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An Epic Major League Baseball Pitching Matchup: Vida Blue vs. Mel Stottlemyre, August 24, 1971
When I had just turned nine years old in July 1971, I went on a driving trip with my mother in her 1967 Volkswagen Bug from Los Angeles to San Francisco. We took Highway 101 up the coast and through much of California’s coast and Central Valley, stopping in Oxnard, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Salinas on the way. In preparation for the trip, my mother had insisted that I read several John Steinbeck novels about life in Coastal and Northern California-- “The Red Pony,” “The Wayward Bus,” and “Cannery Row.” We stayed at the Hotel Beresford on Sutter Street, just north of Union Square and a block and a half from the cable cars on Powell Street. Many of the streets in San Francisco were torn up at the time for the construction of the BART subway system.
The purpose of the trip was merely sightseeing, a pleasure drive, and my mother and me getting to know each other better. My mother was keen on going out to restaurants, riding the cable cars, and seeing the tourist attractions. But I managed to prevail upon her to spend one our three nights in the Bay Area seeing a baseball game.
The talk of the baseball world at the time was a young pitcher for the A’s that had come out of nowhere to put together a phenomenal, legendary year. Vida Blue had been called up to the A’s for good in September of 1970, and pitched two shutouts in the final month of the season—one of which was a no hitter against the AL West Champion Minnesota Twins. In 1971, the 21-year old lefthander from Mansfield, Louisiana took up where he left off, starting and winning the first game of the season, and compiling a record of 17-3 with a 1.42 ERA before starting and winning the 1971 All Star Game.
An Epic Pitching Matchup
On August 24, 1971, the New York Yankees were in Oakland, and the pitching matchup was irresistible: The Yanks had their experienced, crafty ace Mel Stottlemyre—one of the few holdovers from the early-60s glory days of the Bronx Bombers—facing the awesome young phenom Vida Blue at the Oakland Coliseum. Vida Blue had a record of 22-5 with a 1.68 ERA; he had just come off a 1-0, four hit, complete game loss to the Red Sox. Stottlemyre was 12-11 after a slow start to the 1971 season, but had a very formidable ERA of 2.96. Blue and Stottlemyre had faced each other once before in 1971, with the A’s coming out on top 13-3 on June 12.
I was one of the 18,288 at the Oakland Coliseum that night. My mother and I sat halfway up in the upper deck even with the third base bag. After Vida Blue recorded an out to leadoff hitter Horace Clark, Thurman Munson lined a single into center, and Roy White doubled to left to move Munson to third with one out. Felipe Alou then hit an opposite-field ground out to second, scoring Munson, and giving the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Blue then retired first baseman John Ellis to end the inning.
And that was it for scoring in the game. Mel Stottlemyre pitched a masterful complete game, three-hit shutout, and Blue allowed only two more hits the rest of the way, suffering his second consecutive 1-0 complete game loss.
Vida Blue's Amazing 1971 Season
At the end of the season—in which the A’s won 101 games to advance to their first postseason game since 1931—Blue had compiled a 24-8 record with a league-leading 1.82 ERA and eight shutouts. He struck out 301 batters in a career-high 312 innings, while giving up only 209 hits and 88 walks. He completed 24 out of his 39 starts, and Blue was an easy winner of the Cy Young Award over Mickey Lolich, and ran away with the MVP voting (14 of 24 1st place votes) over teammate Sal Bando.
Another Brush with Vida Blue
In the spring of 1972, Major League Baseball entered into the first of many labor actions which would plague the game over the next 23 years. The first player’s strike in Major League Baseball history, from April 1 to April 13, 1972, resulted in the season being cut from 162 games to 153 games. The settlement to the holdout resulted in a half million dollar donation to the Major League Baseball pension fund. Additionally, Vida Blue held out as an individual to renegotiate his $14,750 salary with Charlie Findlay’s Oakland A’s. Blue elicited a $50,000 salary, a $5,000 bonus, and an $8,000 scholarship to come back to work in 1972.
During the walkout, the Los Angeles Dodgers players were practicing at the city park just two blocks from where I lived, and two blocks from school. Many of my friends at school would get their fathers to take them to Mar Vista Park to see the major leaguers up close. The next day at school, I’d hear two or three kids say, “I saw Wes Parker! He signed my glove!” or “Did you see the ball that Willie Crawford hit?”
In the meantime, I had joined Little League in the spring of 1972, and latched on as a catcher with one of the teams, the Astros. I was one of those players who was pretty good in practice, but absolutely terrible at the plate in real games. I took a whole lot of walks from those wild Little League pitchers, because I considered that a much better outcome than striking out. Playing catcher was the only way I could get into the starting lineup, because nobody else wanted to do it.
As it turned out, the Astros were scheduled to play the first game of the year, and were the “home” team. With the Major League players still out on strike, one of the players was invited to throw out the first ball-- to me, the catcher for the home team. Can you guess who the player was, of all the hundreds of players in the major leagues? Unbelievably, almost impossibly, the player throwing out the first ball was none other than reigning MVP and Cy Young Award winner Vida Blue—the same player I had watched from the stands in the upper deck of the Oakland Coliseum just eight months earlier.
The Astros had a terrible first half of the season, finishing fourth among eight teams. But in the second half, the Astros finished on top. The championship game was held between the first half champ and the second half champ, and the Astros won the game 8-5 to win the championship.
Over the course of the championship season, I had started all but one game, played all but six innings the whole year, got a nagging injury (a jammed left thumb that still sometimes bothers me 41 years later), and finished without a single legitimate base hit the entire year. Yet sometimes when I bend my left thumb and it makes a loud cracking sound, I can still see the championship trophy and feel its weight in my hands.
NOTE: An initial version of this article identified Mel Stottlemyre as a left-handed pitcher. He was actually a right-hander. Thanks to Ernie Kyger and others for pointing it out.