Celebrating MLB's Black Aces: How Vida Blue's 24 wins in 1971 helped bring success back to the Oakland A's

Vida Blue is one of the 15 members of the exclusive baseball fraternity known as the Black Aces

In 2006, Jim "Mudcat" Grant wrote a book titled "The Black Aces: Baseball's Only African-American Twenty-Game Winners." Celebrated in its pages were the members of an exclusive club: The African American or Black Canadian pitchers who had won 20 or more games in one MLB season.

At the time of publication, 13 men had become Black Aces, and Grant, the first Black 20-game winner in the American League, included a chapter on each of them, as well as several Negro Leagues pitchers he believed would've accomplished the feat had they been allowed to pitch in MLB. Two other pitchers, CC Sabathia (2010) and David Price (2012), have joined the Black Aces since the book’s publication.

In this series, Yahoo Sports is highlighting the stories of the Black Aces and the seasons that made them members of this exclusive fraternity.

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The 7th Black Ace: Vida Blue

There were no hitters Vida Blue specifically looked forward to pitching against. Not even Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, was truly of interest.

“No, I didn't look forward to that,” Blue said in a phone interview last year, just months before he died on May 6, 2023, at age 73. “I mean, I knew I could get him out, but I’d have to work my tail off. You had to almost be perfect to get out a Hank Aaron or a Johnny Bench or Pete Rose or Robin Yount or a Tony Gwynn.”

It’s not that Blue didn’t enjoy a challenge; rather, he focused his energy more on the opposing pitcher. He said he misses the days when teams pitted their top aces against each other to see who was the best. Nowadays, teams are more likely to play their best guys on different days to increase their chances of winning.

But when Blue was playing, his managers made sure he pitched the same day as the Texas Rangers’ Nolan Ryan or the Baltimore Orioles’ Jim Palmer or the Philadelphia Phillies’ Steve Carlton or the New York Mets’ Tom Seaver. That’s exactly how Blue liked it and how he measured the way he stacked up.

“That’s what I really used to look forward to. Those were the matchups I really got up for,” he said.

Blue said his most famous duel was when he faced off against Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971, and they made history as the first and only time two Black pitchers started against each other in the MLB All-Star Game.

Both pitchers gave up two home runs in the three innings they pitched, but Blue allowed three runs on two hits, while Ellis conceded four runs on four hits, including Reggie Jackson’s famous moon shot that escaped the TV cameras because it was hit so high. With his performance, Blue helped the AL win its first Midsummer Classic since 1962.

“I knew we were two African American pitchers starting the game, but I didn't realize it was the first time,” Blue said. “I didn't get that, so now it means so much to me to have made history in that way. There’s nothing better than that.”

[Read more: How Doc Gooden became the youngest 20-game winner in incredible 1985 with Mets]

Vida Blue helps restore the A’s winning ways

In their first 29 years of existence, the Philadelphia Athletics were five-time World Series champions, hoisting the trophy in 1910, 1911, 1913, 1929 and 1930. Between that time and the 1970s, the A's moved twice — to Kansas City in 1955 and then to Oakland in 1968. None of the success the organization previously enjoyed followed.

But one year after resettling in Oakland, the team added one of the cornerstone pieces of its future championship teams. Blue didn't become a regular starter until 1971, but he made his pitching debut for the A's on July 20, 1969. It was one of two starts he made as a 19-year-old, and it put him on a two-year trajectory to becoming the first Black Ace to suit up for Oakland.

Known for his blistering fastball, Blue pitched his first no-hitter the following season, with a 6-0 win against the Minnesota Twins, and he finished his second season 2-0 in six games played. Then the 1971 season brought his grand arrival to MLB.

Beginning in 1971, Vida Blue delivered three 20-win seasons in five years for the A's. (Photo by Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
Beginning in 1971, Vida Blue delivered three 20-win seasons in five years for the A's. (Photo by Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

A shutout of the White Sox makes Blue a Black Ace

Blue started the 1971 season on an unprecedented roll, winning 17 of 21 starts before the All-Star Game. He carried two dimes with him every time out, he said, both for good luck and as a reminder of the goal he set out to achieve that season: 20 wins. Soon, it became less a question of whether the lefty would get to 20 and more a matter of how quickly he would reach the milestone.

Heading into Oakland’s final game of July, Blue had added two more wins to his record, setting him up to be one of the fastest 20-game winners in MLB history. Then the 22-year-old stalled in his next two starts, losing one and earning a no-decision in the other.

On Aug. 7, 1971, Blue shut out the Chicago White Sox 1-0. But in that game, he didn’t display his usual form until the ninth inning, when he recorded two of his six total strikeouts. After allowing five hits on the day, he went on the offensive against the game's final batters, and it paid off. It was the eighth shutout of the year for Blue as he became the first A’s pitcher to win 20 games since the team moved to Oakland.

“I challenged the batters in the ninth,” he recalled. “I wasn’t doing that early in the game. Instead of doing the stuff you did to win 17, 18 and 19, all of a sudden you get cute. You reinvent yourself to what you don't have to do.

“And it's hard to do. To win that first game is OK, but then to win the 20th one — 20th one is always the hardest one because you know you're there. You're one game away.”

Vida Blue reflects on a career of highs and some lows

Blue’s first 20-win season marked the beginning of an incredible run for Oakland. The ace finished the 1971 season with 24 wins and won both the AL MVP and AL Cy Young awards. The next year, the A’s won the World Series. In 1973, Blue engineered his second 20-win season as part of the team's successful title defense. Following an Oakland three-peat in 1974, Blue delivered a 22-win season in 1975. That’s three World Series titles and three 20-win seasons in five years.

After his final season with the A’s in 1977, Blue spent six seasons with the San Francisco Giants from 1978 to ‘81 and from 1985 to ‘86. Between his two stints in San Francisco, he pitched for the Kansas City Royals in 1982 and ‘83.

In his 17-year career, Blue was a six-time All-Star, and he was the first to pitch in the Midsummer Classic for both the American and National Leagues. Four other pitchers — Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay and Max Scherzer — have since joined Blue with the both-leagues distinction, but he remains the only Black pitcher to accomplish the feat.

While he is in the Athletics’ Hall of Fame, Blue is not enshrined in Cooperstown, in part due to the three-month prison term he served in 1983 and his subsequent year-long suspension from MLB, both for possession of cocaine. In our conversation in January 2023, Blue paused before discussing whether he believed he’d ever make it into the Hall of Fame.

“I hope so,” he said. “I hope they eventually let me in, but I don’t know. … I learned from my mistakes. I take responsibility for what I did. I shouldn’t have done it, full stop. I know that.

“I’m not embarrassed by what happened to me, but I am upset about what it did to my reputation. And I have no one to blame but myself. I put myself in that situation, and it’s created a situation where I can’t honestly tell you if I’ll make it to the Hall. I’m mad I didn’t consider all of the consequences. All I can do is try to restore the goodwill associated with my name.”