Sure, the offseason had been slow for a while. As soon as we thought Grant Balfour was on his way, suddenly the deal fell apart. That didn’t mean losing a childhood hero was the major news I was ready for.
The Baltimore Orioles community suffered the loss of one of its best the day after Christmas, when Paul Blair died at 69. He was playing in a charity bowling event near his home in Baltimore. According to his wife, Gloria’s account in The Sun, ”During a practice round, he threw two or three balls, then sat down and told a friend, ‘I feel funny’ and kind of collapsed. He lost consciousness and they called 911 and the ambulance took him to [Sinai Hospital], but the doctors there told me they never got a pulse.”
Balfour almost became an Oriole but then didn’t. Blair, born in Cushing, Okla., almost didn’t become one, but then did.
The Mets drafted him in 1961 out of Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where he played baseball and basketball and ran track. He spent a year in the Mets’ system. But they left him unprotected, and according to a New York Times obituary, told him to fein an injury in the instructional league so other scouts wouldn’t think much of him. But the Orioles still took him that winter, and he spent the next two years climbing the ladder in the O’s system.
He debuted in the majors in 1964 and stuck in 1965. For trivia buffs, the outfielders on the Orioles roster with whom Blair shared center until getting the full-time starting job were Sam Bowens and Russ Snyder. Snyder played in some of the 1966 World Series, but Blair was inserted for defensive purposes in Game 4 and made a leaping catch to take away a game-tying home run, before the Orioles capped off their sweep. In Game 3, his solo homer accounted for the game’s only scoring and gave Baltimore the win.
He hit .474 in the 1970 Series, even though Brooks Robinson won the Series MVP award with his eye-popping defense and .429 average. That season, Blair was beaned by Ken Tatum in a game against the California Angels, missed six weeks, and tinkered with several new batting stances the rest of the season.
He was never the same offensive performer after that. For the rest of his career, any time he reached base, he would cover his face with his arm as he went back to the bag on pickoff attempts. But his center field play remained Gold Glove, and he won eight over his career, including seven in a row.
The Orioles traded him to the Yankees in 1976, and he played on two Yankee World Series teams the next two seasons. In the well-known, NBC Game of the Week in 1977 in which Billy Martin pulled Reggie Jackson out of right field in the middle of an inning because he thought Jackson was loafing, it was Blair who took Reggie’s place in right for the rest of the game, while the straw that stirred the drink almost came to blows with Martin in the dugout.
The Yankees released him at the beginning of the 1979 season, and Cincinnati picked him up. He played there for that season, and the Yankees re-signed him in 1980 but released him in midseason. He coached Fordham in 1983, was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1984, and coached at Coppin State from 1998-2002, but was never employed by the Orioles after that.He had had another heart attack in December 2009.
As most people of a certain age may agree, he was flat-out the best center fielder I’ve ever seen. Considering Willie Mays turned 40 in 1970, it would be no stretch at all to call Blair the best in baseball for several years. He was prideful as well. Jim Palmer was known for positioning the outfielders according to the pitch he planned to throw. In one story Blair sometimes told, he would ignore Palmer’s arm-waving and stay put, such was his confidence in where to shade the hitter so he could run down a fly ball no matter where it was hit.
Though only a .250 lifetime hitter (one reason he is not a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate), his deftness at laying down bunts is something many of today’s hitters would do well to copy.
He made his home in the Howard County community of Woodstock. He and Gloria, his wife of 42 years, had two sons. A son from Blair’s first marriage died at 29 in 1994. Meanwhile, the Orioles’ winter of depth signings goes on, with fourth outfielder candidates and backup catcher candidates highlighting the acquisitions.