In 1971, his first full year in the major leagues, Vida Blue becomes a media sensation, a picture of him standing perched on the mound like a flamingo, knee at his chin, his right leg drawn in tight against his torso, on the cover of national magazines,
the ever-present image of him delivering a pitch redeeming for many a city usually seen as a source of disquieting news stories about black militancy.
Even President Nixon makes time to see Blue.
The morning of August 17 keeps Nixon busy severing the link between the dollar and gold, but after lunch and a brief chat with Henry Kissinger, the president meets Vida and a few other Athletics.
The Oakland club is on its way home from playing the Yankees. There is a month left in the season, Blue’s ERA is 1.70, his record is 22-4, his salary is $14,750.
“You,” Nixon tells Blue, “are the most underpaid player in baseball.” (“He knows his baseball,” says manager Dick Williams. “He had a comment about every one of us.”) Blue draws sellout crowds for almost every start. When, for example, he faces the Boston Red Sox a month into the season he attracts the largest crowd in Fenway history. In 1971, Vida Blue is responsible for 1/12 of the total attendance in the American League, yet still he earns scarcely above the minimum salary for a major league ballplayer.
Oakland owner Finley conceives of just two ways to make the game more profitable. One is to lure in more paying customers. Toward that end, he trades for baseball’s best young talent, he offers promotion nights, he prods the owners to make baseball less dull, he settles the 1972 baseball strike. His other great idea, which isn’t so great, and isn’t only his idea, is to underpay his players. Lots of other teams–for example Detroit– also underpay their players; but the compulsive, intrusive, and boundary-less way that Finley manipulates his players will eventually undo the team and bring about free agency. The tension between these two is evident throughout this time: the good Finley vs. the bad Finley. The good Finley gets the DH, gets the baseball season open. The bad Finley is like Nixon, placing gossip in newspaper columns to advance his agenda.
In the White House that August afternoon in 1971, Sal Bando asks the president about his announcement of certain wage and price controls a few nights earlier. “Does that mean Mr. Finley doesn’t have to give us a raise?” jokes Sal Bando.
Nixon laughs. Vida Blue does not.
Two left-handed pitchers dominate the American League in 1971.
Detroit’s Mickey Lolich pitches more innings than anyone else, leads the league in strikeouts, wins, and complete games. Oakland’s Vida Blue gives up the fewest hits and gets the most strikeouts per nine innings. He has the most shutouts and the lowest ERA. Lolich is in excellent form, the best of his career, and looks to last forever, but Blue is ten years younger, just starting out, and crowds form everywhere to watch and wonder if he’s for real. It’s Vida Blue who wins the Cy Young Award as well as the AL MVP in 1971. He is only twenty-two.
Winter arrives and it comes time to renegotiate his contract. Unsurprisingly, the owner and his young star pitcher cannot agree on a salary. There are, at the time, two dozen major league players who earn $100,000 or more. None of them play for the A’s. Blue starts by asking for $115,000 a season, then $92,500. Finley counter-offers $50,000. Blue has two choices. He can accept Finley’s offer or take another job—but he cannot sign with another baseball team. That would be illegal. He is stuck on the team that signed him, unless or until he gets traded or sold. That’s how it has been in major league baseball for over fifty years, and later in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court (Flood v. Kuhn et al.) will affirm that yes, this may not be such a fair way for baseball to do its business, but nonetheless that’s how it is.
Therefore Vida Blue, unhappy with the raise tendered by the owner, undertakes to look for a new line of work. It’s all he can do. He fields an offer to become Vice President of Public Relations with Dura Steel Products Company and summons a large press conference on March 16 to announce his acceptance. The Dura Steel’s most popular product, it turns out, is a toilet cabinet called the Over-John. The star pitcher giggles as he reads from his own press release. “Hold it,” he says. “I’m serious.” He can’t stop laughing. Sports Illustrated plays along, puts him on its cover with only his name and new job title: “Plumbing Executive.”