What can you say about a 21-year-old lefthander who has control of a fastball that explodes in all directions? If you are Boog Powell, you can say: "He throws harder than Sandy Koufax did. He has an effortless motion, a smooth, compact delivery. He goes out for nine innings and doesn't seem to weaken." If you are the organist at Oakland Coliseum, you can say it still more simply. You turn to the keyboard and play Rhapsody in Blue.
The lefthander is Vida Blue Jr. of the Oakland A's. Three months ago he was merely one of these fine, young, so-far-strong-armed prospects; now he is the most dominant, most nearly foolproof starting pitcher since Denny McLain.
Blue's fastball is as volatile as they come, and yet when it is sailing away from the corners—as it was against the Twins in the first five innings on June 21, for instance—he can adjust it under pressure, as he did that night in the last four innings. He won 3-2, striking out 13. Four days later, when he shut out Kansas City on five hits and 12 strikeouts, it was his 16th low-hit, complete-game win in 20 starts. In 1968, when McLain won 31, he did not win his 16th until July 7, his 21st start—and he was a chunky righthander in his fifth big-league season. A whippy young lefthander like Blue who combines such protean heat with such acute composure is almost an unnatural phenomenon—a Marilyn Monroe with inner security, a Keats with good lungs.
Traditionally, fireballing lefthanders either mature late or break down early; Koufax was 25 before he could throw strikes, and five years later he yielded to agony of the elbow. Lefty Grove was 27 before he settled down, Warren Spahn was 25 before he won a big-league game and Sam McDowell at 28 is still something of a question mark. Karl Spooner of the 1954-55 Dodgers struck out 27 men in his first two games and shortly thereafter burned out his arm. Cleveland's Herb Score was ruined by a line drive to the eye at the age of 24. Rube Waddell of the old Philadelphia A's was 26 before he reached his stride and then, in his capacity as the archetypal left-handed screwball, dissipated his gifts. Babe Ruth won 23 the year he was Blue's age (and had almost as catchy a name), but he soon turned into a rightfielder. What kind of person is it who defies such tradition?
July 11, 1971
Several facts about Blue have been publicized widely. He broke in late last season with a no-hitter and a one-hitter; he pitched six shutouts this year and struck out a batter an inning while keeping his ERA handily under 2.00; he runs to and from the mound; he remains amicable and feisty under constant pressure from reporters who ask whether he thinks he is a superstar and from kids who come by his apartment to ask him and roommate Tommy Davis to come out and play ball; he has been presented with a powder-blue Cadillac that has V BLUE license plates by Oakland Owner Charles O. Finley; he is a single man with all the attention from the ladies he could ask for; he chose baseball because the money was there, though the University of Houston badly wanted him to be its first black quarterback; he pitches with two dimes in his pocket for some mysterious reason; he has certain reservations about growing up black in Mansfield, La. So far that image cannot be expanded to include any notable flaws. Blue does not even stutter, like Melville's Billy Budd.
American League hitters are divided over whether Blue or McDowell throws harder, but Blue is considered to have better control—he averages fewer than three walks a game—and "he throws hard when he has to," says the Yankees' Roy White. "He jammed me with a pitch like I never have been jammed before, and I was using a 30-ounce bat." Players who have seen phenoms of all stripes come along are shaking their heads and conceding that Blue is beautiful.
He bounces into the Oakland dressing room after pregame warmups, awash with sweat. "It's real easy for me to perspire," he says. He has been running in the outfield and then backing up the pitcher during batting practice, a chore he enlivens by jump-shooting balls into the ball bucket. Now he removes and jump-shoots into a clothes hamper several layers of sweaty uniform, including such items as a pair of formfitting sweatpants. (Once when asked why he dressed so warmly in such hot weather he answered, "I guess I'm just a fool.") As he takes his jump shots he addresses a cluster of clubhouse boys.
"George, you my man, get me a soda pop. Steve, how 'bout wringing out my shirt here. Chuck, get me a dry sweatshirt."
