#9 - Paul Blair - CF (1964-1976)
To say that center fielder Paul Blair had a remarkable career is an understatement. In his career he played in six World Series, seven American League Championship series, won eight Gold Gloves, and played on just one team with a losing record in seventeen big league seasons. He is considered to be one of the greatest defensive players of all time, and according to Baseball Reference he played at an All-Star level in five different seasons while with the Baltimore Orioles. He was a premier player during the glory days in Baltimore.
Blair started his career in the New York Mets system, but came over to the Orioles prior to making his major-league debut at the age of 20 in 1964. He got just one plate appearance that season, but starting in 1965 was the regular center fielder for the Orioles. Blair wasn't a world class offensive player, but he more than held his own early in his career. In 1967 he had an OPS+ of 135, and in 1969 he slugged 26 home runs. He was just entering his prime when he was hit in the face by a pitch on May 31, 1970. He missed 17 games before coming back, and many say that he was never the same hitter after that. Blair himself blamed his offensive decline for not having Frank Robinson hitting behind him after 1971.
I didn't have the good fortune of watching Paul Blair play defense, and I don't even have the luxury of looking up his advanced stats to try and paint a picture (back then they didn't, you know, exist). So instead of me trying and failing, here are some excerpts from a few guys who had a front row seat to Blair's defense.
Earl Weaver, from Weaver on Strategy:
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.
Frank Robinson, via the Baltimore Sun:
[H]e was to the outfield what Brooks [Robinson] was to the infield. 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.
I never saw Paul Blair run into a wall. He’d go back to the wall, full speed, jump, come down with the ball, straight down, and he would never run into the wall. He knew where the wall was at all times. He played a very shallow center field. He was an outstanding center fielder. There were some times his throw wasn’t as consistent as it should be, but he was a tremendous defensive center fielder.
Don Buford, via ESPN:
He played very shallow. People talked about how Willie Mays played shallow, and Paul did the same thing. He played with assuredness. With me in left and Frank Robinson in right, we played toward the lines and gave him a lot of room. He could really go get it.
Blair played in four World Series with the Orioles, and while he only had one hit in the 1966 WS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was a big one. In game three, the first home World Series game in Orioles history, Blair hit a solo home run off of Claude Osteen. It was one of only three hits the O's had in the game, and it was the only run the Orioles needed to win 1-0 and go up three games to none on the Dodgers.
He was equally impressive in the 1970 World Series, going 9-for-22 with a .524 OBP against the Reds. All together, Blair played in 35 games for the Birds in postseason.
Prior to the 1977 season, the Orioles traded Blair to the New York Yankees. His offense had fallen off the table by then, and he would never get it back. He did, however, get to play in two more World Series after being traded.
Paul Blair spent his post-baseball days living in the Baltimore area, and passed away on December 26, 2013 of a heart attack while attending a charity bowling event in Pikesville. He was elected into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1984 and is, without a doubt, one of the greatest Orioles of all time.