In this series, I’ve been retracing Vida Blue’s historic 1971 season. In the last post about it, I covered a late May game at Fenway Park that John and I attended in which Blue picked up his second loss of the season following an amazing ten game winning streak.
After that setback, Blue started another streak. He won his next six starts before losing against Minnesota on June 29. In his next start, on July 4, he defeated the Angels.
Entering play on July 9, just a little bit past the halfway mark of the season, Blue’s record was 17-3. His ERA was 1.51. He had 17 complete games and six shutouts.
Blue had started 21 games, again in just over half a season. Manager Dick Williams was working him hard.
Or maybe it was the owner, Charlie Finley. He had predicted big attendance numbers when he moved the A’s from Kansas City to Oakland. They had not materialized. Not even close.
In Blue, Finley saw a remedy. During an eight-day June homestand, Blue was only scheduled to pitch one game. So management bumped him ahead of Catfish Hunter for a second start. This had the added virtue of moving Blue off of a scheduled start later in the month on bat day. Starting the phenom on the day of a big promotion was a waste. He was his own promotion.
Oakland averaged 23,000 fans, home and road, when Blue pitched in 1971. When he didn’t pitch, the A’s averaged 10,000. Astoundingly, one out of every 12 American league tickets sold that year was for a game Vida Blue started.*
Blue’s Friday July 9 start was in Anaheim before a crowd of 23,000, the average for his games. The crowd got its money’s worth.
Blue pitched 11 innings. He allowed seven hits, no walks, and stuck out 17. No Angel scored.
Unfortunately for Oakland, the Angels’ lefty, Rudy May, was just about as good. He pitched 12 innings of hitless ball, giving up only three hits, but walking six. May struck out 13.
Blue was relieved by a future Hall of Famer, though at the time no could have imagined Rollie Fingers being enshrined at Cooperstown. Like Blue, Fingers was fantastic on this day. In seven innings, he gave up no runs and just two hits. He walked one batter and struck out seven.
But the A’s couldn’t score against the Angels’ reliever, veteran Eddie Fisher. They managed only two hits and two walks in five innings against the knuckleballer.
With so few hits by both teams, there were very few innings in which either seriously threatened to score. The Angels had the best opportunity when, in the sixth inning, two hits put runners on second and third with only one out. But Blue bore down and struck out Ken Berry and Tony Conigliaro to end the threat.
Mel Queen took over from Fisher in the bottom of the 18th. He set the A’s down in order in that frame and in the 19th, as well.
Fingers finally exited for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 18th. Bobby Locker, a former teammate of Fisher in the White Sox bullpen, came on to pitch the 19th. Berry greeted him with a single and with two out, a Ken McMullen single sent Berry to third.
With left-handed hitting Jim Spencer coming up, Williams pulled Locker and brought in his ace lefty, Darold Knowles. Spencer fanned. Knowles also set the Angels down in order in the top of the 20th inning.
Curt Blefary led off the bottom of the 20th for Oakland. Queen hit him with a pitch. Mike Epstein then popped out, but Dick Green singled Blefary to second.
Knowles was due up next. Williams was out of position players with whom to pinch hit. So he sent Catfish Hunter, a good hitter for a pitcher, to the plate. Hunter struck out.
That left it up to Angel Mangual, the starting center fielder against lefties (in a platoon with Rick Monday). Queen was a righty, but Mangual ended the affair anyway with an opposite field single.
Time of the game: 5 hours and 5 minutes.
Number of strikeouts: 43.
But for the fact that baseball has effectively legislated 20 inning games out of existence, you would think, with so many strikeouts, that the game was played this season, not fifty years ago on this date in baseball history.
*This information on Blue’s effect on attendance comes from Jason Turbow in his excellent book Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s.