40th anniversary: Vida Blue’s holdout

Forty years ago today began one of the uglier labor episodes of the era. As is often the case with ugly episodes from the early 1970s, it involves maverick Oakland A’s owner Charles O. Finley.

Specifically, on March 16, 1972, star young pitcher Vida Blue rejected a contract offer from Finley. It would lead to a nasty war over a contract. Admittedly, contract disputes are not fun, and they could especially rankle players in the days before free agency, but this one still called attention to itself for how heated it got.

The story begins the year before, in 1971. That year Vida Blue had the sort of season most pitchers – even most great pitchers – only dream of. A 21-year-old with only three wins before the season began, Blue began the year posting a 10-1 record with a miniscule 1.03 ERA in his first dozen starts.

Though he couldn’t keep that superhuman pace up, he did finish the year with a 24-8 record while leading the league in ERA (1.82), and shutouts (eight) while fanning 301 batters. For that, he won the Cy Young Award and MVP. (In fact, Blue is the last switch-hitter to win the AL MVP). He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Everything was coming up Vida.

So naturally Blue expected a big payday for his efforts. Finley was willing to give him a pay raise, but not nearly as large as what Blue felt he deserved.

Forty years ago today, the war was on. Blue, a proud man, wasn’t about to back down. Finley, a successful businessman, knew he held all the cards. He wasn’t about to give in to Blue. Besides, his team hardly seemed to miss Blue, as it was winning two-thirds of their games in the early going.

As often happened, the owner won the fight. Blue caved and accepted a deal largely on Finley’s terms in late May. He’d missed two months of the season and not gotten what he wanted out of it. Actually, it was worse than that.

Finley was never big on taking the high road. He had the advantage and he was determined to put Blue in his place. He ordered Blue to issue a public apology to A’s fans for his holdout, and Blue had to comply. If he didn’t, he couldn’t play.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but the bright, promising pitcher of the year before just wasn’t himself at all in 1972. He went 6-10 on a pennant-winning club. In the postseason, he was forced into the bullpen, starting only one of Oakland’s 14 October contests. He also was upset with the club overall. Most memorably, when Finley offered his players bonuses to grow facial hair for a special “Mustache Night” promotion, Blue was the only Oakland A’s who opted not to grow hair. He wouldn’t jump through any hoops to get some money from Finley—not after the 1971-’72 offseason.

Folklore says the lockout and its aftermath caused Blue’s bad performance, and maybe it’s true. Then again, maybe folklore is just looking to create a story line and the real problem was that Blue had a tired arm from the year before.

Blue recovered, and won 20 games in 1973, and 22 in 1975. He remained a fine pitcher until his early 30s, when he began to fade. That’s the curse of a young stud pitcher. Blue is one of 16 pitchers in the lively ball era to win 150 games before turning 30. Only one of them (Greg Maddux) won 300 in his career.

Contract dispute or not, Blue’s career probably would’ve been a disappointment after his amazing 1971 season because young arms are so fragile. Still, what began 40 years ago today was one of the more remarkable detours to afflict a young star pitcher.

Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something occurring X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you would prefer to just skim the events.

Day-versaries

1,000 days since A.J. Burnett of the Yankees strikes out the side on the bare minimum of nine pitches against the Marlins.

2,000 days since Moises Alou joins the 2,000 hit club.

2,000 days since Dustin Hermanson plays in his final big league game.

4,000 days since Craig Biggio enjoys his only 5-for-5 game.

4,000 days since the big league debut of Brandon Inge.

4,000 days since the big league debut of David Eckstein.

8,000 days since Will Clark gets his 100th career home run.

9,000 days since Milwaukee’s Paul Molitor steals second, third, and home in the first inning against the A’s. The steal of home came during a double steal.

20,000 days since a nasty 30-minute brawl occurs in the AL. Pitcher Art Ditmar buzzes one by the head of Larry Doby, causing Doby to shout that if Ditmar does that again, “I’ll stick a knife in your back.” In the brawl, Billy Martin, Ditmar’s teammate, goes after Doby.

20,000 days since Baltimore trades future managerial whiz Dick Williams to the Indians for Jim Busby.

20,000 days since Ted Williams hits three homers in a game for the third time in his career.

30,000 days since pitcher Carl Mays signs with Portland of the Pacific Coast League. This ends Mays’ big league career.

40,000 days since Ned Hanlon wins his 1,000th game as a manager. He’s only the fourth manager to do that.

40,000 days since colorful A’s pitcher Rube Waddell wins two games, both in relief, against Baltimore. He pitches 10 innings in all, eight in the first game, and two in the second.

60,000 days since Deacon White, early baseball star, is born.

