When a former professional football player from our past dies, he is most often remembered as being one tough son of a gun, or a wonderful runner or pass catcher, or as a brilliant quarterback. The same seems to apply for a late basketball or hockey player from our past. We remember him fondly and proudly, and with awe for the talent he brought to his game. But when a baseball player from our past dies, who was visible in our lives for nearly every summer day for however long his career might have lasted, we are genuinely saddened. We seem to ache more when we hear the news, and we seem to carry that ache with us for a longer period of time when we remember him.
This was the case with Paul Blair, the center fielder for the greatest Baltimore Orioles teams in history, and of whom it can be said very simply was a beautiful baseball player.
Having missed Willie Mays in his prime, Blair, who died Dec. 26 at age 69, was the greatest center fielder I ever saw, although Ken Griffey Jr. was in the neighborhood. Blair made every play seem routine, even though, much to the chagrin of manager Earl Weaver, he played the shallowest center field of his day. Nobody of his generation got back on a ball the way Blair did. Nobody of his generation covered the alleys the way Blair did, leaving only the lines for left fielder Don Buford and right fielder Frank Robinson to cover.
It was as though Blair was placed in this vast green expanse to run and run and run the way a delighted child does in a beautiful summer field, and nobody had a more graceful and stylish stride than Blair. He got to everything, he caught everything, and nobody ever took an extra base on him.
He twice led the American League in putouts — and his arm was strong and accurate, having thrown out 104 runners from center field in 17 seasons.
He won eight Gold Glove awards, including seven in a row from 1969 to 1975. Based on range factor — defined as putouts plus assists per nine innings — Blair was over the course of his career superior as a center fielder to both Mays and Griffey.
At the plate, he hit with power and for average through the middle of his career and was a great baserunner. He was on his way to becoming one of the best all-around players in the game until he was hit in the face by a Ken Tatum pitch in May of 1970, and though he returned to the lineup three weeks later and produced the highest batting average in the World Series, he was never the same hitter again.
Three of the most beautiful images that live forever in every Orioles fan’s mind are Brooks Robinson flying through the air and into Dave McNally’s arms, and the elegance of Jim Palmer’s wind-up and of Paul Blair’s game. When you saw Paul Blair you saw the real thing. You saw a baseball player.
They called him Motormouth and he was in the center of everything those Orioles did in a day when the players actually socialized with each other and within the community. Even though Blair was born in Oklahoma, grew up in California, and was traded to the Yankees in 1977, he lived in Baltimore for the rest of his life and remained an Oriole for the rest of his life.
He was active with Orioles charities and with other community events. He’d show up at the ballpark throughout the season to sign autographs. One such night was April 22 of last year when I received a text from my friend Rich Hawse, who grew up here an Orioles fan and who is now a season-ticket holder.
“Third time in section 60 in last 4 days,” the text read. “Made son get Paul Blair’s autograph.”
As it turns out, Blair was signing along with former O’s pitcher Ken Dixon and Rich said he took the time to talk to every person who came to his table, making them all laugh and smile. And when Rich told his son Evan, “This man is the greatest center fielder to ever play the game,” Blair stopped writing, tapped Dixon on the shoulder, smiled and said, “Did you hear what this man said?”
I told Rich that was great, that Paul Blair was my mother’s favorite player. Five days later a Paul Blair autographed postcard arrived in the mail from Rich, one day before my mother’s birthday. The postcard has yet to move from her refrigerator.
This is the game of baseball. This is the family of baseball and the love we share for the members of this family, even though we rarely meet them in person. But we know them. We know them because the game, by its very nature, ensures that we know them. The game makes them visible and accessible day-in and day-out and forces us to care. And in a time and a place seemingly so far away yet always so near, the game makes certain they care about us.
The great Paul Blair was a true and living example of this.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at email@example.com