I’ve seen Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, Devon White, Cesar Geronimo and even Willie Mays at the tail end of his career, but I can’t consider any of them the best defensive center fielder I’ve watched. That honor still belongs to Paul Blair, who died last week from a heart attack. When it comes to center field play, Blair was the standard bearer.
Do the statistics bear this out? Well, not completely. Of the players listed above, Jones has the highest TotalZone ranking at 220, Mays finishes second at 176, and Blair checks in third at 171. That’s fair enough, but keep in mind that I saw Mays only at the end of his career, and not in his prime. As far as Jones is concerned, there’s no question that he was a fantastic center fielder, but he also had a tendency to make mental mistakes and didn’t always hustle, as Bobby Cox could have attested to early in his career. In contrast, Blair hustled consistently and didn’t make fundamental mistakes. He rarely broke the wrong way and only occasionally missed the cutoff man. So I’ll still take Blair, even some 35 years after his career came to an end.
Blair was originally signed as a shortstop by the Mets in 1961, but he went to the Orioles in the old first-year player draft, eventually becoming Baltimore’s center fielder. He first achieved notoriety during the 1966 World Series, when he delivered a game-winning home run in a 1-0 victory in Game Three, and followed that up with an acrobatic catch of Jim Lefebvre’s drive in Game Four. Some thought Lefebvre might have ended up with an inside-the-park home run if not for Blair’s incident of armed robbery in center field.
Now that he was known on the national scene, Blair cemented his reputation in 1967, winning the first of his eight Gold Gloves. He also did well at the plate, hitting .293 in a pitchers’ era while leading American League batters with 12 triples. Not only did Blair have speed, but he was a smart baserunner who understood when to take the extra base.
Offensively, Blair was a plus player, at least during the first half of his career. In 1969, he put up arguably his best season when he batted .285 with a career high 26 home runs, showing power that belied his middle infielder’s frame.
Then came the turning point of 1970, when Blair was well on his way to another big season. On May 31, he was hit in the face with a fastball thrown by Angels reliever Ken Tatum. Blair missed only a few weeks, but he was never the same. He had an open stance and tended to bail out toward the third base dugout, understandable given the severity of the Tatum incident. Though his regular season hitting tailed off, he managed to bounce back in the World Series, hitting .474 against the Reds.
Defensively, Blair was a supreme being. Built more like a shortstop at six feet and 165 pounds, he looked like Ozzie Smith playing the outfield. Blair played so shallow in center field that he appeared to be just a few paces behind second base, but he was rarely burned because of his stellar ability to go back on deep fly balls. To complete the picture, he had an above-average throwing arm. He fit the blueprint of the ideal outfielder, in terms of positioning, tracking, and catching the ball, and then throwing it quickly and efficiently.
As his hitting continued to tail off in the 1970s, the Orioles traded him to the rival Yankees for Elliott Maddox and minor league outfielder Rick Bladt. The Yankees smartly viewed him as a role player, principally as a defensive caddy to Reggie Jackson.
Blair entered the spotlight of “The Bronx Zoo” in May of 1977, when he was thrown into the middle of a national TV dispute between Billy Martin and Jackson. When Jackson failed to hustle on Jim Rice’s slow ground ball to right field, Martin pulled him from the game in mid-inning, telling Blair to take Reggie’s place. That decision resulted in near fisticuffs in the Yankee dugout.
Blair always defended Martin’s decision to pull Jackson from the game. “You don’t hustle,” Blair once told me, “you don’t play. Billy would have done it with other players.” As Jackson became embroiled in other controversies, Blair tried to keep them from boiling over.
“I really became the ambassador and tried to keep peace. If I hadn’t been there, Reggie would have been in fights every day,” Blair said with a laugh.
With other strong personalities like Thurman Munson and Mickey Rivers ready to butt heads with Jackson and George Steinbrenner, peacemakers like Blair and Fran Healy served an important role as clubhouse “coolers.”
Fulfilling the dual roles of cooler and caddy, Blair picked up World Series rings in 1977 and ‘78, to add to his expanding collection. In total, he played on four world championship teams and developed a reputation as a clutch postseason hitter. By the time his career ended with the Reds and Yankees in 1980, he had participated in eight Championship Series and seven World Series.
Blair was also a good friend to the Baseball Hall of Fame; he participated in a couple of programs in the Bullpen Theater over the years. A frequent visitor to Cooperstown, he became a friendly presence on Main Street during induction weekends. Ever talkative, he was dubbed “Motormouth” because he liked to talk… and talk… and talk. But Blair always had something pertinent to say.
Sadly, he has now been silenced, but he leaves behind an array of wonderful images and memories. For that, baseball fans can be very thankful toward the great Paul Blair.