Anniversaries

1854 Blondie Purcell, outfielder, is born.

1859 Jerry Denny, baseball’s last glove-less outfielder, is born.

1865 Patsy Donovan, right fielder, is born.

1893 St. Louis releases star pitcher (and excellent hitter) Bob Caruthers.

1900 Ban Johnson his league, the American League, will put a team in Chicago.

1906 Lloyd Waner, Hall of Fame outfielder, is born.

1907 Tigers manager Hughie Jennings offers young star Ty Cobb to Cleveland in a proposed trade for established star Elmer Flick. Cobb recently got into fights with Detroit’s black groundskeeper (and the groundskeeper’s wife) and also with the team’s catcher, Boss Schmidt.

1908 Honus Wagner announces his retirement. It doesn’t take.

1939 The Reds purchase Billy Werber from the A’s.

1953 AL owners reject the proposal by Browns owner Bill Veeck to move his team to Baltimore.

1953 George Grantham, a good-hitting infielder, dies.

1958 Leon Cadore, pitched a 26-inning complete game on May 1, 1920, dies.

1961 New York City approves of a bond for the construction of Shea Stadium

1972 Pie Traynor, Hall of Fame third baseman, dies at age 72.

1976 Federal judge John W. Oliver finds the position taken by baseball owners on the reserve clause to be “ludicrous.” Yeah, that’s bad when a judge says that to you.

1977 Oakland signs free agent Dick Allen.

1978 Yankee pitcher Andy Messersmith falls and separates his shoulder.

1979 Hee Seop Choi, Korean-born first baseman, is born.

1981 Curtis Granderson is born.

1983 Stephen Drew is born.

1985 Denny McLain is convicted of racketeering, extortion, and cocaine possession. He’ll serve 29 months of a 23-year sentence before the conviction is overturned.

1985 LA signs amateur free agent Juan Guzman.

1994 Eric Show, former Padre pitcher and John Birch Society member, dies at age 37 in a homeless shelter.

2005 Dick Radatz, 1960s relief stud, dies.

2008 Bob Purkey, former big league pitcher, dies.

2010 Chuck Knoblauch pleads guilty to charges of domestic violence. He was accused of assaulting his common-law wife in Houston the previous September.

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Comments

  1. scott said...

    Wasn’t a part of the holdout the fact that Finley wanted him to legally change his first name to “True”?

    Interesting fact about him being the last switch-hitter to win the AL MVP!  That would make an excellent trivia question.

  2. Chris J. said...

    I don’t know if it was a legal name change.  I do know he asked him to become True Blue at one point, but I’m not sure if it was an item in the hold out itself or not.

  3. Andy R said...

    IIRC, the True Blue thing was during the 1971 season- Finley had a thing for nicknames- he thought they brought color into the game. I think he also gave Blue a baby-blue Cadillac during the season. Finley could very nice when it suited his aims…

  4. Bruce Markusen said...

    It’s hard to say for sure that drugs were the cause-and-effect reason for his pitching decline, but they almost certainly didn’t help. As I recall, his drug use started during that 1972 season. Though he had some good seasons with the A’s and Giants, he never came close to his 1971 performance, when he was basically an earlier version of Dwight Gooden.

    He also threw a lot of innings at an early stage in his career; that probably shortened his career somewhat.

  5. AndrewJ said...

    Re: the “True Blue” controversy—Vida reportedly said of Finley, “If he likes ‘True’ so much, why doesn’t he change HIS first name to it?”

  6. Chris Waters said...

    Thanks again, Chris! Boy, those were the days in the Bay Area, what with Bobby Bonds generating real excitement across the Bay and the A’s really coming into their own. A couple of things: (1) Blue seemed to have better stuff in 1972, but he had control problems. (2) He was “advised” during his holdout by someone who seemed to be using Vida for his own purposes, a lawyer I think. Harry Edwards weighed in on this, and Prof. Edwards was not so benignly-inclined then as he became later. (3) The Bay Area then was still THE place for counter-culture and drugs. I think that Vida would have done much, much better in a different era. Sad.

  7. bucdaddy said...

    Tired arm? After 312 innings plus seven in the playoffs at 21 years old? Ya think?

    That said, it looks form his record like he was one of the few prodigy pitchers able to maintain a high innings count at least through his 20s. bb-ref says he averaged 233 innings/162 games for his career. bb-ref says he also received about $13,000 “in gifts” from the owner, if that’s what Caddys were going for then.

    Saying Blue “caved” is sort of relative. According to bb-ref, he more than doubled his salary, even if you add in the Caddy the previous year. Wonder how much he was asking for? I note he took a pay cut after the 6-10 season, but by the time he was 26 he was making $135,000. The year before, Bob Gibson pitched for $175,000.

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