Reds History

When Blue nearly became a Red

Even some longtime Reds fans have forgotten over time about the big one that got away from wearing a Cincinnati uniform — Vida Blue.

That’s right, Vida Blue.

In one of his final moves as the Reds General Manager, Bob Howsam traded for the star lefthanded pitcher of the Oakland A’s in December of 1977. Reds fans were ecstatic. Imagine, for a moment, having both Tom Seaver and Vida Blue in your starting rotation.

To get Vida Blue, Howsam traded Triple A first baseman Dave Revering and forked over $1.75 million in cash to the A’s and owner Charlie Finley.  Revering was a 6’4”, 210 pound lefthanded hitter. If prospects were rated back then, Revering would have been #1 on the Reds list. He was regarded as one of the best power hitters in minor league baseball.

In 128 games for Indianapolis in 1977, Revering hit .300, slugged 30 home runs and drove in 110 runs. A 7th round draft pick for the Reds in 1971, Revering was expendable because the Reds had Danny Driessen playing first base.

But then came a huge roadblock — the Commissioner of baseball. Bowie Kuhn voided the trade. It wasn’t in the best, competitive interest of baseball, according to the Commissioner. $1.75 million in the world of baseball today is chump change. Back then, Kuhn thought it wasn’t.

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Before going into the details of this bizarre transaction and it’s eventual ramifications for the Cincinnati Reds, some background needs to be covered.

In 1977, the Reds were the defending two-time world champions. But a combination of factors got Cincinnati off to a rough start that season and they quickly fell behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Western Division.

The first problem was the trade of Tony Perez to Montreal for pitchers Woody Fryman and reliever Dale Murray. Losing Perez, who was the heart of the Big Red Machine, was an intangible that Howsam never foresaw. He later admitted regretting this trade. And while Driessen performed ably at first base and at the plate, the Reds never recovered from trading Tony Perez. Worse, Fryman was a bust. Picked by Sparky Anderson to pitch Opening Day in 1977, Fryman bolted the club and retired in the middle of the season. He left with a mediocre record of 5-5, a bloated earned run average and bitterness towards Anderson. He quit on the Reds, much as Carson Palmer would quit on the Bengals years later.

The pitching staff was also rocked by injuries and ineffectiveness. Aside from Fryman’s problems, Gary Nolan was injured and eventually traded to the California Angels. Jack Billingham’s ERA soared above 5.00. Rawly Eastwick was jettisoned after a contract dispute and problems in the bullpen. Will McEnaney was included in the Perez trade. Due to this, the Reds started the season with an 18-23 record and dug themselves in a deep hole. They never recovered. Cincinnati finished with an 88-74 record, 10 games behind LA.

Hence, Vida Blue. After the 1977 season, Howsam shipped Fryman to the Cubs when he was willing to come out of retirement if traded and the Reds got back Bill Bonham, a righthanded hurler for Chicago. Oakland had finished dead last in the AL West and their dynasty had been completely dismantled by Finley. He traded most of his stars for cash and the Oakland Super Store was still open for business.

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Blue burst on the baseball scene in 1971 when he finished with a 24-8 record for Oakland, He tossed 8 shutouts and fashioned an ERA of 1.82 for that year. In 1973 and 1975, he again was a 20-game winner. For Oakland in 1977, Blue was 14-19 but he had an ERA of 3.83 and struck out 279 batters. The feeling in Cincinnati was that Seaver and Blue (who was 29 years old that season) would give the Reds a magnificent 1-2 punch. Bonham, Fred Norman and young pitchers Tom Hume and Paul Moskau would round out the rotation, Getting Blue had a huge upside for the Reds.

Revering would be the trade bait, since there was no room for him. The Yankees coveted him but Howsam set his sights on Vida Blue. And on December 9, 1977 the trade was consummated.

Bowie Kuhn set up a hearing about the trade before rendering his verdict. Howsam, Finley and Players Association President Marvin Miller all spoke on how the trade complied with major league standards. The hearing lasted six hours. Kuhn didn’t budge. The trade was null and void.

The ramifications were deep. In 1978, Seaver (16-14) Bonham (11-5) and Norman (11-9) pitched well but the staff wasn’t deep. Joe Morgan missed 30 games with injuries. Johnny Bench missed 42 games. Between injuries and the sub standard staff, Anderson somehow improved the won-loss record to 92-69 but the Reds lost to the Dodgers again by 2 ½ games.

Vida Blue? Oakland traded him before the 1978 season started to the San Francisco Giants for Gary Alexander, Gary Thommason, Dave Heaverly, Alan Wirth, John Henry Johnson, Phil Hoffman, $300,000 in cash and the proverbial player to be named later. Kuhn signed off on this one.

