Blair remembered in hometown as all-time great
Memorial service held in Los Angeles for eight-time Gold Glove center fielder
LOS ANGELES -- Five weeks ago, having played a round of golf earlier in the day, Paul Blair collapsed while bowling in a celebrity tournament in Pikesville, Md., and he succumbed to a heart attack at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital.
Those who knew Blair best will tell you that on Dec. 26, five weeks shy of his 70th birthday, the eight-time Gold Glove center fielder died the way he played baseball and lived his life: going all out and having a good time.
On the campus of Manual Arts High School, near the University of Southern California, memories of a young Blair came flooding back Saturday in a memorial service filled with stirring music and messages of love and admiration.
Blair's former classmates, friends and family members remembered an athletic marvel who scored a school-record 54 points in a basketball game and who would launch long home runs -- and wild throws from shortstop -- on the baseball diamond. They remembered the boundless energy accompanied by an ever-present smile from the handsome teen. They remembered his love of words and the colorful, nonstop use of them.
Blair was more than a center fielder with few equals, a four-time World Series champion with the Orioles and the Yankees. He was ahead of his time, talking as good a game as he played while answering to "Motormouth" in the company of Baltimore teammates in the franchise's glory days of the 1960s and '70s.
"Paul was all-everything, a great athlete, and he loved to talk -- that's why all the girls liked him," said classmate Charles Russell, who moved from operating the film projector in the Manual Arts auditorium to a 45-year career as a video engineer for Disney and ABC, having a hand in four Emmy-winning productions.
"When Paul got signed [by the Mets in 1961], I felt like I got signed," said Reggie McFerren, Blair's infield partner at Manual Arts. "When he got a hit, it was like I got a hit. That home run he hit against [Claude] Osteen [in the Orioles' 1966 World Series sweep of the Dodgers] was amazing. I was usually laid-back and cool, but I went wild. There was a special bond to us."
As the stories flowed from old buddies, there were frequent references to Blair's flair for expressing himself.
"Paul was a tremendous basketball player," Kenneth Bell said. "We'd go all over the place and play three-on-three. He'd talk all day long. We went to South Park [near Manual Arts] one day, and those guys stole all our clothes after we beat 'em.
"We had an affair here 10 years ago, and all these great athletes came back to the school. Paul wanted to remind everybody that P.B. was the best. The greatest thing about him was he got out [of the inner city] and got up [in the world]."
Even Eric Davis, who came along a generation later as one of the few men ever to play Blair's position with the same skill and elegance, had a telling tale about Blair's supreme confidence.
"Every time he saw me," related Davis, like Blair a product of inner-city Los Angeles, "he said, 'The second-best center fielder is in the house.'"
When told there was a lot of Davis in Blair, Davis was quick with a correction: "I was a lot like him."
Signed by the Mets in 1961 out of Manual Arts, Blair played one season in New York's farm system before the Orioles selected him in the First-Year Player Draft.
Blair made his Major League debut for Baltimore in 1964, and he emerged as a household name in the 1966 World Series sweep. His homer off Osteen was the lone run in a 1-0 Game 3 victory in Baltimore, and the following day he elevated to rob Jim Lefebvre of a potential tying run in the eighth inning of another 1-0 triumph by the Birds.
A .250 career hitter in 17 seasons with the Orioles, the Yankees and the Reds, Blair had career highs of 26 homers in 1969 and 27 steals in 1974. He was a role player with the Yankees' champions of 1977 and 1978, playing his final game in 1980 in a Yankees uniform.
Blair could both hit with power and run, but defense was his calling card. Known for playing shallow and retreating in a blur to rob hitters, Blair was acknowledged in his time as the premier defensive center fielder in the American League -- in the class of the mostly unrivaled Willie Mays.
Longtime friend Fred Jones on Saturday served as master of ceremonies, relating stories of Blair's youth dating to 1952 bicycle adventures. Lewis Norman, another baseball teammate at Manual Arts, told how Blair brought attention to their sport at "a football school."
Uplifting music filled the auditorium courtesy of family members Marquetta Stewart Brown, accompanied by Rev. Glenn L. Jones, and Winfred Stewart, who performed a moving interpretation of "What a Wonderful World."
Before launching into "I Believe I Can Fly," Brown recalled how she "rode on the shoulders of only one person in my life, cousin Paul. … He was so tall. When you were with Paul, you believed you could fly."
Summing up the mood of the afternoon, McFerren said: "How many of us can say we were the greatest in the world at anything? I have to say he was the greatest defensive center fielder to play the game. I loved Paul more than I ever knew. Thanks for the memories, Paul, and God bless you."
Paul Blair and his wife, Gloria, had four children: Paul III, Paula, Kevin and the late Terrence Blair. Zephra Lee Primas, Paul's mother, and Paulette Blair, his sister, were acknowledged by friends and family members for their inspirational roles in his life.