Bay Area baseball great Vida Blue set to join Jewish Sports Hall of Fame

No one who has played for both the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants ever enjoyed as much popularity as Vida Blue, whose bubbly personality and amazing left arm took him to great heights.

Still, most sports fans might be surprised to learn that Blue is going to be honored with the Mensch Award at the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California’s fifth annual induction gala June 2 in San Francisco.

Vida Blue throws out the ceremonial first pitch before an Oakland A’s spring training game in Phoenix in March. photo/ap/eric risberg

The surprise isn’t because Blue isn’t Jewish. After all, the Mensch Award was created three years ago to honor non-Jews who have done exemplary things in the community at large. The first two winners were Robert Corrigan, president of San Francisco State University, and the Rev. John LoSchiavo, trustee emeritus at University of San Francisco.

And it’s not because he doesn’t have the credentials. After all, here’s just the tip of the Blue iceberg: an MVP Award, a Cy Young Award, three World Series rings, a six-time all-star, All-Star Game starts in 1971 as an Athletic and in 1978 as a Giant and 209 career wins. In 1971, Blue’s first full season with Oakland, he went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA, and nearly every game he started was in the national spotlight.

The surprise comes because of some of what Blue has done off the field. In the early 1980s, when he was still playing, he pled guilty to attempting to possess cocaine and spent 81 days in prison. And between 1999 and 2005, he had at least three arrests for drunken driving, and then violated his probation by not showing up for a work program.

Upon the third arrest in 2005, the Giants dropped Blue as the commissioner of their highly successful Junior Giants program, which raises money for equipment and fields for needy kids, scrapping his popular “I want your car” fundraising radio commercials. He entered an alcohol rehabilitation center, and then checked into a halfway house in lieu of a six-month jail sentence, and had to install an ignition interlock in his car, among other probation stipulations.

It doesn’t sound like Mensch Award material, but Blue, 61, has worked hard over the past five years to put the uglier parts of his past behind him. He participates in numerous charity events, particularly for youth causes — fundraiser golf tournaments for the Giants, community appearances for the A’s, innumerable hours at the Northern Light School in Oakland and the Safeway celebrity softball game that raises money to fight cancer, to name just a few. “Rarely does a day pass without him driving from his home in Tracy to meet an individual or a group” in the Bay Area, columnist Monte Poole wrote in the Oakland Tribune.

“The way we looked at it, it was considered more of a positive for Vida the way he has been able to come back from that and restore and repair his image,” said Mark Silverman, a member of the Hall of Fame executive committee that voted to give Blue the award.

“It’s a pretty good lesson for all of us, so there was not much dwelling on those things as being a negative factor.”

Blue is particularly involved at Northern Light School, a 165-student K-8 school for Oakland kids who couldn’t normally afford to go to a private school. Blue spoke there in 2009 about overcoming obstacles in one’s life, and decided to stay involved. Now, he’s usually there two days a week.

“He just kept coming and coming,” marveled Michelle Lewis, a co-founder of the 12-year-old school. “He’s just an amazing guy. He stepped up to the plate with one kid whose mom is messed up with drugs, and all the kids love him.

“He came to our huge fundraiser awhile ago and must have raised over $30,000 himself,” Lewis added. “He was saying, ‘Sure, I’ll go play golf [for a raffle prize] … throw me into this deal, too.’”

Lewis said the school is in the process of giving Blue an office, starting a foundation in his name and planning a new athletic area it will call Vida Blue Sports Complex and Field of Dreams.

“I’ve been teasing him a bit about getting a Jewish award,” Lewis said. “But if ever an organization wanted to honor a man of integrity, Vida is it. They made a great choice.”

“I’m always going to be able to chuckle at this, and I’m not sure what I did to deserve this honor,” Blue said humbly this week, after returning to the Bay Area from a funeral for a relative in his native Louisiana.

“But any time you’re recognized by any group or civic organization, that says something about you, and this is no different,” Blue added. “I’m in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, and I’m in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, so whatever I did to get into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame [of Northern California], I hope I can continue that.

“Some people have been joking that I’m a modern Sammy Davis Jr. — but I don’t know about that.”

Blue will be inducted into the Jewish Hall along with the 2011 class of Carl Greenhut, Warren Hellman, Brian Schwartz and Sam Warburg.

After the June 2 induction ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, they will be included on the Hall’s “wall of fame” located on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto.

At age 88, Greenhut is the Hall of Fame’s most senior inductee to date. Though he played college baseball at Stanford (for one season, 1947) and at Navy, his claim to fame is coaching. He was a prolific coach on the East Coast, guiding high school teams in myriad sports to many local and state titles, then returned to his native Bay Area and coached at several local junior colleges, mainly in golf. He is also the author of numerous articles on fitness and golf.

Hellman is best known for his many community endeavors, such as the annual and free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, but he also has had a life dedicated to athletics and he continues to compete, in his mid-70s, in endurance events. As a young adult, he swam on the Lowell High School team in San Francisco and then played water polo for U.C. Berkeley, and as an adult he became “the No. 1 benefactor of the Cal aquatics program,” according to Hall of Fame notes.

Schwartz competed on the pro karate circuit for eight years, winning six world championships in three weight classes. Then, as a pro kickboxer, the Foster City–raised Peninsula Temple Sholom congregant posted a career record of 18-0 (with 11 knockouts) and won a world middleweight title. He is now an instructor in the fighting arts on the Peninsula.

Warburg of Sacramento was a four-time All-America tennis player at Stanford, a run that included two Pac-10 singles titles and the 2004 NCAA doubles championship. His pro career never took off, but he did climb as high as the No. 132 ranking in 2008. He spent some time playing in the pro World Team Tennis league with the Sacramento Capitals, but then retired from tennis in 2009.

Presenters at the ceremony are scheduled to include Billy Beane (Oakland A’s general manager), Bobby Evans (San Francisco Giants vice president of baseball operations), David Forst (Oakland A’s assistant general manager), Eric Musselman (former Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings head coach), Teri McKeever (Cal women’s swim coach and head coach of the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s team) and Tad Taube (known mostly as a philanthropist, but who also was an owner of the Oakland Invaders of the defunct USFL, and is the benefactor of Taube Family Tennis Stadium at Stanford and 2008 Hall of Fame inductee).

Roxy Bernstein (Cal men’s basketball radio play-by-play announcer) will serve as master of ceremonies, and Phil Bronstein (the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle) will serve as panel host and conduct short interviews with the inductees.

The honorary chairs this year at Russell Nord, Steve Sockolov and Matt Sosnick.

The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California Induction Gala Dinner is set for 6 to 9:30 p.m. June 2 at the Four Seasons Hotel, 757 Market St., S.F. $195. Information: (408) 374-1600 or www.jshofnc.org.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.