Classic dream fulfilled
By Bill Francis
A defensive whiz on par with the game’s greatest of all time, longtime center fielder Paul Blair fielded numerous questions pertaining to his distinguished big league career when he recently sat down for an interview with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
In Cooperstown on March 20 to greet visitors in line to buy tickets for the second annual Hall of Fame Classic, the 66-year-old Blair will trade in his beloved golf clubs for another chance to get out on the field in the June 20 legends game. Tickets for the Classic are on sale at www.baseballhall.org or by calling 1-866-849-7770.
During a 17-year big league career, spent mainly with the great Baltimore Orioles teams of the late 1960s and 1970s, the eight-time Gold Glove Award winner and four-time World Series champion was known for his play in center field. But, surprisingly, Blair was a shortstop until he signed his first professional contract.
“I went to my first spring training the manager said, ‘Everybody go to their positions.’ Seven guys went to short – I was going to be the eighth shortstop,” Blair recalled. “They had two in left, two in center and one in right, and I saw (the player in right field) running and throwing and I knew I could beat him out, so I went to right field and became an outfielder. It just came natural to me for some reason.”
Known as the premier center fielder of his era, Blair was renowned for how shallow he played.
“What I tried to do was play where most of the balls were going to be hit. I didn’t play guys like Harmon Killebrew and Reggie Jackson or the big home run hitters right behind second base, but most guys can’t hit the ball straightaway center field out of the ballpark. If they hit balls to center field they are basically going to be line drives or high pops,” Blair said. “The line drives are not going to go out of the ballpark, so what I tried to do was take some of those line drives away. I wanted to be the best center fielder, head and shoulders, over anybody on my team. That way those pitchers would make the manager play me.”
Raised in Los Angeles, Blair was a Dodgers fan but Hall of Fame center fielder Willie Mays of the hated San Francisco Giants was his idol.
“Whenever the Giants played the Dodgers, I would hope Mays would get four hits but the Dodgers would win,” Blair said. “When I was growing up I used to do the basket catch even though I was at shortstop, but when I became a professional I thought I better do my own thing and not copy Willie because if I ever droped one then it’s going to be heck to pay.”
A star athlete in high school, Blair’s decision to pursue baseball as a profession was influenced by another Hall of Famer.
“I guess that came from Jackie (Robinson),” Blair said. “As long as I can remember, since I was eight years old, I wanted to be a major league baseball player. That was my one desire, my one goal, and I was just fortunate that I had some athletic ability.”
Blair became a regular with the O’s at the tender age of 21 in 1965 and appeared in the postseason six times with Baltimore over his 13 seasons with the club.
“Our whole thing, and it came from (Hall of Fame manager) Earl (Weaver) and he was the catalyst of those ball clubs, is that you went out there and you played great defense, you pitched well, and you played the whole game,” Blair said. “The team came first. You did everything you possibly could to help win a ballgame.
“We already had a very good ball club but then (future Hall of Famer) Frank (Robinson) came in 1966 that really put us over the top. He was that big gun that all the other pitchers had to concentrate on. The rest of us just had to do our thing. When Frank said, ‘Let’s go,’ we just followed him.”
Looking back on his baseball career, Blair says that he is proudest of the fact that he got to play in the big leagues for 17 years.
“It’s a very big achievement for me because that’s something I always wanted to do, and it’s the only thing I ever want to do,” Blair said. “The bonus was winning the eight Gold Gloves and the four World Series championships.
“I was very fortunate being on the teams that I played on. I played on 10 first place teams. Every time I went to spring training I knew I had a chance to be in a World Series. I wound up getting in eight playoffs, six World Series, and we won four of them. Hopefully I did my part and contributed to us winning. That was very important to me.”
Bill Francis is a library associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.