Blair, Paul 1944–
Paul Blair 1944–
Conversations regarding the best baseball players of all time tend to revolve around names like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Bob Gibson. Of course, a definitive list never seems quite possible. Arguments between friends often reach a standstill when trying to decide such pivotal questions as who was a better hitter or fielder, who performed better late in the season when a trip to the playoffs was on the line, or who would continue to dominate in today’s game. One player who finds himself routinely absent from such discussions and would not shy away from articulating why he belongs in such company is former Baltimore Oriole Paul Blair. Indeed, Blair would be the first to proclaim his answers to those questions. The man, whose teammates nicknamed him “Motor-mouth” because of his fearless habit of spouting his opinion, played centerfield for the Orioles from 1964 to 1976 before finishing up his career with the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds and retiring in 1980.
Born in Cushing, Oklahoma, in 1944, Blair began playing ball as early as the age of eight. Signed to a minor league contract straight out of high school, Blair made his major league debut at the age of 20 and went on to become a member of four championship teams—the 1966 and 1970 Orioles and the 1977 and 1978 Yankees—and played in a total of 53 postseason games during his 17-year career. Following retirement, Blair coached the baseball team at Fordham University in 1983 and spent several stints as a coach in the Yankees, Orioles, and Reds farm systems before moving back to Baltimore in 1988. From 1998 to 2002, Blair held the head coaching position at Coppin State College in Baltimore. Following a disappointing string of seasons, he was dismissed in May of 2002. To this day, Blair retains his loquacious style, and his fondest memories remain those forged while playing with the great Oriole teams of the late-1960s and early-1970s.
By today’s standards, Paul Blair’s career statistics fail to impress. His lifetime batting average is a humble .250. His best season, 1969, saw him hit .285 with 26 homeruns and 76 runs-batted-in. Those numbers simply do not stack up to the likes of Hall of Famers like Willie Mays, who in 1955 batted .319 while hitting 51 longballs and driving in 127 runs. Blair’s realm of expertise, however, lay upon the grass in centerfield, a position for which he netted eight Gold Gloves, baseball’s coveted defensive trophy, between 1967 and 1975.
It was Blair’s dexterity and intuition in the outfield that, ironically, earned him a spot in the Orioles lineup day in and day out. His offensive numbers may have landed him on the bench on other ballclubs, but Earl Weaver, the Orioles manager at the time, knew the value of an able-bodied centerfielder. As Blair said in an interview with Sport magazine in 1985, “Fortunately, I played for a manager who was smart enough to realize that saving a run is just as good as scoring one. As long as I fielded the heck out of my position he was going to have me in that lineup regardless of my hitting. So I dedicated myself to making a science out of playing centerfield.”
Born Paul Blair on February 1, 1944, in Cushing, OK.
Career: Baltimore Orioles, centerfielder, 1964-76; New York Yankees, centerfielder, 1977-80; Cincinnati Reds, centerfielder, 1979; Fordham University, baseball coach, 1983; Coppin State College, baseball coach, 1998-02.
Memberships: Major League Baseball Players Association.
Awards: Gold Glove, Centerfield (8).
Blair has attributed his defensive aptitude to his intuitive approach to chasing down balls hit in his direction. Rather than keep his eyes glued to the ball from the moment it left the bat—a tactic he claims most outfielders practice more out of a fear of losing the ball than as a proven strategy—Blair relied on his ears as well as eyes to judge where the ball would land. He told Sport, “I’d watch the hitter’s swing, listen to the crack of the bat and I would instinctively know how many steps I needed to get to the ball. This enabled me to take my eyes completely off of it and run to the area just like a sprinter.” Furthermore, Blair positioned himself shallower in centerfield than anyone else in the game. Though most players would find this to be a disadvantage, Blair’s amazing speed to get back allowed him to command the outfield almost flawlessly. Of course, Blair was never at a loss when it came to self-praise. “I had so much confidence in my ability that I just knew nobody was going to hit it over my head,” he was quoted as saying in Sport.
