Word came down yesterday that former MLB pitcher Vida Blue, who played for the A’s, Giants, and Royals during a 17-year career that included a Cy Young award, an MVP award, a no-hitter, three 20-win seasons, six All-Star selections, and three World Series rings, has died. As you can see above, the Giants saluted him prior to yesterday’s game.
Blue was a uni-notable player for a variety of reasons, which I’d like to run down here. Let’s start with…
1. He wore his first name as his NOB — and for multiple teams!
Although the Charlie Finley-era A’s were somewhat famous for wearing first names and nicknames as NOBs, Blue did not wear “Vida” on his back for most of his time in Oakland. He wore “Blue” for most of that time but switched to “Vida” toward the end of his Oakland tenure. He did wear “Vida” throughout his time with the Giants, however, making him one of the very few players to go FiNOB for multiple teams.
I’m not sure if Blue ever wore “Vida” during his short stint with the Royals. This shot shows him with “Blue,” but he later changed his uni number, so maybe he also changed his NOB. Unfortunately, rear-view shots of him with KC are scarce. Anyone know more?
In this 2017 interview, Blue said he switched to “Vida” to honor his father, Vida Blue Sr.:
In that interview, Blue alludes to Finley wanting him to change his middle name to “True.” Here’s more on that, as outlined here:
In 1971 Blue became involved in his first controversy with owner Charlie Finley. Finley offered Blue $2,000 to change his middle name legally to “True.” The always creative Finley saw the nickname as another way to market his pitching superstar. Blue declined the offer. He liked his name, thought it unique as it was, and had no desire to change it. Finley however would not let the idea rest. When Blue pitched, his name appeared on the scoreboard as “True Blue.” Finley instructed the A’s radio and television announcers to refer to Blue by the nickname. Blue asked them to stop, and also asked the team’s public-relations people not to refer to him as True Blue in press releases or to use the name on the scoreboard. This situation began the friction between Blue and Finley that blew up after the end of the season.
As I recall, at one point Finley also had the scoreboard list the A’s colors as follows:
- Kelly Green
- Fort Knox Gold
- Wedding Gown White
- Vida Blue
2. He was the king of the ribbon stirrup.
I can’t say I’m really a fan of this look, but on some level you have to credit a man for having the courage of his convictions, and Blue’s conviction, clearly, was to cuff his pants as high as possible while showing as little stirrup as possible. I mean, look at this:
It’s worth noting, however, that there was a period toward the end of Blue’s career, during his second go-round with the Giants (1985-86), when he wore more traditional stirrups:
3. He wore white shoes and non-white sanitaries for multiple teams.
Not many MLB teams used white as their official footwear color; even fewer used colored sanitary socks; and fewer still did both. Blue managed to play for two of them.
4. He wore five different numbers for the A’s.
It’s not unusual for a marginal player to cycle through a bunch of different uni numbers while riding the shuttle back and forth between the minors and the bigs. Similarly, it’s not unusual for an A-list player to have briefly worn a number or two that’s different than the one most commonly associated with him. But it’s very uncommon for an A-lister like Blue to have worn five different numbers with the same team, yet that’s what the generally dependable baseball-reference.com says he did. Three of those five numbers are shown above; I couldn’t find photos of Blue wearing Nos. 28 (which he apparently wore for part of the 1969 season) or 16 (part of 1970). Anyone..?
(In addition to his five regular season numbers, Blue also wore at least one additional number — 57 — during spring training.)
5. He liked to wear a batting glove under his fielding glove.
We’re used to seeing position players wear a batting glove as an extra layer of protection under their fielding glove, but you never see a pitcher doing that (even though there’s no rule against it). Blue, however, clearly liked to go double-gloved during workouts, although I don’t think he ever did did it in a game:
6. He wore a rare uni combo in an All-Star Game.
The A’s often went mono-gold in the vest/belt era, but pairing the gold jersey with gold pants was much rarer during the pullover/sansabelt era. Blue, however, wore that combo when starting the 1975 All-Star Game. As you can see in the video clip embedded above, his fellow Oakland All-Star starters Gene Tenace and Bert Campaneris went gold over white, while outfielders Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi went green over white and American League skipper Alvin Dark went mono-white (including the white cap that all A’s managers and coaches wore during that period).
7. He was the subject of a very groovy Time magazine cover illustration.
Lots of athletes can land on the cover of Sports Illustrated (as Blue did in 1971 and again in 1972) or The Sporting News (1971) or Sport (1971), but not many find themselves on the cover of Time, and even fewer are the subject of a really cool illustration by the great movie poster artist Bob Peak. I actually remember seeing a copy of this magazine in our dentist’s office when I was very young.
