He wore Charlie Finley’s crazy uniforms and endured Candlestick Park’s fickle winds. He saw Reggie Jackson say hello and watched Willie McCovey say goodbye.
He started an All-Star Game for the A’s as a wide-eyed kid in 1971 and one for the Giants as a steely-eyed veteran in 1978.
You want to know the history of major league baseball in the Bay Area? Vida Blue is here to serve as your guide.
As the A’s (50 years) and Giants (60) prepare to celebrate milestones in 2018, we asked Vida Blue to raise a glass to both teams. For him, it’s happy anniversaries.
“Baseball opened doors for me on both sides of the bay,” Blue said.
At 68, the left-hander is the living embodiment of those Bay Bridge Series caps split down the middle. Blue pitched in the A’s organization from 1967-77 and for the Giants from 1978-81 and ’85-86.
Then again, Blue always has been good at covering both sides: He remains the last switch-hitter to win the American League MVP award (in 1971, two years before the DH).
So here’s a look at the two teams divided by the thin Blue line:
A’s: Blue was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in the second round of the 1967 draft. But it didn’t take him long to figure out that Finley had a renegade streak. The owner moved the team to Oakland in 1968.
“I call Mr. Finley the baseball version of Al Davis — he was his own man. And that’s a compliment,” Blue said, referring to the former Raiders owner. Finley’s tradition-rattling ways included the way he revolutionized baseball’s color palette. He outfitted the 1970s A’s in shockingly garish day-glo uniforms. That was fine with a guy named Blue.
“I bought into it. I don’t know about other players, but I thought it was pretty cool and quirky that we had stuff like that,” he said. “But I was 21, so you could have told me the sky was falling, and I might have bought into it.”
Finley’s combinations consisted of bright greens and golds. And then there were home Sundays, when the A’s wore white tops with white pants.
“And they were wedding gown white,” Blue said. “Obviously, that’s the whitest white that’s ever been made.”
Giants: Anyone who played home games at Candlestick Park eventually became an amateur meteorologist. There was no need for fancy equipment. Just follow the wind-blown trash. “Those hot dog wrappers would come right past the Giants dugout on the first-base side, get in a swirling wind and wind up in front of the visitors’ dugout,” Blue recalled.
How bad was it?
Before the ‘Stick was demolished a few years ago, Blue wanted badly for the Giants and Dodgers to play one last game there. He wanted all the young players spoiled by the relative calm of AT&T Park to see what life was like in the days of yore.
“That would have been cool, man, let the current guys see what the hell we went through and how we had to adjust and adapt,” Blue said.
There would have been another perk to one more game at the ‘Stick.
“You and I could have set up shop outside selling sweatshirts,” Blue said. “The generation of today wouldn’t know how to prepare for Candlestick Park. We would have sold a billion sweatshirts.”
A’s: Blue made his debut for Oakland on July 20, 1969, just eight days shy of his 20th birthday. His breakthrough season came two years later, when he went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA and 301 strikeouts and won the AL MVP and Cy Young awards. Like his young teammates, he was coming of age in a city in search of its own stars.
“The fact is that Oakland took a backseat to San Francisco because of the status of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry and Orlando Cepeda,” Blue said. “Those were established players.”
The A’s didn’t have anyone like that. But it didn’t take them long to produce names that endure to this day. Blue rattled off Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Gene Tenace and Bert “Campy” Campaneris.
“When we won those five divisional titles and three championships (1972-74), that kind of put us on the map,” Blue said. “You can kind of flex your muscles and say, ‘Well, we’re not so bad ourselves.’”
Giants: By the time the A’s traded Blue to the Giants, after the 1977 season, the Oakland dynasty had been reduced to rubble. Reggie, Rudi, Tenace, Bando, Rollie Fingers — all gone. Finley was eager to unload high-salaried stars, figuring there were more around the corner.
Blue remembers his exact thought upon hearing he had been traded to the Giants. “My reaction was: ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last,”’ he said.
He went 18-10 with a 2.79 ERA for an NL West contender in ’78 and finished third in Cy Young Award voting behind Gaylord Perry and Burt Hooton. Over the next two seasons, Blue was lucky to see McCovey’s swan song before his retirement in 1980.
In Blue’s second tour with San Francisco, he got to see a new wave of stars. His final big league season was in ’86, when he played with rookies Will Clark and Robby Thompson.
“They had great potential. I knew Will Clark was a star in his own right,” Blue said. “For the history of the Giants, it was the changing of the guard. … They had these great young stars that I thought would fill the void of some of the Giants past.”
ON ALL-STAR DISTINCTION
Blue was the first pitcher to start the All-Star Game for both leagues. He has since been joined by Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay and Max Scherzer.
A’s: Blue was midway through his first full season when he started the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit. It was a heck of a way to make an entrance. There were 26 Hall of Famers involved in that game (22 players, both managers, and umpire Doug Harvey; one of the players was Joe Torre, who went in as a manager).
All six home runs in the game came from future residents of Cooperstown.
And then there was the kid from Mansfield, Louisiana.
“The first time, you’re always a deer in the headlights. And that was me,” Blue said. “You can imagine me being a young kid. We were in Detroit, and I’m drooling watching Al Kaline walk past me, and Luis Aparicio and Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson and Catfish Hunter and Reggie and Jim Palmer and guys like that.”
Blue was the winning pitcher in that game, but he got a little too much of a close-up with one particular Hall of Famer, allowing a home run to Hank Aaron in the third inning.
“He hit a home run to right-center field, and I think they named it the Space Shuttle,” Blue said.
Aaron wasn’t fooled, huh?
“I wasn’t trying to fool him,” Blue clarified. “I was trying to throw the ball by him, which is just as dumb.”
Giants: Eager to make an impression in his first year in orange and black, Blue went 12-4 with a 2.42 ERA in the first half of the ’78 season and started opposite Jim Palmer at the Mid-Summer Classic in San Diego.
“I really tried to enjoy the one in 1978,” he recalled. “I remember meeting President Ford, who came into the locker room. And he was pretty cordial. It was just a quick, ‘Hi and bye’ because security is so tight that that’s all you can do is shake hands and read each other’s lips and keep moving.”
As for the game itself, things got off to a rough start, thanks to even more Hall of Famers.
Rod Carew tripled and George Brett doubled to start the game. Throw in a Carlton Fisk sacrifice fly, and the AL led 2-0 after the first inning.
Luckily for Blue, the NL rallied for a 7-3 victory.
“It was more of a fun time for me than being a deer in the headlights,” he said “I really began to feel like I was an established player after eight years in the major leagues.”
ON COMMON GROUND
The key question for Vida Blue: What’s the difference between A’s fans and Giants fans?
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, diplomatically. “With A’s fans, we grew up together. With Giants fans, they kind of adopted me after the ’78 season. That would be the minor difference.
“But fans are fans. They intercross and intersect, American League and National League. I like to think that I’m well respected with the staff of both the A’s and Giants.”
Blue played 273 games for Oakland and 179 for San Francisco. Subtract his two late-career seasons in Kansas City, and you have a pitcher who went 196-144 with a 3.15 ERA while in Northern California.
“It was nice to be a part of both teams,” he said. “I was a pretty lucky guy to take in the Bay Area.”
Right back atcha, Vida.