Fortunately for Blair, the Orioles squad of the late-1960s was stacked with an offensive arsenal that propelled the team to four World Series appearances in six years. Future Hall of Famers in first baseman Boog Powell, third baseman Brooks Robinson, and outfielder Frank Robinson combined to form a lineup with which most teams could not compete. Despite all his fancy footwork and jaw-dropping catches in the outfield, it is an offensive moment that Blair treasured as one of his most cherished memories. In 1966 Baltimore made it to the World Series for the first time in the history of the ballclub. The team faced the Los Angeles Dodgers, the defending champions. The Orioles won by beating the Dodgers in four straight games, a World Series sweep. In game three in Los Angeles, with the scored tied at zero, Blair hit a monster 430-ft. homerun and the Orioles won by a score of 1-0. Game four brought the series back to Baltimore where the team would clinch its first championship.
Years later, during another championship season, a terrifying moment occurred on May 31, 1970 in a game against the California Angels when Blair was hit in the face with a pitch thrown by reliever Ken Tatum. The star centerfielder sustained a shattered nose and other facial fractures, including eye damage. Although Blair fully recovered from the incident and went on to play ten more seasons, he never again equaled the season he had in 1969. A lingering fear of being hit again caused him to consult a hypnotherapist. At one point during the 1971 season, he tried switch-hitting, but cut the effort short after hitting a miserable .193 in 57 at-bats.
In his book, From 33rd street to Camden Yards: An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles, John Eisenberg describes the moment Blair fell after taking the pitch to the face “as if he were a losing gunslinger in a western movie.” Eisenberg additionally noted that Blair “missed three weeks after the beaning and came back to finish with 18 home runs and 65 RBI, but he seldom produced that well over the rest of his career, and some speculated he was never the same at the plate.”
In the same book, however, Blair was quoted as defending his performance following the injuries: “I was out twenty-one days, and they threw me back in there and I hit .304 the rest of the season. People say, ‘After you got hit you didn’t hit the same,’ but I did. Before I got hit I stood on top of the plate. After I got hit I stood on top of the plate.” Blair explained his diminishing performance in the years that followed as related to the departure of fellow outfielder Frank Robinson, who always batted directly after Blair in the lineup. Robinson’s spectacular offensive talent often forced pitchers to pitch well to Blair for fear of walking him and having to face the threatening Robinson. “With him behind me,” Blair told Eisenberg, “I knew at two and oh or three and one counts what they’d throw me. They’re not going to walk Paul Blair to get to Frank Robinson, so they’re going to throw me a fastball. After Frank was gone, they were throwing breaking balls, too. And the slider was a pitch I had problems with. I wasn’t disciplined enough to take those pitches and walk. And that was my biggest downfall right there.”
Blair’s signature style of opinionated self-promotion surfaced in his assessment of the 1970 team: “I was so proud of the way we came back in ’70 and won 108 ball games and became the world champions. Everybody just figured the Big Red Machine was going to roll all over us. We made ’em a little toy wagon. And I led everybody in hitting. Don’t nobody know that but me because Brooks had such a fantastic World Series, but I hit .474. Out-hit everybody in there.”
Although Blair’s career in the Major Leagues was full of winning teams, he could never quite translate such success as a coach. At Fordham University in 1983 he only managed a 14-19 record. Upon inheriting a fledgling program at Coppin State in the late-1990s, Blair tried to enhance the team with his efforts to get a new ball diamond built closer to campus, but his efforts amounted to a disappointing record of 30-185 in five seasons. Though Blair’s pride in his playing days and ability remains intact, his focus seems to have shifted since becoming a coach. In 2001, while still at Coppin State, he told the Baltimore Sun he would be content to remain with the team “as long as the kids are learning, improving, and enjoying the program.”
Eisenberg, John, From 33rd Street to Camden Yards: An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles, Contemporary Books, 2001.
Baltimore Sun, May 11, 2001, p. 7D; May 22, 2002, p. 9D.
Sport, July 1985, p. 64.
Major League Baseball News, www.mlb.com
–Benjamin M. Branham
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