Bloop Hits: Battle of the Vida Blues

While no official statistics are kept on such matters, I would be willing to bet that no pair of All-Star pitchers has inspired more songs between them than the two hurlers who started the 1971 Mid-Summer Classic: Vida Blue and Dock Ellis.

The late Ellis, of course, has become something of a folk hero in recent years, due in part to his post-retirement admission that he pitched a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD. Todd Snider, Chuck Brodsky, Marvin’s Garden, the SF Seals, and Zachariah and the Lobos Riders have all recorded songs about that particular lysergic feat, and the Baseball Project included a song called “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads” — about the 1974 Reds-Pirates game where Pittsburgh’s volatile pitcher tried to plunk every man he faced in the Cincinnati lineup — on their most recent album. But while they’re all fine songs, none of them really capture Ellis’s funky, flamboyant, and deeply complex personality.

Blue’s high-kicking essence, on the other hand, comes through loud and clear on the two 1971 singles that bear his name. “Vida Blue” and “Vida Blue, Parts 1 & 2” were recorded, respectively, by soul artists Albert Jones and Jimmy Bee; their songs saluted (and attempted to capitalize on) the breakout season in which the young lefty went 24-8 with 301 Ks and a league-leading 1.82 ERA for the Oakland A’s. It was a performance that snagged Blue the A.L. Cy Young and MVP awards, put him on the covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, Sport, Ebony and Jet magazines, and made him a household name well beyond his East Bay stomping grounds. Both “Vida Blue” songs are as direct and down-home as their subject, with tough R&B grooves that lodge as firmly in the pocket as the man’s fastball — but after years of spinning (and loving) each of them, I still haven’t been able to decide which “Vida Blue” is the better of the two.

Albert Jones — “Vida Blue” 

Released on Saginaw, Michigan’s Tri City label, Jones’ “Vida Blue” was produced by Choker Campbell, a sax player and former Motown recording artist, who also wrote the song’s music; the lyrics were written by one Tom Newton, who waxed a country rendition of the same song for the single’s flip side. (Newton’s version is currently unavailable on YouTube; as someone who owns the actual 45, I can attest that this is no great loss to popular culture.)

The music of Jones’ version is perhaps a tad anachronistic for its time; considering that such state-of-the-art 1971 soul sides as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” were dominating the airwaves, the harmonica-driven thump of Jones’ “Vida Blue” sounds like a throwback to the chicken-shack soul of the 1960s. Then again, it’s a sound that meshes well with the celebration of a young man who grew up playing good old country hardball in Mansfield, Louisiana; and Jones, a Michigan soul singer, delivers the song with plenty of chitlin’ circuit sass — his spoken aside of “Those poor hitters, they’ve got the Vida Blues” is practically worth the price of admission alone.

But it’s Newton’s lyrics that really put the song over the top. The guy might not have been a major musical talent, but it seems like he sure knew his baseball. I mean, how can you not love a song that name-checks pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown? (“Killebrew, Yastrzemski and Gates Brown, too/They can’t buy a hit off Vida Blue.”) Newton gives Blue’s A’s teammates their props, as well, and even mentions Oakland owner Charlie Finley and his “big white mule.” The only place Newton really comes up short (pun slightly intended) is in the couplet “Epstein, Brown, Bando and Green/Are the best combination the world has seen.” While I’m sure it was difficult to work “Campaneris” into the rhyme scheme, Larry Brown started only 25 games at short that season for the A’s, compared to Campy’s 131…

Jimmy Bee — Vida Blue (Part 1): 

Released on the United Artists label, Jimmy Bee’s “Vida Blue” boasts much more of an edgy, urban feel than Jones’ single, though that approach works nicely with the subject matter, as well — Blue, after all, was now the pride of Oakland, and would soon have a supporting role in "Black Gunn," a big-screen Blaxploitation vehicle starring Jim Brown. The track, produced by Bee (who also wrote the song), cooks nicely and keeps the party going all the way through to the flip side, “Vida Blue (Part 2);” and the song’s call-and-response chorus of “Who you dig? Vida Blue!” is straight outta funk heaven.

If his lyrics were as good as Newton’s, I’d probably give Bee’s song the edge; alas, Bee’s baseball knowledge seems about as hazy as Dock Ellis’s rec room. After getting off to a good start with the line “Best thing to happen since Sandy Koufax,” Bee seems to think that Blue’s 1970 no-hitter against the Twins was actually pitched against the Yankees — and his aside that the Yankees were “without Mantle, too” is both superfluous and a little bizarre. Ditto for his couplet, “Kansas City came in and out they went/They ain’t won a pennant in god knows when.” True, Kansas City had yet to produce a major league pennant-winner at that point; but the Royals were only in their third season when Bee recorded his song, and the MLB club that preceded them in KC was, of course, Charlie Finley’s A’s. Not exactly a brutal “burn,” then.

So, which “Vida Blue” is the winner? I still can’t figure it out. Like the man himself — who might have enjoyed a Hall of Fame-caliber career if it hadn’t been for his debilitating addiction to cocaine — both songs have their flaws, but are ultimately well worth remembering and celebrating. And both songs will surely liven up your next tailgate cookout like Vida livened up the game in the 1970s.