Weeks before he unexpectedly collapsed and died at a Pikesville bowling alley on Dec. 26, former Orioles great Paul Blair spent Thanksgiving with his mother in Southern California.
During that time, Blair, according to his niece Anjanette Preston, told his mother, "Mom, I've really had a great life. I am truly blessed. My dream was to grow up and be a baseball star. I got to fulfill my dream, and I am still living my dream. I am happy and content with my life and what I've become."
On Friday afternoon, hours after a brutal winter storm hit the East Coast, hundreds gathered at Ruck Towson Funeral Home to celebrate the life of Blair, one of Charm City's ultimate boys of summer: A smiling, always-chatting Gold Glove center fielder who helped lead the Orioles to four World Series and two world championships.
"To me, and to a lot of people in this city, Paul is an icon," said his former teammate Al Bumbry, one of five speakers and the only former Oriole to take the podium, at an 80-minute, private memorial service.
Those in attendance included some of Blair's former players when he managed at Coppin State, plenty of his golfing buddies from Turf Valley Resort where he was a member for 30 years, and several ex-Orioles such as Ken Singleton, Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez, Fred Valentine, Joe Orsulak and Bill Swaggerty.
Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer's flight out of Florida was canceled due to the snowstorm, but he sent a letter, read at the service, which called Blair "an integral part in getting me to Cooperstown."
Former Orioles slugger Boog Powell was dealing with a heart murmur this week in Florida and couldn't attend the service, but he sent a friend in his stead. Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray also couldn't attend, but his brother, Charles, was there. The current team was represented by executive vice president Dan Duquette and Lou Kousouris, club vice president/special liaison to the Angelos family.
"This all just goes to show that a lot of people remember Paul and recognized him," Bumbry said. "Everyone had kind things to say, which you are expected to say on these occasions. But it's [about] the sincerity in which they say it. And you could see a lot of sincerity today."
Blair, who would have turned 70 in February, was born in Oklahoma and went to high school in California. But he spent most of his life in Baltimore after making his major league debut with the Orioles in 1964.
In retirement, when he wasn't golfing at Turf Valley or bowling twice a week, he often participated in charity events throughout the area. That sense of charity and community led his wife, Gloria, to open Friday's celebration to the public for six hours after the memorial service so fans — as well as other family friends — could pay their respects. The frigid weather may have deterred some, but not all.
Ann Roberts, a 57-year-old Orioles fan from Towson, said she had never met Blair in person, but she grew up rooting for him at Memorial Stadium.
"He was just an Orioles classic," said Roberts, who wore an Orioles lanyard and orange whistle around her neck. "You don't have many opportunities to go to a viewing of a very important Oriole."
Roberts said she wanted to say something to Gloria Blair but didn't want to be a bother. Instead, she spent a few moments quietly taking in the scene on the second floor of the funeral home before leaving. Blair's golf clubs and orange Orioles bowling ball were on display in the center of the room, where a casket normally would be. There was a continuous-loop video of Blair's baseball highlights and several enlarged pictures throughout the room.
One easel held an Orioles team photo, another a shot of Blair at home plate and a third a photo of Blair holding his eighth Gold Glove Award with the seven others spread around him.
Blair played 17 seasons in the majors — 13 with the Orioles — caught the final out in the 1966 World Series and was responsible for the first ever World Series run in Baltimore, a fifth-inning homer that proved to be the only run scored in Game 3 of that World Series. But Blair will be most remembered as the greatest defensive outfielder in club history.
"Whenever a ball was hit and I would turn to follow the flight of the ball, Paul was already gone," said Singleton, a right fielder. "He never had a wasted step. He was smooth as silk and made all the plays in center field. They don't hand out Gold Gloves for nothing. And when you have eight of them, there is a reason."
Much of the talk on Friday, however, centered on Blair the man.
A son who phoned his elderly mother every Tuesday on his way home from the bowling alley.
A big leaguer who would sign autographs for kids until everyone was satisfied.
A college manager who honored an autograph request from an umpire who had ejected him earlier in the day.
A golf buddy, known as the "King of Turf Valley," who had a list of 20 friends that he'd call nearly every morning until he found a foursome for 18 or 36 holes.
And a father, husband, athlete and spiritual man who so cherished those roles until his death.
"I had 45 years that were a thrill ride of a lifetime. I am so thankful to God for taking my hand and putting it in that man's hand," Gloria Blair said. "So if [God] needs to call him home, that's all right with me. I know my husband is in a beautiful place. And I know he is playing ball. Any kind of ball they've got up there, I know he's playing."
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