Only Chuck is not a clubhouse boy. He happens to be Chuck Dobson, a six-year veteran with a tidy 7-0 won-lost record and the night's starting pitcher. Dobson will work before 8,392 fans, as compared to the 19,893 Blue will draw on the next night, which offers no special attractions other than Blue. So that Blue can appear as often as possible on otherwise unprepossessing nights at home, Oakland's starting rotation lately has been shuffled around. This shuffling has irritated the other starters—at least two of whom, Catfish Hunter (11-6) and Dobson, have also played important roles in Oakland's running off to a 10½-game lead in the American League West. In addition, Oakland's defense and hitting—88 home runs in 78 games (most in the majors)—have provided excellent support, while Blue has reaped all the publicity. But Blue has no capacity for testy relations. Exuberance is hard to hate. So is a 16-3 record. Dobson declines with a straight face to get him a sweatshirt.
"Oh," says Blue, equally straight-faced. "I knew I'd go too far.
"George!" he goes on. "I'm not drinking no red soda pop. Where you think I'm from, Louisiana?"
George takes back the strawberry drink he has brought and returns with a fruit punch, which Blue downs in two gurgles. He smiles slyly and then yells, "I got to Bogart me another soda water. Hey George, you my man...."
In a few minutes Blue is at quarterback and the clubhouse boys are at center and the other backfield positions, and they are briskly running off plays.
Blue threw 35 touchdown passes in his senior year at DeSoto, the black high school in Mansfield, La. He credits his football background with helping him to learn how to adjust in baseball.
"Football is 40% adjusting—offense to defense, defense to offense," he says. His old football coach says that when Blue was rolling out to his right and was pressed, he would adjust by passing with his right hand. "When he'd get in a tight," says Coach Clarence Baldwin, "he'd throw with his right. And just as accurately. As long as it wasn't one of those 55- to 60-yarders."
Blue can hum a baseball right-handed too, but not as a pitcher. He learned to pitch, he says, when such old hands as his minor league teammate at Iowa, Juan Pizarro, and A's Pitching Coach Bill Posedel taught him his present delivery, which, like a golf swing, entails bearing several things in mind. "I have to stay back, stay closed up, stride correctly, think about my release point. When I'm really humming it, I'm doing all those things right."
Blue's windup—with his big front leg hunched way up and bent at the knee and his pitching arm whipping around in the background—is not classical, like that of Koufax, but it is impressive. Sometimes it suggests a mustachioed old-time pitcher in a cartoon, or a Norman Rockwell sandlotter—all pretzeled up preparing to snap off a hot one. Then the leg thrusts forward, there is a slight unsettling delay, and the arm swoops around smoothly, without a lot of joint popping, and abruptly produces either a good fast curve, a hopping fastball, a sinking fastball, a fastball that breaks in, a fastball that breaks out or, rarely, a straight change of pace. "He doesn't mess with the slider," says A's Manager Dick Williams. "The slider burns up elbows."
Many pitchers, like many osteopaths, talk about how punishing and unnatural an arm function throwing a baseball is. "It doesn't hurt my arm to throw hard," says Blue. "Everything's fluid, real easy. I guess my body's real flexible."
"You like to hit against a guy who grunts out there," says Baltimore's Dave Johnson, "because then you know it's coming hard. But Vida has a nice easy delivery. I think his arm will hold up. He looks like he has a good foundation to pitch from—he's in real good shape from the waist down."
Blue's fastball moves so much that it often looks like a slider, and indeed he sometimes "cuts" the fastball a bit to make it drop. Against Washington in his 14th win, with less than optimum stuff (lately he tends to conserve his best heat for crucial pitches), he faced 36 batters and only eight of them managed to pull the ball, five in the last three innings when he was coasting.
Despite this talent with a baseball, Blue probably would rather be throwing touchdown passes like Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, both of whom he especially admires. "Every year when I go back home I go by the high school and before I know it I find myself running plays with the backs, diagraming plays on the blackboard, and then I'll run around the football field six times without stopping. I've got a little brother Michael who's 10. I'm going to make him into that QB."
Once early this season Ron Bergman, who covers the A's for the Oakland Tribune, was expostulating with a hotel desk clerk about his room assignment when Blue slipped up behind him. "Bergman," said Blue reprovingly, "have you ever lived in a ghetto?"
Mrs. Sallie Blue, Vida's mother, still lives in the house she reared him in—a bright eight-room white frame structure at the end of Mary Street. That part of the street is not paved, but most of the houses around are well kept and the lawns are green and neat. The whole black section of Mansfield is a remarkable neighborhood. On one side of the street there might be a tumbledown shack with two elderly people and a yellow dog sitting out on the front porch and the chassis of a '49 Hudson in the front yard, and right across the street there might be two crisply dressed young couples in lawn chairs out in front of a new brick house with a Volkswagen in the carport. There are not any very big houses, but the nice-looking homes easily outnumber the rundown ones. Here and there in the yards are patches of corn, stringbeans and strawberries.
