Thursday night, Paul Blair died. It was sudden. Unexpected. Thursday morning, Blair played golf. Someone invited him to a celebrity bowling tournament. He was tired, but went along anyway. Threw a few practice balls. Said he wasn't feeling well. Heart attack. It was terribly sudden.
In his time, Blair was an outstanding player. Before turning 25, he ranked among the best players in the American League. In 1969, Blair hit 26 home runs. On the 29th of April in 1970, Blair hit three homers in one game. Just a month later, though, he suffered a terrible beaning and missed three weeks. Blair said that didn't affect his hitting, and he hit perfectly well that season after coming back. But Blair just wasn't the same hitter after 1970, and he really stopped hitting after 1974. Blair attributed his decline to the absence of Frank Robinson from the lineup, and his own inability to handle sliders
But while Blair had his ups and downs (and downs) as a hitter, his defense in center field was consistently brilliant. I believe he deserved each of his eight straight Gold Gloves (1967-74), and I think he might well have been the American League's best center fielder from '69 through '73. Here's Earl Weaver in his classic treatise, Weaver on Strategy:
Instinct and natural talent mean quite a bit. Paul Blair could stand in center field and know when a ball was hit over his head. He would turn around and run, never looking back at the ball, get to a spot, and then look up -- and there would be the ball. He'd grab it easily. No one can explain what Paul Blair had that gave him the ability to run and run and then know exactly where the ball was coming down. That's something that can't be learned. Such players know where the ball is going long before it gets there. Watching them, it seems, it seems they know as soon as the ball leaves the bat. It can't be explained or taught.
People often talk about how good the Orioles' pitching was during the late 1960s and well into the '70s, and the Orioles' fielding gets some attention, too. But I'm not sure if the connection is made often enough. All those 20-game winners ... I don't believe those happen without Brooks Robinson at third base, Mark Belanger at shortstop, Davey Johnson and then Bobby Grich at second base ... and Motormouth Blair in center field.
Through most of the 1960s and '70s -- until the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the '77 World Series, basically -- the National League was the glamor league; the American League was the Junior Circuit, just hoping for a few table scraps. When people talked about great outfielders, first it was Willie Mays, then Roberto Clemente, and then Garry "The Secretary of Defense" Maddox. But at his best, Blair was as good as any of them.
When Blair didn't hit (at all!) in 1975 and '76, the Orioles traded him to the Yankees. He did enjoy a decent bounce-back season in '77. In Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, with the Royals starting a tough left-hander on the mound, Yankees manager Billy Martin started Blair instead of Reggie Jackson in right field. Which really pleased Reggie. But everything came out okay in the end. Jackson came through with a pinch-hit RBI single in the eighth, and Blair led off the ninth with a single that opened the Yankees' game- and series-winning rally.
I was there, by the way, and I bawled my eyes out all the way back to the car. But I never held it against Blair. Or even Reggie (well, maybe Reggie a little bit).
Blair played for the Yankees again in 1978. He was a Red in 1979, which I had completely forgotten (or maybe never knew). But he just kept hitting worse, and was finished after just a dozen brief appearances in 1980, again with the Yankees. To hang around for a long as he did, he must have been one hell of a teammate.
One thing we do know: for nearly a decade, he was one hell of a center fielder.