March 16, 2013; Dunedin, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles third baseman Danny Valencia (35) helmet bat and glove lay on the ground prior to the game at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Blair of the Baltimore Orioles Dies at Age 69

Baltimore Orioles all-time great center fielder Paul Blair died yesterday at age 69, having suffered a heart attack a few days before Christmas.

A very big part of why I fell in love with the game of baseball beyond all other sports is because of Paul Blair. He was a fixture on the great Orioles teams of the late 60s and early 70s that featured Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and many others.

The year was 1966.  I was age 11 and I had become a crazed Orioles fan, even though living in New Jersey. After dark I could get the AM station WBAL 1090 on the radio, even though it was sometimes very faint. During west coast games I would put a transistor radio under my pillow and shove my ear down against it – which was enough for me to be able to hear the games, while my parents in the next room would not be alerted that I was awake at 2:00 a.m. listening to baseball.

The radio from my boyhood that I still possess - from which I listened to hundreds of Orioles broadcasts

The radio from my boyhood that I still possess – from which I listened to hundreds of Orioles broadcasts

But my folks knew I was crazy about the Orioles. They wished for me to be able to get to the World Series in 1966 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was pretty much impossible to get tickets, but we went to Baltimore anyhow that weekend to visit at the home of my older sister and her husband in Ellicott City.

Upon our arrival at dinner that Friday evening (with the Orioles leading the Series 2 games to 0, and games three and four to be played in Baltimore on Saturday and Sunday), my brother-in-law surprised me by putting two tickets for the Sunday game on my dinner plate. The pair of tickets cost $17, which at the time seemed like a small fortune. I don’t remember how my brother-in-law got those tickets, but it was a dream come true for me.

The next day we watched game three of the Series on television. There was no way these upstart Orioles could possibly beat the mighty LA Dodgers of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, etc.  Pitching for the Orioles that day was 21-year-old Wally Bunker – and he threw a shutout!  The game was won 1-0 on a Paul Blair home run against Claude Osteen. My brother-in-law and I were dancing around the living room after he hit it.

Game four – Sunday – my father and I took a bus to Memorial Stadium. Our seats were nothing special – or so I thought at first. We were in the right-field bleachers about 20 rows deep, straight down the right-field line. Looking to our right we had a perfect view of the curvature of the wall around center field. Frank Robinson would supply the only run of that game with a monster shot to left field, but saving the game for Dave McNally was Paul Blair with a leaping catch over the wall in center field on a deep drive by Jim Lefebvre. I had one of the best seats in the house to see it – an event forever etched in my mind.

Blair was known for his ability to play shallow in center field – winning a total of eight gold gloves, including seven consecutively. His incredible speed and range allowed him to retreat quickly and cover an immense amount of outfield real estate. He said in a 1997 interview in USA Today Baseball Weekly,

“I was taught to play defense. Back in our day it was pitching and defense. Our philosophy (the Oriole way) was ‘don’t make the little mistakes that cost you ballgames.’  That is the way we won over such a long period of time.”

In the first ever American League Championship Series in 1969 (the first year of expansion into divisions), Blair had nine hits in five games against Minnesota, including five hits in the fifth game – which still stands as a record for the ALCS.

In the 1970 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Blair batted .474 – the best of all players in the Series. That Series is more often remembered for the great defensive plays of Brooks Robinson, and sadly Blair’s offensive contributions have been neglected.

Paul Blair was also quite a personality and was endeared to his teammates with his constant good-natured chatter that earned him the nickname “motormouth.”  Blair was always quick to say that his batting successes were much attributable to hitting most of the time in the two hole, just ahead of Frank Robinson.

Folks today may look at his statistics (which I’ve included at the bottom of this piece) and not be incredibly impressed with a .250 career average and .302 on-base percentage. Unless you are my age or older, or unless you are a baseball geek and understand the differences of this earlier era of the game of baseball, it was a time of lesser offensive statistics. It was a time before the pitcher’s mound was lowered in order to increase the scoring in the sport. Make no mistake about it – Paul Blair was a great player of his era.

He might have also had higher statistics were it not for a Ken Tatum fastball on May 31, 1970 that Blair said he never saw. It hit him in the face, and he was carried off the field with a broken nose and eye and facial injuries. He was never completely and consistently the same player after that event.

If you can’t tell from what I’ve written, seeing Paul Blair play baseball is one of the rich experiences of my sports-infused life. And it is sad to get older and see your childhood heroes die off one by one. Gotta say.

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Year

Age

Tm

Lg

G

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

SB

BB

SO

BA

OBP

1964

20

BAL AL

8

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

.000

.000

1965

21

BAL AL

119

364

49

85

19

2

5

25

8

32

52

.234

.302

1966

22

BAL AL

133

303

35

84

20

2

6

33

5

15

36

.277

.309

1967

23

BAL AL

151

552

72

162

27

12

11

64

8

50

68

.293

.353

1968

24

BAL AL

141

421

48

89

22

1

7

38

4

37

60

.211

.277

1969

25

BAL AL

150

625

102

178

32

5

26

76

20

40

72

.285

.327

1970

26

BAL AL

133

480

79

128

24

2

18

65

24

56

93

.267

.344

1971

27

BAL AL

141

516

75

135

24

8

10

44

14

32

94

.262

.306

1972

28

BAL AL

142

477

47

111

20

8

8

49

7

25

78

.233

.267

1973

29

BAL AL

146

500

73

140

25

3

10

64

18

43

72

.280

.334

1974

30

BAL AL

151

552

77

144

27

4

17

62

27

43

59

.261

.313

1975

31

BAL AL

140

440

51

96

13

4

5

31

17

25

82

.218

.257

1976

32

BAL AL

145

375

29

74

16

0

3

16

15

22

49

.197

.245

1977

33

NYY AL

83

164

20

43

4

3

4

25

3

9

16

.262

.303

1978

34

NYY AL

75

125

10

22

5

0

2

13

1

9

17

.176

.231

1979

35

NYY AL

2

5

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

.200

.200

1979

35

CIN NL

75

140

7

21

4

1

2

15

0

11

27

.150

.209

1980

36

NYY AL

12

2

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

.000

.000

17 Yrs

1947

6042

776

1513

282

55

134

620

171

449

877

.250

.302

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