Vida Blue and the Unexpectedly Tight
1971 American League Cy Young Race
1971 American League Cy Young Race
In part 2 of his series on award-winning seasons, Graham Womack covers the electrifiyng early pitching career of national phenom Vida Blue and the surprisingly tight contest for the American League’s 1971 Cy Young Award.
On July 25, 1971, Vida Blue was on top of baseball.
Three days shy of his 22nd birthday, the Oakland Athletics’ ace had electrified the Majors by going 18–3 with a 1.41 ERA to this point in the season. He would win that day, on the road against the Detroit Tigers, dropping his ERA to 1.37 and giving him a chance to become just the second pitcher since 1935 to win at least 30 games in a season.
By this point, Blue was already a national phenomenon. He’d been on the cover of Sports Illustrated in late May and would be on the cover of Time magazine by the end of August. When the A’s would visit the White House on August 17, Richard Nixon would tell Blue, “I’ll give you a challenge. Every year until you reach 30, you’ve got to win that many that season, as your age.”
But quietly, something else happened on July 25 that foretold of a shift in the season. In the fourth inning, a pitch from Detroit starter Bill Denehy struck Blue on the foot. Two innings later, with Blue carrying a one-hitter, A’s Manager Dick Williams removed him from the game as a precautionary measure.
“I’m okay,” Blue said afterward. “We had a big lead and it was hot and humid so the manager wanted to give me some rest.”
No one knew it at the time, but from this point, Blue’s virtuoso season began to slow, and an unexpectedly tight race for the American League Cy Young Award unfolded.
“Like a UFO”
Speed helped define Vida Blue in 1971, when he struck out 301 batters. Batters hardly knew what to make of his stuff.
“If it sounds like a UFO, that is only because the hitters who have faced the fearsome fastball of Oakland A’s Pitcher Vida Blue tend to endow it with out-of-this-world qualities,” Time magazine noted for its August 23 cover piece. “Roy White, the otherwise stable outfielder for the New York Yankees, claims that the Blue darter ‘speeds up on you and then seems to disappear.’
Blue dominated most of the first four months of the season, with 19 wins and seven shutouts by the end of July, as well as 14 games with at least nine strikeouts in this span. He was a natural to start the All-Star Game for the American League.
“For speed, this kid Blue is right up there with [Sam] McDowell and [Herb] Score,” Felipe Alou of the New York Yankees told The Sporting News in July.
Soon, many throughout baseball began to make digs at Blue, both subtle and overt.
“The book of baseball is full of 21-year-old pitchers who won a flock of games,” pitching guru Johnny Sain told Ross Newhan of The Sporting News in August.
Blue had many struggles throughout his career. Dealing with the pressure took a toll on him.
Source: The Trading Card Database
Sain continued, “Now it becomes a matter of how Vida handles pressure, tension, consistency. The men I think of who handled pressure are Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson and Whitey Ford. If Vida can handle all that goes on surrounding the game, then he has the stuff to rank with the people I mentioned.”
Newhan himself wrote a couple weeks before, “The headlines have gone to Vida Blue, but one wonders if Don Gullett isn’t the most impressive young pitcher in many summers.” Gullett wasn’t, though his Manager Sparky Anderson soon proclaimed that he wouldn’t trade Gullett for Blue.
Louder snipes came from Tigers Manager Billy Martin, who said of Blue, “I thought he’d be faster.” Martin expressed doubt that Blue would win 20 games the following year.
Martin had motivation to criticize Blue, with his ace Mickey Lolich next in line for the American League Cy Young Award.
Over the season’s final two months, Martin’s snipes would only intensify.
Through July 25, Blue was 19–3 with a 1.37 ERA. Over the rest of the season, he went 5–5 with a 2.74 ERA, with Lolich destined to finish with more wins—25, and 308 strikeouts.
