The year is 1971 and there’s a collection of undeniable facts. It’s the farewell season for the Washington Senators, The Pirates are World Series Champs, Satchel Paige is inducted into the Hall of Fame, and Fergie Jenkins and Vida Blue are the best pitchers in the MLB. Both of these gentlemen won the Cy Young Award in 1971 and both went on to battle for years, grabbing several awards and honors in the meantime. But one detail about this year was overlooked, even to the most religious baseball fans. This year was the first and only time in baseball history where two black MLB players won the Cy Young Award at the same time.
Besides their shared race, however, these two aces had different beginnings. Fergie Jenkins grew up in Chatham, Ontario as an only child of his father Ferguson Jenkins, Sr. (semi-professional baseball player for the Chatham Coloured All-Stars) and his mother Delores Jackson. Fergie was signed by the Phillies in 1962 and made his MLB debut in 1965 at the ripe age of 22. After a year, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs where he would continue as a relief pitcher. 1967 was his first full season as a starting pitcher and when he truly started blooming. He recorded 20 wins, a 2.80 ERA, and 236 strikeouts in 38 games. In addition, he was selected as an All-Star that year and nearly swiped the Cy Young Award but tied for second in voting with Jim Bunning; both lost to Mike McCormick.
Vida Blue, on the other hand, was born the oldest of six and raised in Mansfield in DeSoto Parish in northwestern Louisiana. In high school, Blue pitched for his baseball team and in his senior year he threw a no-hitter as well as a 21-strikeout game in seven innings pitched. Blue later signed with the Oakland Athletics in 1969 at the age of 19. After two shutouts in 1970 against the Royals and Twins, he started his first full season with the A’s in 1971, where he would showcase his 100-mph fastball and earn the scarce moniker of one of the hardest throwing lefties. He was second only to Nolan Ryan as the hardest throwing pitcher of the 1970s, according to Bill James in the 2001 Historical Baseball Abstract.
The pair went against serious competition in 1971; pitchers like Tom Seaver from the Mets, Al Downing from the Dodgers, Mickey Lolich from the Tigers, and Wilbur Wood from the White Sox. For Vida Blue, it was even greater competition, as he won the MVP award in ’71 as well! He bested well known players such as Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Sal Bando (who came second); all from his own team!
According to baseball-reference.com, in their legendary ’71 season, Fergie Jenkins recorded 24 wins, a 2.77 ERA, 263 strikeouts, and 3 shutouts in 39 Starts (325 innings pitched). Vida Blue recorded 24 wins, a 1.82 ERA, 301 strikeouts, 8 shutouts, and a 0.952 WHIP in 39 starts (312 innings pitched).
The two would go on to be legends in baseball. Fergie Jenkins became the first Canadian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame (1991) and was the only Canadian until Larry Walker (2020). Canada was so proud of Fergie that they put him on postage stamps during Black History Month in 2011. After his 1971 season, Vida Blue won three consecutive World Series championships with the Oakland A’s and won the All-Star vote five more times (All-Star in 1971)!
It’s amazing how this fact isn’t highlighted very often. This is an amazing accomplishment for the black community, and one that should be used to inspire future generations of young black players to strive for a career in baseball, especially now.
According to The Society for American Baseball Research’s (SABR) study of baseball demographics from 1947-2016, African Americans have been disproportionately underrepresented on the mound, consisting of between 2 and 3 percent of major-league pitchers over the past twelve years. In addition, according to USA TODAY Sports, in 2019, the MLB had an African American population of only 7.7%; I’m sure that number will still float around there in 2020.
I think a resurgence of black players (especially pitchers) in the MLB is long overdue and those reading this should soak in the outstanding careers of these two players. Share this moment in history and use it to inspire every young baseball player to chase their dreams in the majors! Maybe some of them will join the Black Aces in the years to come, and perhaps there will be a set of Cy Young winners as profound as this one here.
Cover Photo courtesy of The Topps Company, Inc.
22-year-old student attending California State University, Fullerton. Pursuing a bachelor's degree in Business Administration with a focus in Legal Studies. Former baseball player interested in a career in Sports Management. Go Yankees!