Vida is the oldest of six children (the next oldest, twin sisters, are students at Grambling). He says his father was "what you'd call a common laborer" at the local iron factory, which manufactures drag lines, buckets and chains. But the family got along well enough that Mrs. Blue had to work only one year while the children were growing up; that was the year after Mr. Blue developed heart trouble but before Vida signed with the A's for an estimated $30,000 to $40,000. Most people in the neighborhood work in the local mills or the pants factory or the trailer plant, but some commute 40 miles north to the Western Electric plant in Shreveport. "Nobody in Mansfield is hungry," says Mrs. Blue. She is sitting in her living room, in which hangs a picture of Vida and the plaque and key to the city of Mansfield presented him on Vida Blue Day, held last year after his no-hitter. "Those that got," says Mrs. Blue, "give to those that don't have."
Currently there is discomfiture in Mansfield over remarks attributed to Vida in the California press. A recent issue of The Mansfield Enterprise reprinted a story from The San Francisco Chronicle in which Blue was quoted as saying, "A guy...asked, after a good win, if I'd ever got a telegram from my home town. 'Hell no,' I told him, 'and I don't expect one.' They don't owe me anything, I'm not saying that. But they could have said 'Nice job, Vida,' anyway.... There's only two or three black officials in my home town. And it is almost an entirely black population. The blacks should have...something to say about what's done down there."
Alongside the story, the Enterprise printed a letter from its editor to the Chronicle writer: "Why in the hell don't you sportswriters around the country get some facts about Vida Blue and his home town and how he is treated here instead of painting the race angle erroneously and slurring the South without reason?
"Vida Blue told you no such things about his home town; if he did, he did not tell the truth.
"We gave him a 'Vida Blue' Day in Mansfield last December 4.... This is the first time in history that a Negro, young or old, has been so honored by a Southern town.... We did not honor him because of his color, we honored him because he is proud of his home town, too. Also, an all-white band led the parade in his honor. Quit putting words in that young man's mouth for he likes us and we like him."
Mansfield "claims 8,000 people," says one resident, "but the census could find only 6,400," well over half of whom are black. A visitor does not have to look far to discern why a young black product of Mansfield might not be its most enthusiastic booster. At the Mansfield Battle Park, where on April 8, 1864 began the successful effort to drive "the federal enemy" from the Red River Valley ("thus was Texas saved from the physical ruin wrought by the war in every other Southern state"), the otherwise most gracious white-haired curator says: "They gave that nigra a day last year and I told them at the time they shouldn't have done it. It was a bigger thing than any man has ever been given in Mansfield. Everybody thinks a lot of old Vida, and then a thing like that has to come out. It's just an ugly thing."
It is misleading to suggest that Blue has risen from squalor in the South to a new world in northern California, but until a federal registrar intervened while Vida was in high school most black people in Mansfield could not vote. DeSoto High still is virtually all black while Mansfield High is 70% white. Still, whatever Blue's childhood was like, it seems to have left him about as stable and as unbitter as anybody in America. "Everybody in Mansfield knows each other," says Mrs. Blue. "Black and white, yes indeed." Coach Baldwin says he is tired of having to explain all these Vida Blue quotes to people in town.
"Some of the things the papers said Vida said I know he didn't say," says Clyde Washington. Blue's high-school baseball coach. "I read one article in which he cursed. I never heard Vida curse. This town is no Utopia, but we're getting more respect, we got something working that keeps animosity from spreading. Things are being worked on by both sides—and you know I think Vida Blue has done more to bring that about than anything. A white man stood in the post office the other day and waited there, while I did everything I had to do, waited until I got completely through to talk to me about Vida."
"I felt that Vida Blue Day made him very proud," says Mrs. Blue, and Vida agrees that it did. Mansfield was mollified later, and local suspicions about non-Southern media were confirmed when a Shreveport columnist called Blue in Oakland for an interview, which Vida summed up by saying, "Tell everybody in Mansfield I said hello and I love them all."