As it happens, Blue struck an extremely similar pose (but in a different uniform) for a photo that graced the cover of Ebony in 1972:
8. He was almost a Yankee.
In June of 1976, Charlie Finley tried to sell off several of his star players, including Blue, who he sent to the Yankees in return for $1.5 million. But then-commish Bowie Kuhn voided that deal and several others, ruling that it was not in baseball’s best interest for rich teams to essentially buy talent from other clubs, so Blue never got to wear the pinstripes. But if you do a Google image search on “Vida Blue Yankees,” you’ll find a few Photoshopped images like the one above, speculating on how Topps might have handled the situation.
9. He apparently liked Roman numerals.
If you look closely at the photo shown above, you can see that Blue’s glove is inscribed with “#XIV,” for his uni number, 14. I know of only one other ballplayer who labeled his gear with Roman numerals: Willie Stargell.
10. He wore a Kansas City Monarchs jersey as one of the Black Aces.
In 2006, former A’s pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant published a book called Black Aces, about the 13 Black pitchers who’d won 20 games in an MLB season. Four of those pitchers — Grant, Blue, Mike Norris, and Dave Stewart — played for the A’s, so the team honored them prior to their game on May 30, 2007 (Blue is second from the right in the photo shown above), in conjunction with a traveling exhibit from the Negro Leagues Museum that was on display at the A’s ballpark at the time. Additional info here and here.
Bonus: Trivia Question
Blue is the answer to a famous baseball trivia question: “Who was the last switch-hitter to be named the American League’s MVP?” That took place in 1971, two years before the DH came to the AL.
You can see Blue batting left-handed (and sprinting to first base while trying to bunt his way on in the 10th inning of a 1971 game) in this video:
And you can see him batting right-handed in Game Two of the 1973 World Series here:
Not a bad uni legacy. I imagine the A’s will add some sort of uni memorial for him, and maybe the Giants as well (they’re already wearing a memorial patch for Gaylord Perry, but it’s so small that they could easily add another one for Blue).
Of course, Blue’s story also includes a cocaine-related prison sentence and a one-year suspension, which is a shame, but his accomplishments clearly outweigh his mistakes. I enjoyed watching him play and am glad I still have those memories. R.I.P.
(Extra-special thanks to our own Phil Hecken, who contributed information and photos for several of the fun facts listed above and thereby made this piece much, much better than it would otherwise have been, and also to proofreader Jerry Wolper, who contributed the interview with Blue talking about his NOB.)
Vida Blue imprinted on me growing up in the 70’s. The memorable name and the amazing baseball cards when he was with the A’s sealed it. My recollection is that everyone in Little League in the 70’s was trying to recreate the high stirrup look that Vida and other players wore. I really like the look when he was with the A’s where he showed a little of the top of the stirrup and had the yellow sani’s.
That high stirrup look was what every little leaguer wanted in the late 70s/early 80s. Vida Blue, Dusty Baker, and so many others made that look popular. I was a fan of the look then but after growing up wish I had at least a few photos with the stirrups way down low while showing plenty of sock. Our choices were limited to what what the league issued to us so in the end the ribbon look won out.
Vida Blue fun fact (not uni related): Vida always pitched with two dimes in his pocket.
Royals Stadium opens up to the interstate that runs past the outfield fence. As a kid on vacation we drove past on a Sunday afternoon when Blue was pitching for the A’s, with a sellout crowd in attendance.
The super-high ribbon stirrup was never my preference, though I did like the similar look with the pants cuffed not quite so high, like Hank Aaron had late in his career.
Vida always pitched with two dimes in his pocket.
I didn’t know that about him (but just looked it up) — great detail!
And I’d say it *is* uni-related — the pocket is part of his uniform after all!
Vida did some studio work for the Giants TV pre and post game broadcasts in the last few years. He was also pretty good at the desk. It’s funny. I always associate him with the number 14 since that’s what he wore with the Giants. I never knew how many numbers he wore across the Bay.
I absolutely hate the ribbon stirrup look, but always thought Vida wore them well in Oakland.
The ribbon stirrup was all the rage in the early 1980s when I was in Little League. I can remember kids cutting the stirrups they were given and adding more elastic. The coolest kids and biggest stars had the highest stirrups.
As a child of the ’80s and early ’90s, all we had to choose from by high school were stirrups that were heavy on the ribbon. I went the other way, inspired by Orioles pitcher Scott Erickson; I looped the ribbons under my feet to show as much non-ribbon stirrup as I could. We had black stirrups (no stripes) and gray pants, and I got most of my calves covered over white sannies.
Obligatory reference to Frank Robinson’s high stirrups from a seven year old Uni Watch post.
Ribbon stirrups > pajama pants
ANY VISIBLE HOSIERY > pajama pants
What a great remembrance for a player with a fascinating story. RIP Vida.