A second challenger, Wilbur Wood of the Chicago White Sox also emerged. Had sabermetrics been a thing among Cy Young voters in 1971, Wood might have corralled the award instead of finishing a distant third in voting. His 8.6 Wins Above Average topped Blue and Lolich and is tied as the sixth-best single-season total of the last 50 years.
Meanwhile, Blue began to look human over the final months of the season, perhaps overworked. According to the Baseball-Reference.com play index tool, he’s one of just five modern-era pitchers to have topped 300 innings in his age-21 or younger season, along with Bob Feller, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, and a forgotten Deadball Era hurler named Pete Schneider.
As Blue struggled, at least by the standards of the year he’d been having, pressure and the sheer amount of attention he was receiving—such as appearances on NBC’s Today show and ABC’s The Dick Cavett Show in a single day during a trip to New York—began to take its toll.
Blue started to refuse local telephone calls to his hotel room on road trips, with Dick Williams having to go to Blue’s room at one point after the hotel lobby operator wouldn’t patch him through. Blue also began to loathe interacting with reporters.
“He even compiled a list of 10 most hated questions,” Ron Bergman wrote for The Sporting News on August 21.
Bergman noted reporters asking, after Blue finally won his 20th game in his third try, if the proverbial monkey was off his back.
“There was no monkey on my back,” Blue replied. “There was just the pressure, that pressure.”
Reporters had noted Blue carrying two dimes in his back pocket, possibly as a good luck charm—though as Blue’s Society for American Baseball Research biography notes, he wouldn’t confirm this.
A reporter asked if Blue would now carry three dimes, possibly for good luck as he went for 30 wins.
“There you go again,” Blue said, slamming his hand on a table. “There’s that damn pressure.”
By this point, word had also gotten out about Blue’s pitifully small salary of $14,750, with notoriously tightfisted Oakland owner Charlie Finley defending this by saying he’d also given Blue a Cadillac, a credit card for car expenses, and a $1,000 check after Blue had requested $500 for a new wardrobe.
“I’ve read that you’re the most underpaid player in baseball,” Nixon told Blue during Oakland’s August 17 White House visit, which occurred two days after Nixon infamously took America off the gold standard and instituted a 90-day wage freeze. “I wouldn’t like to be the lawyer negotiating your next contract.”
Down to the Wire
In the season’s final weeks, the Cy Young race looked like it could go either way.
“The Cy Young Award?” Blue told the Associated Press in early September. “Maybe I’d vote for Mickey Lolich, too. He’s doing better than I am now.”
A few days later, after going eight innings against the Twins, Blue told the Associated Press he felt “physically hurt.”
“My body is tired, not my arm,” Blue said. “I feel I can go a strong six innings, but that’s about all.”
Williams offered to take Blue out if he was leading in the fifth or sixth inning, with Williams staying true to his word and lifting Blue after the fifth inning in two of his three final starts.
Facing a lagging competitor, Lolich refused to go for the kill.
“I’m getting tired of all the comparisons,” Lolich told The Sporting News after pitching a shutout on September 6 to bring his record to 23–10. “Vida’s been more of the phenom. The writers go for things like that.”
Martin was happy to stump harder for Lolich.
“Every four days, he gives us a top job,” Martin said. “If my man beats out Blue in victories and innings pitched, who’s entitled to the Cy Young and maybe the MVP.”
In the season’s final days, Lolich assessed his chances at roughly 50–50.
“It depends on the writers now,” Lolich told a United Press International reporter. “You see, all year long they have been reading and writing about Vida Blue. Now, if they don’t want to vote for him, it’ll make them look bad.”
Maybe there was something to Lolich’s logic. Blue prevailed in Cy Young voting in late October—98 votes to Lolich’s 85. Blue expressed relief after, saying he’d expected Lolich to win. Talk then turned to the possibility of Blue also winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award.
“I’ll never get that one,” Blue told an Associated Press reporter. “They can’t give me everything.”
Not long after, Blue ran away with MVP.
Source: The Trading Card Database
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