Vida Blue finished with an 18-10 record for the Giants that season with an ERA of 2.58, pitching 258 innings. He started the NL All Star Game that season. And you can’t help but feel that if he had pitched 200-plus innings for Sparky Anderson, that 2 and ½ game deficit to the Dodgers might have been made up.

One other quirk: After Howsam retired on February 15, 1978, new General Manager Dick Wagner traded Dave Revering and cash to — you guessed it — the Oakland A’s, getting relief pitcher Doug Bair in return. Bair had a great year for the Reds in ’78, fashioning a 1.97 ERA and 28 saves out of the bullpen.

60271-7FrDave Revering, the can’t miss star, had a good, but not great, season in Oakland. In 152 games for the A’s, Revering batted .271 (OBP .303) hitting 16 home runs and knocking in 46 runs. His second season was marginally better but then Revering hit a wall. His power numbers declined and his batting average stagnated. Oakland traded him to the Yankees in 1980 and he played for two other teams after that, retiring in 1982.

There is little doubt the Reds would have had the best out of the Blue-Revering trade. It’s also probable that with Vida Blue, the Reds would have won the NL West in 1978. That would have saved Sparky Anderson’s job.

The bigger question is who would have been more valuable to the Reds — Doug Bair as a closer in 1978 or Vida Blue as a potential starter? Pedro Borbon led the 1977 Reds with 16 saves. In 1978, six Reds pitchers earned saves besides Bair — Dave Tomlin, Hume, Borbon, Murray, Moskau and Manny Sarmiento. How would Sparky have juggled his bullpen that season minus Bair? Or did Howsam also have a plan to go after Bair or another reliever?

Having Seaver and Blue anchor a pitching staff would have been incredible. But even more incredible was how Bowie Kuhn used his powers to block a major trade. The return that Oakland got from the Giants was good in numbers but lacked talent. They got more out of Dave Revering in three years than the total haul collected from San Francisco.

Worse yet, want to talk about “competitive balance”?

Take a look at the state of baseball today.

29 thoughts on “When Blue nearly became a Red

  1. My dad has told me about this trade. It was an egregious use of powers by the commissioner at the time, and one that was entirely unwarranted. I think that, with Blue, we win another WS that year.

  2. I remember watching news of this trade, as a 10-year old, that included Tom Seaver being interviewed and commenting about how this would impact the Reds. I was excited and already assuming we were headed back to the World Series. Instead, the Dodgers went again and lost to the Yankees again.

  3. I hated Bowie Kuhn after Kuhn voided that trade. Who knows how that would have changed history? No Yankee back-to-back WS wins in ’78 to go with ’77 maybe. No “We Are Family” in the Pirates ’79 WS win maybe. Maybe a second back-to-back WS wins for the BRM in ’78 and ’79 when they just missed out. That would have been something.

  4. I don’t recall Kuhn every negating any other trade. Am I right or wrong? If not, why did he pick on the Reds. Yes the Big Red Machine…but come on…the Yankees and Cardinals were allowed their runs…A’s won 3 WS in a row…Baltimore in the late 60s and early 70s. And what about Atlanta in the 90s. The Reds could have truly owned the 70s.

    • You’re wrong. The A’s attempted the same thing in 1976 to the Yankees and Red Sox with Fingers, Rudy and Blue and it was negated by Kuhn. He didn’t pick on the Reds.

  5. Fantastic article. I love reading these articles and people’s comments. Funny thing is Yankees,as well wanted Revering and they got him too.

  6. Sometimes the commissioner can do too much meddling in areas he doesn’t belong. Kuhn did not like Charlie Finley and let his feelings get in the way. Why he cared about Blue going to the Reds when he let Catfish Hunter go to the Yankees several years earlier never made sense.

  7. In 1977, Mike Schmidt was the highest paid player in baseball at 560k. The Reds, who were amongst the leaders in revenue, payroll and (probably) profitability at the time, made in deal in which they gave the A’s roughly 3x’s the highest salary in baseball for Blue. Imagine the hysteria today if the Yankees paid the Reds 25 million for Todd Frazier or 90 million for Votto.

    Kuhn made a lot of mistakes, but he was trying to curtail the ability of the rich teams from buying talent from the poor teams. As hard as it is to believe, in an era before local TV rights created a huge divide in revenue, the Reds were one of the richest teams.

    Kuhn’s rationale was correct. He was trying to maintain competitive balance.

    • Chuck I disagree with you often but not on this one. The key to MLB maintaining a reasonable level competitive balance lies in direct sharing of the locally generated TV money among teams,

      A starting point might be to establish the mean amount among all the teams then take enough from those over the mean to bring those under the mean up to the mean. The other side of this coin is that there would be a salary floor and teams under the floor would lose dollar for dollar amounts of TV redistribution.

