Thursday Throwback: Oakland Athletics Starter Vida Blue was the Youngest Pitcher to Throw a No-Hitter and the Youngest Player to Win an MVP Award
In the summer of 1970, a 20-year-old kid from Mansfield, Louisiana with only one minor league season under his belt was called up by the Oakland Athletics at the end of the season. On Sept. 11, Vida Blue allowed one hit in a 3-0 victory over the Royals in Kansas City, just missing a no-hitter when, with two outs in the eighth inning, Royals outfielder Pat Kelly delivered a single.
Then, 10 days later on a Monday night, Sept. 21, Blue was matched against that season’s Cy Young winner – Jim Perry of Minnesota. The Twins needed just one victory to clinch a division title, but Blue delayed their celebration by throwing a no-hitter against the soon-to-be Western Division champs, with the lone baserunner coming on Harmon Killebrew’s fourth-inning walk.
At 20 years, one month and 24 days, Blue set the new mark for a youngster who threw a no-hitter. The performance set the stage for a remarkable season in 1971.
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In 1971, Blue and his signature blistering fastball known as the “Blue Blazer” took the league by storm. Unlike many southpaws, Blue worked fast and pounded the strike zone with speeds close to 100 MPH. To keep opposing hitters off-balance, he also possessed a curveball that he threw on occasion, and an above average change-up.
By the All-Star break, Blue had already won 17 games and averaged more than one strikeout an inning. He was named starting pitcher for the Summer Classic in Detroit which featured 15 future Hall of Famers for the National League team and ten future Hall of Famers for the AL squad. In the game, fellow Athletic Reggie Jackson was sent up as a pinch hitter for Blue in the bottom of the third inning. His 520-foot HR that hit a light standard gave the AL the lead and also qualified Blue for the win.
During the memorable 1971 season, A’s owner Charles Finley offered Blue a bonus if he’d change his first name to “True.” Blue declined, but that season, and in following ones, his first name “Vida” was used on the back of his jersey instead of his last name “Blue”, to spite the owner’s effort.
Unfortunately, Blue only went 7-5 during the second half, although the A’s went on to win 101 games winning the West Division of the American League for the first of five consecutive division titles. At the end of the season, Blue had a 24-8 record and led the league with a 1.82 earned run average and eight shutouts. He struck out 301 batters in 312 innings. Blue, who turned 22 on July 28 that summer, was awarded the American League Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award, becoming the youngest and first American League baseball player ever to win both the MVP award and the Cy Young Award. In balloting, he topped teammate Sal Bando (.271, 24 HR, 94 RBI) and the Orioles’ Frank Robinson (.281, 28 HR, 99 RBI) in the MVP voting, and edged out Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich (25-14, 2.92 ERA) in the Cy Young voting.
Blue held out the following season, even threatening to work for a plumbing company selling toilet seats, but returned in 1972 to go only 6-10. He returned to form in 1973, going 20-9 with a 3.28 ERA and was one of three 20-game winners for the Oakland Athletics that year, the others being Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter and Ken Holtzman.
In 1978, after the A’s World Championship teams had been dismantled, Blue was traded to the San Francisco Giants for seven SF players – the only seven-for-one trade in MLB history. Blue went on to pitch excellently for the Giants, going 18-10, with a 2.79 ERA, and started that year’s All-Star Game for the Senior Circuit, becoming the first pitcher to start the Summer Classic for both Leagues AND be credited with the win for both games started. (Roger Clemons and Roy Halliday later duplicated starting for both leagues, but didn’t get decisions.)
With this info, here’s an easy bar bet/trivia question I use to stump fellow fans: Name the last American League MVP that was a switch-hitter.
While there have been a few in the National League with Pete Rose in 1973, Willie McGee in 1985, Terry Pendleton in 1991, Ken Caminiti in 1996, Chipper Jones in 1999, and Jimmy Rollins in 2007, Vida Blue is the answer to the great trivia question: “Who was the last switch-hitter to win the AL MVP Award?” since he played two seasons before the AL DH in 1973 and, known by few, was a switch-hitter.