Few players could maneuver their way around center field at old Memorial Stadium like former Orioles outfielder Paul Blair.
The eight Gold Gloves that Blair — who died on Thursday at the age of 69 — won during his time with the great Orioles teams of the 1960s and 1970s are a testament to that, but his former teammates remembered him Friday not only as an exceptional defender but also as a cherished teammate with a loquacious personality.
In an era before web gems and defensive highlights aired on television, Blair was a showman and center field was his stage. He played on four World Series teams with the Orioles and was an instrumental part of the franchise’s World Championship squad in 1966 and 1970.
“He was a great guy to have on the ballclub,” said Orioles Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who played beside Blair in right field for six years. “He kept you loose. He was talking all the time. And he enjoyed the game of baseball. I know the Baltimore organization has lost an outstanding individual because he loved Baltimore and he loved the Orioles. The thing I’ll remember about Paul Blair is how much he loved the game. He loved the game. When he had that uniform on, he was in his prime time.”
Part of a young core of Orioles players who helped set the foundation for the franchise’s glory years, Blair is synonymous with the team’s accomplishments. He was the perfect fit to patrol some of the vast outfields of that era.
He was known for playing center field extremely shallow, but Blair glided through the outfield, making lunging plays in the gaps, tracking down balls to the fence at full speed and jumping into the air without a collision.
“Nobody could get to the wall and vertically leap like Paul Blair,” Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said Friday. “It was like watching a butterfly land on a wall. ... I wouldn’t have won three Cy Youngs without Paul Blair. I wouldn’t have been a Hall of Famer without Paul Blair out there running balls down.”
On a team full of stars — including Hall of Famers like Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Palmer — Blair’s play wasn’t unnoticed by his teammates.
“He was to the outfield what Brooks (Robinson) was to the infield,” Frank Robinson said. “He was our glue out there. I had to play such a small area [in right field] just to get out of his way, and so did the left fielder, that it felt like we weren’t even on the field.”
Still, Orioles Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver sometimes became incensed with how shallow Blair would play in center. Twice in the first few innings of a game against the Minnesota Twins, hitters smacked balls over Blair’s head in center field, former Orioles outfielder Al Bumbry explained.
Weaver was livid, and got on Blair each time he came into the dugout. The following inning, Blair was still playing too shallow for Weaver’s liking, so the manager got on the top dugout step and began waving Blair back.
“So Blair backed up and played on edge of the warning track for a couple innings. Earl was shaking his head, ‘Why is he playing so deep now?’” said Bumbry, who eventually replaced Blair as the Orioles' center fielder. “No doubt he really exaggerated that to make a point, and it [ticked] off Earl even more. But Earl didn’t take him out because Paul was his center fielder and he knew he could help him win the ballgame.”
How confident was Blair in his ability to play center? Former Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren remembers one time in a game against Oakland when Blair tried to talk him into purposely sailing a throw into center field if six-time stolen-base champ Bert Campaneris tried to steal second.
“He told me, ‘Here’s what I want you to do,” Etchebarren explained. “’I want you to throw the ball on one hop into center field and when he goes, I’ll charge and I’ll throw his [butt] out at third base.’ That was his idea. I told him there was no way I was doing that.”
Blair was definitely imaginative and always willing to give his opinion, but Etchebarren said he could always back it up in the field.
“I didn’t see Mickey Mantle at his best and I didn’t see Willie Mays, but I can’t imagine anybody playing center field better than Paul Blair did,” Etchebarren added. “He did it while playing the shallowest center field I’ve ever seen. He took away so many base hits from guys — balls that guys who played deep would never get to. He never had the fear of the ball going over his head or not being able to catch it. Never.”
Even though Blair was most known for his defense, Palmer said Blair was on pace to become one of the best all-around center fielders in the game. In 1969 at the age of 25, Blair had his first All-Star season, hitting .285 with 26 homers and 76 RBIs for an Orioles team that went to the World Series.
Palmer said Blair always worried about getting hit by a pitch but was still the team’s best breaking ball hitter in his early days, but something changed after Blair was beaned in the head in May 1970 in Anaheim by Ken Tatum.
“He was going to be a perennial All-Star. He was the best center fielder in the American League,” Palmer said. “People forget until the beaning, he was as good an all-around player as we had on our ball club. … The minute he got beaned, everything changed. He was destined to be one of the great players in the American League for a long, long time before the beaning.”
Blair still hit .474 during the 1970 World Series, when the Orioles claimed the franchise’s second championship with a five-game victory over the Cincinnati Reds. He played 13 seasons in his 17-year career with the Orioles, winning seven Gold Gloves in a row from 1969 to 1975.
“It is with great sadness that we learned of Paul Blair's passing last evening," Orioles owner Peter Angelos said in a statement. "Paul was a key member of many of the Orioles' most memorable and successful teams ... 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.”
Never one to back away from a conversation, Blair was nicknamed “Motormouth,” a moniker given to him by Frank Robinson because he was always talking.
“On and off the field, he’d be yakking, yakking in the dugout,” Robinson said. “He’d keep you loose all the time. And not just talking to an individual, but also the things he’d say or do. The things he’d say he was going to do: In the clubhouse, on the bus, on the plane, whatever. One thing I’ll remember about him that has always stuck in my mind is he loved to put on the Oriole uniform. He loved the game and he wanted to go out and compete.”
Even though Blair was traded before the 1977 season to the New York Yankees and was a part of two World Series champion teams in the Bronx — he later also briefly played for the Cincinnati Reds — Blair returned to Baltimore after retirement and stayed.
He participated in celebrity golf tournaments and basketball games in the area, and was even participating in a benefit bowling tournament in Pikesville on Thursday when he collapsed and was rushed to Sinai Hospital.
Palmer said Blair was part of group of about 10 former Orioles who would play golf regularly at Turf Valley Country Club or Pine Ridge Golf Course after his retirement. Most recently, Blair was a regular at Turf Valley near his home in Woodstock.
“He was a fabulous guy,” Palmer said. “He was a part of a very special time for all of us. Paul and I came up together and when we got to Baltimore, the Colts were the big team in town. We were young and we learned a lot of lessons from them, the idea that you stuck around the area and you lived in town.”
But what Blair was most proud of was being a part of “The Oriole Way” — the ideal set by those teams that establishing a tradition of hard work and hustle would lead to winning.
“You lost an Oriole, a true Oriole passed away yesterday,” Frank Robinson said. “The players, the organization, the fans, they are going to miss him because he was an Oriole, through and through. That’s the thing I’d most want to say about him.”
Sun staff writer Dan Connolly contributed to this storyCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun