Okay, quick — how many pitchers have won a Cy Young and an MVP award, started the All-Star Game for both leagues, had not one but two funky 70s jams named after them, and appeared in a vintage 70s blaxploitation film?
Just one man: Vida Rochelle Blue, Jr.
Born today in 1949 in Mansfield, Louisiana, Vida Blue just about literally came out of nowhere to capture the imagination of the baseball world in September 1970, when he pitched a one-hitter against the Royals and a no-hitter (with only one walk) against the Twins within just a few weeks of being called up from the A's Triple-A Iowa farm team. By 1971, the high-kicking bad-ass lefty had become a veritable folk hero; on track at one point to win 30 games, he finished the season with a 24-8 record, a league-leading 1.82 ERA, 301 Ks and a .0952 WHIP in 312 innings, and a league-leading 8 shutouts, leading the A's to their first post-season appearance in 40 years. He started the All-Star Game for the American League against Dock Ellis (the first time the Midsummer classic had ever been started by two black pitchers), won the AL Cy Young and MVP award, was featured on the covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, Sport, Ebony and Jet, was immortalized in song by R&B singers Albert Jones and Jimmy Bee, and was even given a small part in a Jim Brown vehicle called Black Gunn.
Unfortunately, while things would continue to improve for the A's — to the tune of three straight World Series championships — things for their own "black gun" quickly became a lot more difficult. A's owner Charlie Finley, who'd unsuccessfully tried to get Blue to change his first name to True, refused his demand for a $100,000 salary (Blue made only $14,750 in '71), and negotiations quickly got ugly; Blue sat out the first part of the '72 season, even announcing at one point that he was quitting baseball to become the VP of Public Relations for the Dura Steel Products company, who sold plastic plumbing fixtures.
There was also talk of him co-starring with Richard Roundtree in one of the Shaft flicks, but Blue finally came back to the team in May, after settling for a $63,000 deal from Finley; he never quite found his groove, however, finishing the year 6-10 with a 2.80 ERA. Blue did bounce back well enough to win 20, 17 and 22 games over the '73-'75 seasons, but he never approached the stratospheric greatness of his '71 season; by now, he was merely a very good pitcher, posting an ERA above 3 each year. As with many of the A's players, dealing with the constant barking and meddling of Charlie Finley had taken a lot of the fun out of it for him. His cocaine use probably didn't help much, either.
The old Vida brilliance flashed a bit in 1976, when he went 18-10 with a 2.35 ERA, 20 complete games, 6 shutouts, and a 1.109 WHIP in 298.1 innings, his best season by far since '71. He might have even ended up in the World Series that year, if Finley had been successful in his attempt to sell him to the Yankees; alas, like the Rudi/Fingers sale to Boston, it was voided by the equally meddlesome Bowie Kuhn. Kuhn would also later scotch Finley's attempt to sell Blue to the Reds for outfielder Dave Revering and $1.75 million in cash, saying that there was too much money involved in the deal "for the good of the game." Finley was finally able to deal Blue away in early '78, sending him across the Bay to the Giants in return for seven mediocre players (including the shaven-headed Dave "Kojak" Heaverlo) and around $390,000 in cash. You see, Kuhn had proclaimed that no more than $400,000 could be involved in a transaction...
Blue had probably the third best season of his career in 1978, his first year with the Giants. He went 18-10 with a 2.79 ERA, was named starting pitcher for the NL in the All-Star Game, and placed third behind Gaylord Perry and Burt Hooton in the year's NL Cy Young balloting. But 1979 was a disaster; though he won 14 games, he posted an unsightly 5.01 ERA, the worst of any full season of his career. He seemed to find his groove again for a few years in the early 80s, but cocaine — which he'd been using with some regularity since the early 70s — finally caught up with him to the tune of jail time, and a suspension for the 1984 season; he finally retired in 1987 after being busted for a probation violation when drug tests turned up more cocaine in his system.
Blue finally got his shit together, thankfully, and has done some great charity work in recent years. But even though he retired with 209 career victories and a lifetime 3.27 ERA, one can't help but wonder how brightly he would have burned if it hadn't been for the dual-pronged negative influence of Charlie O. and, well, "charlie". Still, there's much joy to be had in remembering him in full-flight, like on this "In Action" card from 1972: He seems to be waiting for first baseman Mike Epstein to catch the final pop-out of the game, so he can seal another shutout before hopping in the limo to the Black Gunn set. Or as Albert Jones put it, "Whoo! Vida Blue!"
(Click the bar above to hear "Vida Blue" by Albert Jones.)