A Pitching Duel

Albert Jones Vida Blue 45 (Tri-City, 1971)
Denny McLain At the Organ LP (Capitol, 1969)

Here we are at the American League Championship series and it is the A's vs. the Tigers. In a couple days, we could see a classic pitching duel between the A's Rich Harden and The Tigers' Kenny Rogers. Then again, given the streakiness of both teams we might not. So to avoid disappointment, let's travel back in time and think of an imaginary duel between two great but troubled pitchers.

The A's of the early 70's was part circus and part freak show. Like almost all A's teams, it was one of misfits, spare parts, and castoffs. But these guys were good. One of the best was Vida Blue, their ace pitcher and the most fun A to watch. Vida windup was drama. He threw from a high stepping sprawl, like his whole body was a spring. And when the ball left his hand it was a blur.

In 1971, Blue won the Cy Young and MVP and helped his team to the World from 1972 to 1974. In 72, he held out part of the season looking for more money and opted to sell vacuum cleaners instead of play for tightwad Charlie O. He came back later in the year and killed. Seventy-two was also the year, Blue started to use cocaine. In 78, he was traded to the Giants. He pitched well but as his career went on his numbers dropped and his drug use increased. He signed to the A's in 1987, but left before the season ended rather than take a drug test.

Blue's post-Big League life saw a couple DUIs and more alcohol and drug abuse. He got a break in the late 90s when the Giants hired him as a community outreach person. He ran the Junior Giants, a group dedicated to getting poor kids off the street and into the ball park. In 2004, he was arrested for another DUI. In May 2005, he was sentenced to 6 months in jail for violating terms of his probation.

In 1971, Albert Jones made this funky tribute to Vida Blue.

Denny McLain pitched for the Tigers in the late 1960s. His best year was in 1968 and it was a year that was one of the best by any pitcher ever. In '68, McLain won 31 games (the last 30 game winner ever) and lost six! His ERA was a jaw dropping 1.96. In 336 inning pitched he struck out 280 batters and walked only 63. He pitched 28 complete games, six of those were shutouts. He pitched two games of the 1968 World Series against the St Louis Cardinals and brought the championship to Detroit with a great game 7. It should be no surprise that he was the American League MVP and won the Cy Young.

In 1969 not only did McLain win another Cy Young, but he released his first record. In his free time, McLain would relax by playing the Hammond organ. His playing style was a cross between Take Me Out to the Ball Game and pounding one's fists on the keys. No problem, Tigers fanatics made it possible for him to make two records. He also enjoyed flying his plane to Vegas. It is the later pleasure that lead to his downfall.

In 1970, McLain got caught in a bookmaking operation and was suspended from the game for 3 months. He tried to come back, pitching for the Senators, A's, and Braves, but his arm wasn't up to it. He played one year in a small Canadian league but arm problems lead to him playing the infield and then permanent retirement. It wasn't long before he was in and out jail for gambling, embezzlement, drug racketeering, and extortion. One of his known cohorts is John Gotti, Jr. During this time he ballooned to 300 pounds. To make money, he works odd jobs and signs autographs.

Here are three songs from McLain's debut album: The Latin style For Me, an entertaining take on The Look of Love, and the most bizarre version of Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man that I've ever heard.

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