CONCORD, Calif. — Letters and photos from admirers still fill the P.O. Box of Vida Blue Jr., so every so often he gets a lift to collect the latest haul. Then he brings the mail here, to the dining room of a friend’s house where he has been staying, and signs the photos with a blue Sharpie, a playful nod to his name.
On this summer Saturday, someone has sent a double-sided 8-by-10 glossy. On one side, he’s the firecracker Oakland Athletics left-hander who enlivened the game: gaze steadied, chest torqued, left arm cocked, the young Black superstar who took on his White owner, made a fan in the White House and won 20-plus games three times in his first five full seasons.
On the other side, he’s in the twilight of a tumultuous career with the San Francisco Giants: mustached, older, battered. He’s the guy who served three months in prison during a cocaine scandal, collateral damage of a sport’s drug war that, like the country’s drug war, disproportionally affected Black and Latino men.
Blue knows it’s those years captured on the back of the 8-by-10 that so far have cost him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He still thinks he has a shot, still desperately wants to make it. He’s not the only ballplayer with baggage, he says, though he struggles to talk about the rough edges of his life. He prefers to just sign both sides of the photo and move on.
“You learn, at least for me, to stuff it, and I probably never should’ve done that,” Blue says. “I probably should’ve gone somewhere and talked about it to a shrink or someone that could’ve assisted me and my feelings at that time, instead of letting that stuff just build up inside of you. Now all of a sudden you’re Mount St. Helens — peeew! — you’re going to explode.”
The all-Black school he attended had offered equipment to its baseball players, but Vida Blue Jr. wanted his own glove. So he took a summer job picking cotton and, with the money he saved, ordered one from the Sears catalogue.
Baseball was a luxury for a young Black boy growing up in Mansfield, La. Blue’s parents, though loving and hard-working, could provide only the essentials: hugs, kisses and three meals a day.
Blue spent Saturdays with his dad, Vida Sr. That meant watching baseball and drinking beer, with Senior making Junior promise to drink only when dad was around. Vida Sr. worked 25 years at a steel mill. When he sneezed, coal dust blew out of his nose. And when he died at 45, with six kids and no pension, his namesake became the man of the house.
Depressed, Blue quit playing sports. But he still had scholarship offers from a host of southern HBCUs to play quarterback. And even though he threw wildly when he donned that department-store glove, Blue attracted attention from major league scouts. A month before his 18th birthday, he was drafted in the second round by the Athletics and took the $25,000 signing bonus to take care of his family.
“When you’re from Mansfield, Louisiana,” Blue says now, “that’s a trillion dollars.”
He accelerated from Class A to the majors as he tamed his fastball, and with each strikeout, the left-hander’s legend grew.
“You heard about this boy over there in Oakland who was wild as hell and you didn’t want to hit against him,” recalls Bill North, who started his career with the Chicago Cubs around the same time. “Then all of a sudden, he started pulling that ball and straightening it out.”
The A’s called Blue up before his 20th birthday. On Sept. 21, 1970, at 21, he became the fourth-youngest player in history to throw a no-hitter.
The next year, his first full season in the majors, Blue went 24-8 and became only the fifth pitcher ever to win both the MVP and Cy Young awards, packing stadiums wherever he pitched. Time featured Blue on its cover under the banner “New Zip in the Old Game.” Sport magazine anointed him Oakland’s “Miracle Pitcher.”
In August, the team visited the White House at the request of President Richard Nixon, who called him “the most underpaid player in baseball” and jokingly offered to negotiate Blue’s next contract.
The Athletics’ owner, Charlie O. Finley, didn’t laugh. Blue was making around $14,000, a salary so small that he qualified to live in the publicly subsidized Acorn Projects in West Oakland. What had once seemed like a trillion bucks now felt like a slap in the face.
Finley tried placating his young star by hosting a day in his honor, presenting him with a baby blue Cadillac with a white convertible top. Blue used the gas card Finley gave him to fill up the station wagons of the single mothers at Acorn. He gave the Caddy to his mom.
Then he hired a lawyer.
Blue figured he had given Finley no choice. His astonishing 1971 season included 24 wins, 24 complete games in 39 starts, 312 innings, 301 strikeouts and an American League-best 1.82 ERA. Emboldened by his stats, Blue says, he and his lawyer went to the negotiating table seeking $92,500, less than the $125,000 Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax received six years earlier after holding out.
It was a fantasy figure. Finley was known to treat players like props: He paid Rollie Fingers $300 to grow his famous handlebar mustache as a gimmick; instructed the A’s radio broadcast to refer to his ace as “True Blue” against Vida’s wishes; and made sure players knew his middle initial stood for “Owner.”
“We had a mule, Charlie O. Finley’s mule. It was a beautiful animal,” says North, who joined the A’s in 1973. “But he lived better than we did.”
Backing up the owner’s ego was baseball’s reserve clause, which bound a player to his team. Outfielder Curt Flood had challenged the clause in 1969, eventually paving the way for free agency. But in 1972, the clause still ruled.
Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson endured a drawn-out contract dispute with Finley. The experience still stings.
“I don’t know if it was because I am a minority — that probably played a piece of it,” Jackson says. “But Charlie was just tight with the money.”
In 1972, the Blue-Finley negotiations played out in the press for months. Nixon, again, advocated for Blue. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in as a meditator. Blue sat out spring training and, at a news conference, threatened to quit baseball to pursue a career as a plumbing executive. His negotiation tactics were sophisticated for the time, even courageous for a player with just one full season under his belt, but baseball’s power structure won out. Blue settled for $63,000.
