#8 - Paul Blair, OF (1964 - 1976)
Even though it has been more than 40 years since Paul Blair served as the Orioles’ everyday center fielder, he remains the gold standard by which all of the organization’s players at the position have been judged.
Blair spent 13 seasons in Baltimore. In that time he was named to two all-star games, took home eight Gold Gloves and won two World Series titles. For his efforts he was named to the O’s Hall of Fame in 1984.
His talkative nature earned Blair the nickname “Motormouth” during his minor league days, and it was revived by teammates Frank Robinson and Curt Blefary once he made his way to Baltimore.
While Blair may not have been known for his bat, he held his own at the plate during his time with the Orioles. He compiled a .254/.306/.388 batting line while with the club, scattering 126 home runs over those 13 seasons. All of his amounted to a 100 OPS+.
The offensive season that stands out for Blair was 1969. He posted career highs in home runs (26), RBI (76), doubles (32), slugging percentage (.477) and OPS (.804). That earned him an 11th-place finish in that year’s AL MVP voting, below three of his teammates (Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, and Mike Cuellar).
But if you know anything about Blair, you know that defense was the trademark of his game. His playing style in the field was described by MLB.com’s Lyle Spencer as such:
“[D]efense was his calling card. Known for playing shallow and retreating in a blur to rob hitters, Blair was acknowledged in his time as the premier defensive center fielder in the American League — in the class of the mostly unrivaled Willie Mays.”
Longtime Orioles ace Jim Palmer was a big fan of his teammate Blair. He shared a story with The Baltimore Sun in 2013. In it Palmer explains that he was upset with manager Earl Weaver for his lineup on a day that Palmer was pitching, so he let Weaver know. At a later date Weaver presented Palmer with three possible lineups and let Palmer choose.
“One had Blair playing center field. The other two didn’t. And Palmer said that pitching in Yankee Stadium, having Blair in center was his deciding factor.”
“Palmer pitched a complete-game shutout for his 22nd win of the season — and Blair had nine putouts in center.”
There aren’t reliable defensive metrics available from Blair’s era, but favorable comparisons to Willie Mays and the confidence of the franchise’s best pitcher of all time are high enough praise for me. Blair was clearly an elite defender.
The Orioles would trade Blair to the rival New York Yankees following the 1976 season. Although he served mostly as a defensive replacement in the Bronx, he did get to play on two more World Series-winning teams.
Following his retirement, Blair took on several coaching jobs. He worked as an outfield instructor for the Yankees and Astros, He served as head coach at Fordham University and then again at Coppin State University.
However, Blair mostly stayed around the Baltimore area. He was a common sight at celebrity golf and bowling tournaments around town. Unfortunately he suffered a heart attack on December 26, 2013 and died later that day. He was 69 years old.
As with everything in baseball, the role of a team’s center fielder has evolved. No longer are they expected to simply provide superb glove work and nothing more. Blair’s style of play would have fit in any time. He was productive enough on offense and otherworldly on defense. No matter how you look at it, Paul Blair is one of the best Orioles of all time.