Fifty years ago, the Orioles began what would become one of the best seasons in franchise history, as the 1966 O's went 97-63 and swept the Dodgers in the World Series to bring home Baltimore's first championship. Beyond simply winning the title, the 1966 season was historic in Orioles lore for two big reasons. First, Frank Robinson had an incredible year, winning the AL MVP and the triple crown (.316, 49 HR, 122 RBI) in his first season with the O's. Second, the pitching by the Baltimore staff in the World Series was historically great; the team used only four pitchers and allowed only two earned runs in the entire series. Ask a long-time Orioles fan what comes to mind first when you mention 1966 and you'll probably get one of those two answers; barely any would immediately say Paul Blair. But Blair was a critically important player on that team, and he's a guy whose legacy is often overshadowed by the other Orioles greats of his era.
With Joey Rickard playing his way onto the team this spring, the Rule 5 draft is once again making its mark on the Baltimore roster. The Orioles have always been one of the most active teams in the Rule 5 draft - not just lately, when they've kept four picks in five years, but historically as well. They've picked up useful role players like Ryan Flaherty and T.J. McFarland, decent multi-year starters like Jay Gibbons, and a fan favorite in Elrod Hendricks, but all of those names pale in comparison to Paul Blair.
The O's selected Blair in the 1962 Rule 5 draft from the New York Mets. As Paul Folkemer explained in his article naming Blair the best Rule 5 pick in franchise history, Blair wouldn't have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft in its current form. The rules back then allowed players with far less minor league experience to be selected, allowing Blair to be picked despite being just 18 years old at the time. That worked out in the Orioles' favor, since all Blair did was play 14 seasons for the club and accumulate the 11th highest total WAR in franchise history.
There's no way to overstate this: Paul Blair was a legendary fielder. The Total Zone Runs metric on Baseball Reference ranks Blair as the 10th best fielder of all time, and among center fielders he's behind only Andruw Jones and Jim Piersall. He sits one spot higher on that list than Willie Mays, despite playing five less seasons. He won eight Gold Gloves, and probably should've won more. I could go on and on, but you get the picture: he's one of the best fielders ever to put on a glove.
His fielding alone would've made Blair valuable, but he could hold his own at the plate, too. He was perfectly league average (99 OPS+) over the course of his Orioles career and he had a few very good seasons when he was younger; he peaked at age 25 with a .285/.327/.477 line that earned him his first All-Star appearance and an 11th-place finish in MVP voting. By the time he was traded to the Yankees in 1977, Blair had amassed 39 WAR in an Orioles uniform. That's higher than Boog Powell, Brady Anderson, Ken Singleton, Melvin Mora, and Brian Roberts. His rank of 11th on the all-time franchise WAR list puts him behind only six guys who actually played in Baltimore; the other four were St. Louis Browns. Of those six Orioles above him on the list, four have statues in Oriole Park. If the team ever decided to put a few more statues out on the center field concourse, it would be hard to argue that Blair didn't deserve one of them.
Beyond that, Blair was described as a fantastic teammate and a great person by basically everyone who ever met him. I'm lucky enough to be one of those people; when I was a kid I was golfing with my dad and Blair just happened to be in the group in front of us. I didn't know who he was, but my dad did, and we approached him for an autograph. I was pretty young, but I still remember how friendly he was and how he didn't seem annoyed in the slightest that two fans were interrupting his round. Based on the stories told about Blair when he passed in 2013, it seems like everyone else who met him had a similar experience.
I obviously wasn't around when Paul Blair played, but looking back it's easy to see why people tend to think Blair never really got his due - it seems like there was always another player or another storyline there to overshadow him. First, he had to share an outfield with Frank Robinson. Not only that, being one of the best fielders of all time wasn't even enough to make him the best fielder on his own team - amazingly, two of the nine players ahead of him on that aforementioned Total Zone Runs list were his teammates, Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger. But with this being the 50th anniversary of the Orioles' first championship season, and with the team using the Rule 5 draft this year to help build their roster yet again, today seems like as good a time as any to talk about Paul Blair. We should probably talk about him more often, because he's one of the best players ever to put on an Orioles uniform.