      Now in actuality, setting everyone at the mean is probably too egalitarian, if for no other reason than the cost of doing business (and players living) is no doubt greater in the larger markets. However it shouldn’t be hard to come up with indices to define a fair redistribution of the local TV monies.

      • Jim, I agree but teams have signed contracts in which they expect “x”amount of TV revenue from their local deals. They’ve made contract and other business decisions predicated on that revenue. Hard to believe the D-Backs would’ve signed Greinke if they thought they would need to more equitably split their new cable deal.

        • Understand; the redistribution of local TV revenue is not they can do overnight for because of the factors you cited. But they need to take the first steps in getting there over a period of years. Existing (player) contracts did not stop other pro sports from implementing salary caps over a period of time; and, I dare say if the MLBPA would have a brain cramp and assent to a salary cap, MLB would waste little time in finding a solution to implementing one. Thus is should be with local TV revenue too redistribution too.

  8. Great article John.

    One of two major reasons to despise Bowie Kuhn. Who can forget the injustice of the strike shortened 1981 where our Reds (despite having the best record in MLB) were shut out of the playoffs when Kuhn came up with the split season idea to generate fan interest after the strike was over?

    • Excellent, I’ve been looking for this comment. Kuhn wanted a Yankees- Dodgers WS in 1978 and he wanted one again in 1981. There was no way the Dodgers should have been awarded a playoff spot based on the “first half” of 1981 – they and the Reds had an equal number of losses, the Dodgers were declared winners after the fact based on having played one more game.

      The really frustrating thing is that just a couple of weeks before the strike, the Reds had a 7-0 lead on the Giants in the 4th inning or so and then the game got called off due to rain. If the rain had held off a few minutes longer, the Dodgers and Reds would have had identical records at the time of the strike.

  9. “You’re my boy, Blue!”
    We’ve could have been yelling that from the top of Riverfront Stadium, 1978-1981.

    • Pretty sure that Old School Vida would not have appreciated being called “Boy…”

  10. One correction to the stat line for 1977 season, Vida Blue did not strike out 279 but pitched in 279 innings, he only K’d 157 that year. Vida Blue is one of those statistical anomaly pitchers, he is only pitcher I am aware of that has a 300K season but no other season over 200K. How crazy is that, especially with him not really coming close as his next career high was 189.

    Howsam also moved Mike Caldwell off Reds and he went on to be a good #2 for the Brewers in late 70’s/early 80s. Could been an uber Reds dynasty.

  11. Scout.com came out with their MLB Top-100 prospects for 2016. Six Reds prospects on the list:
    #25 Robert Stephenson RHP
    #48 Cody Reed LHP
    #52 Jose Peraza 2B
    #83 Jesse Winker OF
    #85 Alex Blandino 2B
    #91 Amir Garrett LHP

    That is a nice array of Reds prospects. Just wish there was a Reds SS on that list too.

    • Not sure what Scout is smoking by having Winker and Blandino that close and Winker that low.

      • Could be that Winker is a LF and really only has one plus tool and one other rool. Scout likes tools. Blandino has similar tools without the plus power potential but plays a middle IF position and may play it well.

        • Should read “Winker is a LF and really only has one plus tool and one other potential plus tool”

  12. I remember this trade very, very well and Reds fans were so excited over having Tom Seaver and Vida Blue in the same starting rotation. But then Bowie Kuhn stepped in and wouldn’t allow the deal. However, I disagree with you on the amount of cash involved. As I recall, the amount was only $400,000, which in 1977 dollars was a fortune. Vida Blue’s salary in 1977 was listed at only $145,000 and 1.75 million dollars is an extreme amount for that era. Then the following season, Charlie O’Finley was finally allowed to unload Blue to the San Francisco Giants for six (6) players, the infamous player to be named later and an amount of cash which in this particular deal was $300,000 and 100 grand less than what the Reds had offered. Bowie Kuhn, for only reasons the late Commissioner would know, allowed that deal and Vida Blue was a SF Giant. Truly, it was one of those “what if” moments. What would the Big Red Machine have been able to do with Seaver and Blue being #’s 1 and 2 in the rotation?

  13. I don’t remember this but I was pretty young back then and although I followed baseball, I didn’t grasp the economic or player-personnel side well. I heard about it in the early 80s when I could understand things a bit more and although it sounded like a bunch of crap to me, I could somewhat understand the commissioner’s reasoning. Having said that, could you imagine the furor from owners if Manfred decided to do something like that in today’s game?

  14. Kuhn vetoed the deal more because he hated Charlie Finley than was looking for competitive balance. Kuhn was the fool to create the “split-season” concept that cost the Reds a chance in 1981.

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