Random Oriole: Curt Blefary

Haven't done one of these in over a year, but I was inspired by finally getting around to reading Ball Four, where Blefary winds up playing a key role after Bouton is traded to Houston. That book is so wonderful. If you haven't read it yet, don't waste any more of your baseball fan life having not done so. I dragged my heels for years waiting to get it before finally just checking it out at the library on my roommate's account. Suck it, library!

Blefary was a good, underappreciated player. If he'd come around nowadays, he'd be one of those cult hero guys that don't do the things that get you into the All-Star game, but they do the things that get you to root for them, as long as you look hard enough.

Blefary (born July 5, 1943, in Brooklyn) was signed by the Yankees in 1962, then selected off waivers by the O's in April of 1963.

Blefary made his major league debut in 1965, a 21-year old outfielder with poor defensive skills and no sparkling ability to put up a good batting average, but a willingness and skill for getting on base and a little bit of pop. Blefary hit .260/.381/.470 with 22 homers and 70 RBI, winning the Rookie of the Year award.

He continued producing the next year, with no sophomore slump. Blefary helped the '66 Orioles to a World Series championship by hitting .255/.371/.468 with 23 homers and 64 RBI. With Blefary, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Paul Blair leading the way, the O's had the American League's best offense that season.

Blefary had another solid year in '67, but it was one of those years that doesn't look impressive on the surface, especially now: .242/.337/.413 with 22 homers and 81 RBI. That was, in fact, quite well above average for the league at the time. Blefary's 1967 season was comparable to what Miguel Tejada hit this year, relative to his league. (Blefary's park-adjusted OPS+ that season was 122, Tejada's 126.)

In 1968, Blefary hit the skids, batting a paltry .200/.301/.322 with 15 homers. No adjustments for eras, parks or anything else can make that a good season. In '66, he had tried his hand at first base, and did the same in 1967. In '68, Blefary added catching to his arsenal, playing 40 games behind the plate. He was the backstop for Tom Phoebus' no-hitter.

Blefary complained that his lack of a consistent defensive position contributed greatly to his poor season at the plate, which may well have been true, but the truth is simply that Blefary was a butcher in the outfield and a born DH. Unfortunately, there was no DH at the time. He wasn't a good first baseman or catcher, either. He had to move around to stay in the lineup. Because of his poor defense, Frank Robinson took to calling him "Clank."

The Orioles sent Blefary to Houston with minor leaguer John Mason, getting Mike Cuellar, Enzo Hernandez and Elijah Johnson in return. Given Cuellar's contributions as an Oriole, it was one of the best deals in franchise history.

Furthermore, Blefary never got back to the form of his first three seasons. He hit OK for the Astros, but that was pretty much it. He wound up traded to the Yankees for Joe Pepitone, and finished his career bouncing from New York to Oakland to San Diego. The Padres released him, and Blefary signed with the Braves, but never made the team. His major league career was over at age 28.

Like many players, Blefary was a bit of a character. Bouton's profile of Blefary in Ball Four is great, and here are a few excerpts from the classic book for your enjoyment:

I'm getting a big kick out of Blefary. He's called "Buff," short for Buffalo, because he works so hard. If I had to be in a foxhole I'd like him in there with me. He's the kind who picks up hand grenades and throws them back. He's a perfect Marine, yet he doesn't seem to have the Marine mentality. One winter he spent his time, not selling mutual funds, but working with retarded children.
Blefary was giving me the business tonight. The first time he played in the big leagues he hit against me. It was after my arm trouble had started, and I must say I wasn't throwing very well. Anyway, it was great for Blefary. "Bulldog," he said, "you made my big-league debut a success. There I was in Yankee Stadium, on national television, with all my friends and relatives looking on, and I hit that blooper pitch of yours into the upper deck with two dudes on base. Thank you, Bulldog."
Curt Blefary is a big, rough, physical man. He likes to slap people on the back too hard, jab you in the ribs, squeeze your arm black and blue. He also likes to charge Robert, our twenty-five-year-old clubhouse assistant, throw him to the floor and choke him until he starts to turn blue. Robert laughs about it and pretends he loves every minute of it. But when he sees Blefary, he runs the other way.

On the hospital elevator, Blefary said to Larry Dierker, "C'mon, Rock Pile, get on."

"Curtis, what are you calling him 'Rock Pile' for?" I said. "He's one of the more intelligent guys on this club."

And Blefary said, "When I was in to see that eye doctor today he told me that with my eyes I should be hitting .450."

It's easier to ignore a question, sometimes, than try to answer it.

Curt Blefary is one of the players who thinks baseball games last too long. I mean, when a pitcher is having control trouble he's yelling over from first base, "C'mon, now, get the ball over. Get it over." The man sounds positively irritated. I do believe he has the potential to be a coach.

Blefary did try to become a coach, but it didn't work out. He was a sheriff, a truck driver, a bartender. He owned his own nightclub. He kept on trying to coach, but in the end the best he could do was volunteer at Northeast High School in Fort Lauderdale. If nothing else, that has to speak to the amount of love Blefary had for the game.

Maybe above all else (as a baseball player at least), Curt Blefary loved his time in Baltimore. Blefary died on January 28, 2001, in Pompano Beach, Florida. He was just 57 years of age. Curt Blefary's last wish was to be buried at Memorial Stadium. Though the stadium was all but gone when he passed, his wife, Lana, was able to scatter his ashes at the remains of the stadium, on May 24, 2001. "He loved Baltimore, and he loved his fans," she said. "He was a lifelong student of the game."

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