Vida Blue began the 1971 baseball season by losing the presidential opener in Washington, D.C. The lowly Washington Senators chased Blue after only an inning and two-thirds, and he took the loss.
After that, Blue embarked on one of the most remarkable eight weeks of pitching in baseball history. In his next eleven starts, Blue pitched ten complete games, five of which were shutouts.
His only incomplete game, against Kansas City, was a “quality start.” He pitched seven innings and allowed three runs.
During this eleven game stretch, Blue pitched 97 innings and allowed only ten runs (all earned). Even with his awful outing on opening day in Washington, his earned run average as of May 27 was 1.03.
With Blue and Jim “Catfish” Hunter working every fourth day (even when rainouts or open dates offered the opportunity for an extra day off), the Oakland As led the American League West, seven games ahead of the second place Minnesota Twins, as they went to Boston for a three-game series with the Red Sox.
Boston was also in first place, three games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. And the Red Sox had a pitcher with an even better won-loss record than Blue. Veteran Sonny Siebert was 8-0.
Deliciously, Blue and Siebert were set to be the starting pitchers in the series opener, on Friday, May 28.
Word of this matchup reached Hanover, New Hampshire, where John Hinderaker and I were waiting to graduate from Dartmouth. We decided to attend the game. We booked our tickets by telephone and John drove us down to Boston.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox oversold the game. The box office had a record of our purchase but no tickets for us. We were told to wait outside the stadium, along with lots of other disappointed fans, while “arrangements” were made.
The arrangement was admission for “standing room.” However, it was not until the fourth inning that we were allowed into Fenway Park.
We missed some fireworks. In the top of the first inning, Reggie Jackson — up, as usual, for the big game — homered off of Siebert. In the bottom of the first, Rico Petrocelli homered with Reggie Smith on base to give the Red Sox a 2-1 lead.
That was all the scoring we missed. However, we did not see Blue strike out six batters through the first three innings, including a pair of future Hall of Famers — Luis Aparicio (twice) and Carl Yastrzemski.
There was no area designated for standing room at Fenway Park, at least none we were informed of. So we set in the aisle of the box seats behind home plate — a far better vantage point, I’m sure, than the tickets we purchased would have afforded us. We moved from time to time to escape the wrath of season ticket holders, but always to a good spot.
We were thus able to observe Vida Blue up close. The velocity and movement on his fastball left me wondering how anyone could hit him, much less touch him up for two runs.
Blue set the Red Sox down with little trouble in the fourth and fifth innings and retired the first two batters he faced in the sixth. But with two out in that frame, Petrocelli launched another home run to give the Sox a 3-1 lead.
Oakland got that run back in the seventh on a Dave Duncan home run. It was the first hit off of Siebert since a Joe Rudi single in the third.
Siebert then retired Dick Green for the second out of the inning. That brought Blue to the plate.
Oakland was still a run down and it was late in the game. However, Oakland manager Dick Williams, who had led Boston to the World Series four years earlier in the “impossible dream” season, allowed Blue to hit.
The decision puzzled me. Blue was a poor hitter, and Williams had good options on his bench, including Tommy Davis and Gene Tennace.
Siebert struck Blue out to end the inning.
Williams’ mistake became manifest in the bottom of the inning. Facing the lower portion of the Boston lineup, a tiring Blue allowed two hits in that frame (to Billy Conigliaro and Doug Griffin). But a double-play ball by Duane Josephson and an out by Siebert enabled him to escape.
In the bottom of the eighth, Reggie Smith singled off of Blue with one out. A Yastrzemski groundout advanced Smith to second. Williams had Blue walk Petrocelli intentionally. He then pulled Blue and brought in veteran relief ace Bob Locker to face George Scott.
Scott hit a sharp grounder through the infield to bring in Smith and give Boston a 4-2 lead.
That extra run made the difference because Sal Bando touched up Siebert for a one-out home run in the top of the ninth. Boston manager Eddie Kasko kept his pitcher in the game and he retired Rick Monday for the second out.
Kasko then brought in veteran Bob Bolin to face Duncan, who had homered off of Siebert in his last at-bat. Bolin struck the Oakland catcher out, to the end the game.
The next morning, the headline in one of the Boston newspapers declared “Vida Blue is 10 and 2.”
Blue and the As would have the last laugh, though. To the surprise of few in New England, the Red Sox faded to a third place finish, 18 games behind the Orioles. Siebert had a losing record the rest of the way, though he ended up with a fine 16-10 mark and an ERA just under 3.00
Oakland won 101 games and finished 16 games ahead of second place Kansas City in the AL West. Blue finished with a 24-7 record, a league-best 1.82 ERA, and a Cy Young award. He started 39 games and pitched 312 innings.
I question the wisdom of Williams using Blue that much, especially in the absence of a genuine pennant race, and of Williams continuing to do so the next two seasons. Blue was ineffective against the Orioles in the 1971 playoff series. And although he had several other fine years (1973, 1975, 1976, and 1978), he never had another season anything like the one he had as a 22 year-old in 1971.
Catfish Hunter, whom Williams worked almost has as hard as Blue in 1971, also was roughed up by Baltimore in playoff. Hunter was finished as an every day starter after 1976, at the age of 31, and out of baseball after a 2-9 season in 1979.
But Williams’ approach worked out well for him and his team. After playoff disappointment in 1971, Oakland won the next two World Series under Williams and another one in 1974 under Alvin Dark, who that year managed to start Blue and Hunter even more frequently than Williams had.
I was fortunate enough to see those championship teams play in Oakland, both during the regular season and in one World Series. But the As game that stands out the most for me is the one John and I saw in Boston on this day in baseball history.
JOHN adds: In some ways, I remember that excursion like it was yesterday. I have no recollection of how the game progressed, although I do recall that the Red Sox won, and I was disappointed because we were rooting for the phenom Vida Blue. What I do remember is the experience of wandering around the stadium, seatless, from one spot to another. The downside was that we were like refugees, sometimes made to move on by ushers. The upside was that we moved from one excellent vantage point to another.
I went to a few Twins games with my parents in the early to mid 1960s, but this was my first major league game in a long time. What I remember clearly was when we squatted for a while in the aisle right on first base. We got a great view of infield plays and throws to first, and I was stunned at how a “routine” grounder to the shortstop looked when you saw the play from that vantage point. I date becoming a real baseball fan to that evening.