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.)