Free at Last from Charlie Finley, Vida Blue Rediscovers His Heart in San Francisco
At 29, Vida Blue has survived all that baseball could throw at him: instant success and seven seasons with Charlie Finley. Twice the Oakland A’s owner sold Blue, only to have the deals voided by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn because they would “upset the competitive balance of the league.” For once, Kuhn knew what he was talking about. When Oakland was finally allowed to trade Blue this season—for something like the whole roster of the San Francisco Giants—he turned around the Western Division of the National League. The Giants, expected to finish a little early this year, are still in the pennant race, and Vida, after a listless last season, is leading the league not only in wins but also in exuberance. “I’m having fun, no doubt about that,” he says.
Fun is a word that Blue retired back in about 1971. That’s when he was a 24-game winner, the American League’s Most Valuable Player and baseball’s top pitcher in his first full season. Finley loved Blue—or maybe the 6,000-fan jump in attendance when he pitched—and bought him a powder-blue Cadillac. Says the newly introspective Blue: “It was a strange experience. I was 22 years old and thought everything would be all fine and dandy. I never realized I would have to choose up sides.”
The side he chose was that of his L.A. lawyer, Robert Gerst, who demanded that Finley raise Blue’s salary from $14,750 to $115,000. Finley’s reply, Blue says, was: “Hell, if I were you I’d want that money. But the bottom line is that I’m not going to pay you that much.”
Blue announced he was quitting to become a vice-president of a bathroom fixture company. When he eventually returned—for $63,000—he had a miserable season of six wins, 10 losses. While over the next five years he compiled 91 victories and the A’s took three consecutive World Series, Blue had become embittered. Then, when teammates like Catfish Hunter, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers fled as free agents, the Oakland dynasty crumbled, stranding Blue, who had signed a three-year contract in 1976. “I was a veteran player,” he diplomatically says of 1977, “with a lot of new players who weren’t ready on the major league level.” Finley didn’t keep Blue because he liked him. Twice the commissioner killed cash deals for him, and it was only last March that he was unloaded across the Bay—for seven players and $400,000.
Blue said he “approached the Giants and the season with a new lease on life,” and the moribund Giants shot off to an early lead. Vida seemed rejuvenated, observes Willie McCovey, another key contributor who had done time with the A’s: “In Oakland, Vida just used to come and pitch and go home; it was a job to him. Now he’s more outgoing than I’ve ever seen him.” One reason may be the difference between Finley and Giant co-owner Bob Lurie. “Finley sees a dollar sign before he sees a human feeling,” notes Blue. “Lurie is a businessman at heart who cares about human feelings.”
Vida grew up in Mansfield, La., and when the town held a Vida Blue Day it was the first time a black had been singled out in that fashion. He now returns “every chance I can get” to visit his widowed mother but has a 3,500-acre ranch near Redding, Calif. (“It’s not the Ponderosa, but we do have a few head of cattle.”) In his house in Oakland, Vida says, “I don’t tolerate bourgeois things like furniture. I prefer pillows. I’ve got all the basics needed by a jock: my giant TV screen, my music system and my Betamax.”
His social life is quiet but not unduly limited. Asked about women, he points to the window and says, “There are four directions out there: north, east, south and west, and I go in any direction I want.” He has, however, dated Nathelie Smith for seven years. “I’ve told her my feelings,” he says. “I want to get my career out of the way so I can concentrate on the maid of my choice. Till then, I plan to stay as single as single can be.”
Meanwhile he’s getting feelers for endorsements for the first time since 1971, no longer talks about retiring at 30—and is even mellowing toward Finley. “All I had were thoughts of revenge,” says Blue. “Now I really don’t have any hostility in my heart. All I really want to do is pitch and play baseball.”