"Blue was one of those quarterbacks who live dangerously," says Coach Baldwin. "Most of the time he wouldn't see the touchdown because he'd be flat on his back. When he first came along and I saw how he could throw and I heard he was a Henderson [Mrs. Blue's maiden name was Henderson, and her brother was a noted left-handed quarterback at Grambling], I went out on the campus looking for somebody who could catch the ball. I found Jesse Hudson, who is a minor league pitcher now in the Mets' chain. Jesse said he wasn't going to carry any football and he wasn't going to tackle anybody, but he could catch any pass Vida could throw within six feet of him. He could, too. He caught 17 touchdown passes Vida's senior year.
"Vida played defense, too, and he also proved to be our best runner. I remember when we played Booker T. Washington in Shreveport. They were always our chief obstacle. We were ahead 13-0 at the half and it started raining cats and dogs. So Vida ran the ball the whole second half—every play we had the ball except when we punted, he ran. He wouldn't throw it or hand it off. He could take a beating. They'd get up saying, 'We know we killed Blue,' but he'd get right back up and run again. We won 13-0."
"That was the night Mr. Blue passed," says Mrs. Blue. "He'd had a heart attack and been sick about six months. Junior didn't want to go to the game, he said he'd stay with me. But I told him, 'You can't hurt your father if you go and you can't help him if you stay, so you go on and play ball.' "
"I love contact," says Vida. "And I only got hurt twice. Once I got my arm stepped on." Your what? "My right arm. And once I got a back strain."
In baseball, Blue and Hudson were equally dazzling lefthanders, but Blue probably threw a little harder. He struck out 21 men in one seven-inning game and pitched a no-hitter—but lost the game. "Vida's problem was somebody to catch him," says Washington. "There were a lot of passed balls. A dropped third strike and a man would get on and steal second, steal third and come home on a passed ball."
"Vida was never any problem about coming to school," says Baldwin. "He would always come finally. He'd be late, but that was because he was always waiting for his catcher, P. G. Hudson. His name was Willis Hudson, but they called him P.G. for Powerglide, because he was kinda slow. There were a lot of Hudsons. P.G.'s brother-Little Ol' Hudson is still around. After P.G., Vida had Elijah Williams Jr. for a catcher. They called him 'Crow.' "
Baldwin tried to get Vida to go out for the basketball team, but Vida says with no pretension to modesty that "it would've just been all that much more pressure, with all those basketball recruiters around, too. I would have run track if I was going to play a third sport. I've never been timed, but I think I could do the 100 in...9.8."
"Vida is a student of anything he goes into," says Baldwin. "We went into this 'run and shoot' offense in football—he took the book home with him, he digested that book and he came back to my office and we spent hours and hours, and I'm sure we could help the man that wrote that book now."
When it came time for Vida to decide between taking Finley's bonus and trying to be another Johnny Unitas, Washington's advice was that "Vida's future wasn't in pro football. Black quarterbacks just aren't accepted in professional football. I don't doubt that missing football's going to plague him, though."
"Did you ever think what would happen if your arm went bad?" a New York radio man asked Vida one night as he was soaking his arm in ice.
"Man," said Vida, "you're talking about bad times. These are good times." If he were finished with baseball, though, he says he would love being a high-school coach. But he has only a semester at Southern University behind him. And he wouldn't want to live in a place like New York. "As the so-called hippies say, it's a hassle. As soon as the caution light comes on, the car behind you is honking for you to go ahead. I just want to get away on my own and live free. Maybe in Louisiana, because that's my home. I like Arizona, and I'd have to consider California because business-wise that would help me. So would Louisiana, though—I could get into anything from a liquor store to a bookstore, or just a local 7-11.
"But I like baseball. I like traveling to places and meeting people. And I've met all nice people so far—I haven't met any of the bad ones yet. I'm going to stay away from them. I hope they stay away from me."
This year Blue is making not much over $15,000. So far the A's have been averaging 10,000 in home attendance when Blue is not pitching and 16,655 when he is. When Charlie Finley sent down to the dressing room for an autographed ball recently, Blue said, "Tell him here it is and how about a big contract next year. Tell him.... I'll tell him." When Finley was asked how Blue reacted to being promised the Cadillac to drive, Finley said, "He was very humble and proud." Vida Blue may be enough of a phenomenon to win 35 games this year, without burning himself out. He may even be enough of one to make Charlie Finley "humble and proud" come contract time.