National Federation of Baseball as well as enjoying the beauty of this amazing country with one of our luxury Developments provide by Paradigma Construccion S.A. He traveled with the elder brother of Mr. Reggie Jackson of the New York Yankee’s and another friend of Mr. Blue. To our surprise, Mr. Blue is also well known here in Costa Rica. We have had many calls from local reporters and radio stations requesting interviews with Mr. Blue. Last week I was asked to do a morning talk show with a local English speaking music radio station about Mr. Blue and his connection with Paradigma. Due to such a media demand for Mr. Blue, we had to hold a press conference at the Marriot with Mr. Blue on July 15th. We had nearly 40 reporters present during this press conference, ranging from the local television and radio stations to Latin CNN among others. We also have a morning show booked for the same day as the Press Conference on the station called Rock and Pop. Definitely, this is the lifestyle of the Rich & Famous!”


  19. catfish326:
    Nice detective work. Funny that the article refers to Blue as “formerly with the . . . Baseball Hall of Fame.”


  20. One of the nice things about living in Cooperstown for a while was that every once in a while something surreal would happen, like you’d walk into a bar and Vida Blue and J.R. Richard would be sitting there, drinking beers and looking for people to talk baseball with. This happened to me one night in 2001 or so. I took a seat at their table and we spent the rest of the night telling old stories (or really, them telling, me listening). Both were terrific guys and completely unpretentious.


  21. 71 – the coins!


  22. One of my most cherished items in that drawer filled-with-old-magazines-that-should-have-been-thrown-out-years-ago is an ancient and disintegrating Sports Illustrated.

    It still resides there, torn and tattered amidst old Hockey Newses and Baseball Digests, replete with a cover barely hanging on for dear life that pictures a bemused young man in the midst of a mighty hold out. The copy simply reads ‘[Vida Blue. Plumbing Executive.]’


  23. For those curious to see of what ramblinpete speaks:

    http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8273/index.htm



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