“I remember Vida having a spectacular season in ‘71,” Jackson says, “then it was just a horror show for him in ‘72 in trying to get his money.”
Finley had treated him like a “damn colored boy,” Blue later told reporters. He struggled to make sense of the slight, and when he returned to the team, he went 6-10 and was sent to the bullpen during the Athletics’ World Series run.
“It left a sour taste in my mouth, and who knows how that one year — and the incident itself — changed my attitude about my job and the game that I loved,” Blue says. “It created this issue with me that I never had let go of.”
He is sitting now at the head of the dining room table, inside a ranch home in suburban Oakland where he has been living as a guest for more than a year. When the pandemic hit, Blue says, he needed a new place but couldn’t find a real estate agent to show him condos, so his friend Michelle Lewis opened her doors.
Most days, Blue does an hour of cardio on the treadmill in the living room or works on his short game on the putting green out back. At 72, the wrinkles and bald dome show his mileage, but he’s still sturdy.
While Lewis prepares surf and turf, Blue reminisces about the 1970s. He was a bona fide celebrity, starring alongside Jim Brown in a blaxploitation flick and entertaining the troops with Bob Hope. After 1971, he moved out of the projects and into a swinging apartment complex in Alameda. A few teammates lived there, along with some Oakland Raiders and a handful of flight attendants.
“You talk about sex, drugs and alcohol,” says North, Blue’s neighbor at the time. “It was crazy.”
Eventually, Blue escaped to Oakland Hills, where he would see activist Angela Davis walking her Dobermans down the quiet streets. But he couldn’t escape the stress of being a Black superstar in baseball. “You’re feeling the pressure of, ‘Man, if I screw this up, I’m back in the bullpen,’ “ Blue says.
He lost 19 games in 1977, and the A’s traded him to the Giants in 1978. That offseason, he went to Las Vegas with his new teammates. One invited him up to a hotel room.
Booze had kept its hold on Blue since his dad introduced it. He has faced at least three DUI charges in his adult life, including one five years ago that cost him a night in jail and his driver’s license. But in that hotel room, there was marijuana. Blue puffed, then coughed, looking like a rookie.
“That’s probably why they decided to let me try the nose candy,” Blue says.
Before the 1982 season, Blue was shipped to Kansas City, where he became entangled in a federal cocaine investigation that gripped baseball. Blue and three teammates served prison time in 1983. The next season, Blue was banned from baseball for a year.
Cocaine was so rampant then that even the Pittsburgh Pirates mascot was involved in distributing it to players. In 1985, during the so-called “Pittsburgh drug trials,” many more players were implicated and testified in court. But when Commissioner Peter Ueberroth issued disciplinary actions to 11 players, nine were Black or Latino. That mimicked what was happening across the country as the drug war launched by Blue’s fan in the White House, Nixon, was carried on by President Ronald Reagan, with Black people getting arrested at rates three to four times higher than White people.
“I don’t tell names, but some Hall of Fame White players are running around unscathed . . . and was doing it just as much, if not more,” says Mike Norris, Blue’s former Oakland teammate, who wrote a memoir, “Blackballed Twice,” about being kicked out of baseball over cocaine. “It wasn’t just a Black thing. We were the fall guys for it. Honey, look, 50 percent of the league was on that [stuff].”
Blue places the Sharpie on the table, then pushes it away. He doesn’t hide his mistakes; he’ll even joke about not having that house in the hills anymore. But he avoids diving too deeply, talking in clipped phrases about “the drug thing.”
He gets up and shuffles wordlessly from the room. Lewis, who has been in the kitchen, shares a secret. She met Blue more than a decade ago and invited him to speak at the independent school she runs in Oakland. One day, one of her students, who had gone through a dark time at home, was preparing for college. Blue took the boy to the side and talked about his own tentative steps into manhood. Blue opened up about everything, even the parts he tries to conceal, and both the young man and the older man cried.
“The dam broke,” Lewis says.
As Blue returns, Lewis relays this story. He shrugs. Sharing his background with kids is helpful, he says, because “you just get it out of your system.”
When he sits back down in front of a glass of chardonnay, more walls come down. He’s proud of how he rehabilitated his name after the suspension, he says. He played winter ball in Puerto Rico and, at 35, joined the Giants in spring training as a nonroster player. He arrived at the ballpark early, shagged balls, never finished last in running drills. He made the team.
“It’s not embarrassing, but it tarnished my image,” Blue says. “Not that I was squeaky clean. I didn’t have a halo and [stuff], but I had a reputation of being a respectable, reputable person. I worked my tail off to polish that image back up and renew the name Vida Blue Jr. But it’s a constant battle to do that every day.”
Blue returned to play one more year in 1986 and then finally, after 17 seasons, retired. The leather MacGregor glove he used during his no-hitter in 1970 is on display in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Blue spent several years after retiring hoping he would get voted in, too.
But in 1995, Blue — with 209 wins, 2,175 strikeouts and three World Series titles — fell off the baseball writers’ ballot. His only way in now would come from the Eras Committee, which votes on those no longer eligible via the writers’ ballot. It’s a long shot, Blue knows.
He thinks about this possibility and starts to sing. It’s a line from the 1981 song “Talkin’ Baseball.”
Carew and Gaylord Perry, Seaver, Garvey, Schmidt and Vida Blue.
If Cooperstown is calling, it’s no fluke.
He taps his blue Sharpie on the floral tablecloth.
“Dammmmn. And I blew it,” he says. “That Hall of Fame thing, that’s something that I can honestly, openly say I wish I was a Hall of Famer. And I know for a fact this drug thing impeded my road to the Hall of Fame — so far.”