An extraordinary and proud defender who, nonetheless, was said to be incapable of making great catches, has died. Paul Blair, a critical cog during the Orioles' and Yankees' championship seasons in the 1960s and '70s, collapsed at a celebrity bowling tournament on Thursday outside Baltimore after he had played a round of golf. His death, at age 69, leaves the game without one of its legendary center fielders and a most popular alumnus.
Blair won eight Gold Glove Awards during his tour with the Orioles and was an essential factor in manager Earl Weaver's championship equation -- "Pitching, defense and the three-run homer."
Blair was so gifted a center fielder, "He couldn't make a great catch," Weaver said. "If the ball's in the park, my guy will be waiting for it when it comes down."
Blair reveled in that characterization.
The defense provided by Blair, the late shortstop Mark Belanger, third baseman Brooks Robinson and an assortment of second basemen -- most notably Davey Johnson -- was a primary factor in the successes of the Orioles and their vaunted starting rotation.
"It's like they had 15 guys with gloves out there," former Yankees pitcher Mel Stottlemyre said in 1985. "When our hitters came back to the dugout, they weren't cursing [Jim] Palmer, [Dave] McNally or [Mike] Cuellar. All you'd hear is 'Damn you, Blade [Belanger]' and 'I hate you, Brooks.' And Bobby [Murcer] always said you had to really pull the ball to keep it out of Blair's range."
Palmer, McNally, Cuellar and Pat Dobson were 20-game winners for the 1971 Orioles. Blair used to say "Brooksie, Blade, Davey and me were responsible for 40 of those wins. And Frank [Robinson] and Boog [Powell] were responsible for the other 40." But the four pitchers combined for 81 victories. "Earl got them the other one," Blair would say.* * * * *
Paul L.D. Blair was the Orioles' regular center fielder from 1965-76, the year before he was traded to the Yankees. His value was primarily in the field. But he became a more productive hitter in '69, when he hit 26 homers and drove in 76 runs -- both career highs -- and batted .285. He placed 11th in the balloting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award behind MVP Harmon Killebrew and three Orioles teammates.
Blair was struck in the face by a pitch thrown by Ken Tatum of the Angels on May 31, 1970. His nose broken, Blair returned to the lineup three weeks later and contributed three hits to an Orioles victory in his second game back. But his batting began to flicker and then gradually diminish. He batted higher than .267 only once more and never approached 26 home runs after being hit.
Blair discounted the impact of the injury; he was unwilling to cite Tatum's pitch as the cause of his offensive decline. Instead, he attributed his decreased production to the departure -- in late 1971 -- of Frank Robinson, who had afforded him significant protection in Weaver's well-planned batting orders.
"I'd batted second, and Frank hit third," he said. "With him in there, all I saw was fastballs, because who would walk me to get to Frank? But with him gone, I started getting sliders and changeups, which were harder for me to hit. And I didn't have the discipline at the plate that I had in the field."
A right-handed hitter, Blair tried switch-hitting in 1971 but abandoned the idea when the results were lacking. Teammates believed he did have a problem hanging in the batter's box against certain right-handed pitchers, a problem related to Tatum's pitch. It seemingly became more evident with time. Blair batted .218 in 440 at-bats and .197 in 375 in his final two seasons with the O's.
Orioles managing partner Peter Angelos issued a statement a statement on Friday regarding Blair's passing. "It is with great sadness that we learned of Paul Blair's passing last evening," Angelos' statement read. "Paul was a key member of many of the Orioles' most memorable and successful teams, as his contributions at the plate and his Gold Glove defense in center field helped the club to two World Series and four AL pennants. After his on-field career, Paul made the Baltimore area his home and stayed involved with the organization through his appearances in the community and at the ballpark. On behalf of the Orioles, I extend my condolences to his wife, Gloria, and his family."* * * * *
It was in the afterglow of the Yankees winning the decisive fifth game of the 1977 AL Championship Series that Thurman Munson, the Yankees' captain, praised Blair's courage for "hangin' in there." Blair had started the game in right field, as a replacement for uninjured Reggie Jackson. He led off the ninth inning against right-handed Dennis Leonard, the Royals' No. 1 starter who had been summoned to pitch in relief. His base hit to center field ignited the three-run rally that secured a 5-3 victory. Munson identified Blair as "my hero."
Two days later, Blair, a .288 hitter in 66 career at-bats in the World Series, contributed a run-scoring hit that ended Game 1 of the World Series, a single through the left side against right-handed Rick Rhoden. More heroism.
For all Blair did for the Yankees -- he was one of Billy Martin's favorites -- he did more to torment them when he played with the Orioles. After he had made two routinely graceful catches on the warning track against the Yankees in an afternoon home game in 1976, teammate Jackson called him "Venus ... like in fly trap. He's a killer. He just snaps that glove out there and all the flies are caught."
Blair was involved with Jackson in a different way during a Yankees' game in Fenway Park in 1977. He was the player Martin sent to right field to replace Jackson when the manager became outraged by what he considered lackadaisical play by his slugger.
And 23 years later, Blair became somewhat involved in a Yankees-Mets incident. Roger Clemens had beaned Mike Piazza with a fastball in an Interleague game at Yankee Stadium, a precursor to Clemens' bizarre bat-throwing behavior in the 2000 World Series. Piazza, who had suffered a concussion, became a sympathetic figure in the aftermath. But Blair, nicknamed "Motormouth" and known for his candor, blamed Piazza.
"He's always diving in against a great pitcher he owns," he said. "Roger has a rep as a headhunter. Mike has to know that. He should have expected something high and tight, especially the way he hits Roger." Blair often was at his best in the postseason. He hit a home run in Wally Bunkers' 1-0 shutout of the Dodgers in Game 3 of the 1966 World Series and denied Jim Lefebvre a home run that could have tied the score in the eighth inning of Game 4. Moreover, he batted .474 in the 1970 World Series and .333 in the '71 Series.
Blair's moment in the '69 World Series, one he would have preferred to avoid, came in Game 3. With the Mets leading, 4-0, in he seventh, Mets center fielder Tommie Agee made a sprawling catch at the lip of the warning track in right-center field. What might have been a three-run double for Blair became a third out.
Frustrating, of course. But Blair was unimpressed. He thought Agee's catch then and one his Mets counterpart made three innings earlier against Elrod Hendricks were not as difficult as they appeared.
"The one against me he should have caught standing up," Blair bluntly said years later. "It's no sour grape. I would have made it and stayed on my feet." Maybe so.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com.