Truly a baseball character and I LOVE his delivery. RIP
Hi Paul. There’s a typo in the beginning of the “He was almost a Yankee” section – In June 0f 1976…
I always felt a connection with Vida Blue, because the glove I had playing little league (I think it was a MacGregor and if I had to guess, it was probably the G19T model I see pictures of on EBay) had a reproduction of his signature on the palm. Even though it was a mass-produced glove, as a youth player it always felt like there was a little bit of the spirit of a major leaguer out there with me on the field.
Kind of incredible that someone with the last name ‘Blue’ got famous playing for 2 of the few non-blue teams in all of baseball, Oakland and SF.
Great point!! But he was also Royal(s) Blue.
Really enjoyed this. BTW, I see nothing wrong with the ribbon stirrup. That was peak styling in the early ’70s. That’s how my high school teammates taught me to wear them, and that’s how I wore them for baseball and softball for at least a decade.
“…a 17-year career that included a Cy Young award, an MVP award…” – both won in the same season!
I’m hoping this will be the last bit of bad news involving the A’s for a while.
I’m trying to think why on earth you would write your number in Roman numerals on your equipment and I’m failing. Help?
The opportunity to teach your less-educated teammates about classical antiquity?
He was a truly remarkable athlete, from his name to his switch hitting as a pitcher and his high kick style of delivery. Whenever I think of 70s pitchers I think of him and Rollie Fingers. Rest in Peace, Mister Blue.
Went to a game in Baltimore in 1973. Vida Blue vs. Jim Palmer. At the old Memorial stadium, the starting pitchers used to warm up on the warning tracks between the dugouts and home plate. I had seats behind home plate. The sounds made when the catchers caught the warm up throws were like fire crackers going off. Two pitchers at the top of their game.
“Not many MLB teams used white as their official footwear color; even fewer used colored sanitary socks; and fewer still did both. Blue managed to play for two of them.”
Willie McCovey played for (all?) 3 -’76 Padres and A’s, ’77 Giants.
Brewers also wore gold sannies for a time in the 1970s.
Yes, but not white shoes.
Vida Blue with 57
Sorry, when I read this earlier you were looking for a 57.
Vida Blue almost became a Yankee, but he also almost joined the Big Red Machine. Might have kept the Machine’s dominance intact for a few more years. Also, Vida-Blue-for-Dave-Revering might have gone down as the most lopsided trade ever. link
From the 75 ASG AL team photo, Vida was missing. There were a lot of As on that team
Green Hat, Green Top, White Pants
Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Paul Linblad [in picture but not on the team]
Green Hat, Yellow Top, White Pants
Reggie Jackson, Gene Tenace, Bert Campaneris
White Hat, Green Top, White Pants
Wes Stock, BP Pitcher
Alvin Dark, Manager
Outfielder Claudell Washington was also on the team (but not in the photo).
The spaghetti-stirrup was as essential as any other leg styling in the sport. As effective to date a photograph as Carl Yastrzemski’s sideburns.
Nice remembrance of Vida Blue. As a kid, I always thought he was the coolest of the cool, especially after he seemingly defied Charlie O. after his amazing ’71 season. On a personal note, always had a special place in my heart for him. I went to a ChiSox-A’s doubleheader in ’72 at old Comiskey and between games I went down toward the Oakland dugout. I thought I spotted Vida and called out to him to get his autograph. Sure enough, he popped up and motioned for me to hand him the pen and program. I was small for my age and started to climb up on the dugout itself, Vida looking around to see if the coast was clear, and just as I was stretching out to hand him the program, a uniformed usher (the Andy Frains back in the day) grabbed me by the belt and collar and dragged me off the dugout, much to my embarrassment. Vida then let loose on the usher and invited his teammates to do the same, after which he looked at me and shrugged and waved. A kindness to a young fan . . .
Bonus Bonus Fact! — Vida Blue is the name of a side project band of Page McConnell (Phish), Oteil Burbridge (Allman Bros Band; Dead & Co; ARU), and Russell Batiste, Jr (The Meters). They’ve put out a couple of funky electic jam records and tour every decade or so. Back in 2004, the real Vida Blue joined them onstage at The Fillmore in San Francisco.
Vida was always engaging with fans. I remember watching bp when he played for the Giants with my gf and he tossed her a ball. I’ve kept that ball as well as girl all these years. RIP Vida.
Sorry for no link, but if you search on Jim Rooker’s 1978 Topps card, he has XIX on his glove.
Just a note on the pant cuffs. Blue doesn’t really have them “as high as he could”. He had them where most pre-pajamas wore them, on the upper half of the calf muscle. They look good and the stirrups just make them look higher. Too many ball players these days wear their pants “cuffed” rolled up to just under their knee, which looks horrible and incompetent.
My dad reminded me tonight that I talked to him (and my dad) at the Colosseum before a game in 1976, I was pretty young, but still can’t believe I didn’t remember it until Dad mentioned it
Always thought Vida was the coolest man in baseball