When Baseball’s Best Player Refused to Play

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Why you should care

Because it takes a lot of guts to sit down when you’ve only just begun to stand out.

There was one story in major league baseball in the summer of 1971, and Vida Blue was it. In his first full season in the big leagues, the 21-year-old southpaw had taken the American League by storm, posting a 17–3 record by midseason. “How good is Blue’s fastball?” one opponent mused to Ebony magazine. “How should I know how good it is? I’ve never seen it.”

That August, as a captivated nation debated whether Blue could win 30 games that season, President Richard Nixon invited the pitcher’s entire Oakland A’s club to the White House — primarily for a chance to meet the young phenom who would go on to earn the league’s MVP and Cy Young Award honors that year while making a salary of less than $15,000. “I’ve read you’re the most underpaid player in baseball,” Nixon told Blue with legendary A’s owner Charlie O. Finley looking on. “I wouldn’t like to be the lawyer negotiating your next contract.” Finley reportedly winced.

Oakland’s attendance soared as Blue’s win and strikeout totals mounted.

 

Two months later, Nixon’s remark would prove prophetic, as one of the greatest single-season pitching performances in baseball history came to an end, and one of the highest-profile labor disputes erupted to take its place, pitting the sport’s most celebrated owner against its most compelling player in a real-life game of contractual hardball.

Blue preferred football to baseball. A three-sport high school star in Mansfield, Louisiana, he dreamed of becoming the NFL’s first black quarterback, but after his father died, Blue turned down at least 25 college football scholarships for an immediate $25,000 signing bonus from the A’s so he could support his mother and five siblings. Blue’s rise was swift, and he would grace the covers of both Sports Illustrated and Time magazine that magical summer of 1971. “Fans seemed mesmerized when Vida pitched,” remembers Nancy Finley, daughter of Charlie’s cousin and business partner, and the author of Finley Ball. Or, as Charlie himself effused at the time: “Blue is beautiful. He is what baseball needs.… I will treat him as if he is a son of mine.”

Oakland’s attendance soared as Blue’s win and strikeout totals mounted. On Vida Blue Day at the Oakland Coliseum, Finley presented his “son” with a baby-blue Cadillac El Dorado, but he did not always treat Blue — or his prized arm — particularly well. In racking up a phenomenal 24–8 record with a 1.82 ERA and 301 strikeouts that year, Blue threw a jaw-dropping 312 innings — a feat that would make owners cringe today. As G. Michael Green, coauthor of Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman, tells OZY, Finley was a complex man — a gregarious and generous self-made millionaire but also a narcissistic micromanager. “He could be your best friend in the whole wide world as long as you didn’t work for him,” Green says.

Even after Blue’s electrifying 1971 season, Finley offered to raise his salary to just $50,000. Blue, on the advice of his agent, Robert Gerst, requested $115,000, but Finley stuck to his guns. “I know you were the youngest to win the Cy Young Award and the MVP. I know all that,” he bluntly informed him. “And if I was you, I would ask for the same thing.… But I ain’t going to give it to you.”

Blue, who could not be reached for comment, knocked his demand down to $90,000, hoping to cut a deal before spring training ended. Finley didn’t budge in what was becoming an increasingly public spat. So Blue played a different card: He announced he would be retiring to work for a fixtures company called Dura Steel Products. Finley called his bluff: “If Vida is half as successful in steel as he has been in baseball,” he told the press, “he has a great future ahead of him.”

By May 1972, with the best player in baseball still in his street clothes, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened, much to Finley’s horror. Blue hoped the commissioner would declare him a free agent, allowing him to go on the open market, but Kuhn had no intention of setting such a precedent — though he used the threat to bring Finley to the table. Still, it was Blue who ultimately caved the most, agreeing to a $63,000 package, including Finley’s original $50,000 salary offer, a $5,000 bonus and an $8,000 college fund. He went on to post a 6–10 record in 1972, and despite winning 20 or more games in 1973 and 1975, he struggled to recapture the early magic. It seems his overuse in the 1971 season, more than the contract dispute, “really took a lot out of Vida Blue,” says Green, “and he was never the same explosive pitcher that he was in that season.”

While the A’s owners, says Nancy Finley, did not hold the holdout against Blue, it nonetheless helped sour the pitcher on baseball. Not long after Blue returned to the game in June 1972, Charlie Finley staged a special “Mustache Night” promotion for Father’s Day, offering $300 to A’s players who grew out their facial hair for the occasion.

Only Blue declined his offer.

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