Card-by-Yankees Card: The 1977 Topps Set, Card #313, Paul Blair (Article 61)
by Paul Semendinger
(Continuing a series…)
He might have been the greatest defensive centerfielder ever. He might actually have been that. Paul Blair was a spectacular player – a defensive genius.
If he wasn’t the greatest, he was one of the greatest.
And he was a Yankee, briefly, at least, to close out his career.
People, of course, remember Paul Blair as an Oriole. It was with the Orioles that he shined. Blair came up with the Orioles in 1964, but didn’t become a starter until the next season. He remained the Orioles’ centerfielder through the 1976 season.
In many of those years, the Orioles were a powerhouse. During Blair’s best years, the great teams in the American League were the Orioles and the Oakland A’s.
Blair played in the post season often before getting to the Yankees:
1966 World Series (vs. L.A. Dodgers) – The Orioles won
1969 ALCS (vs. Minnesota) – The Orioles won
1969 World Series (vs. the Miracle Mets) – The Orioles lost
1970 ALCS (vs Minnesota) – The Orioles won
1970 World Series (vs. the Reds) – The Orioles won
1971 ALCS (vs Oakland) – The Orioles won
1971 World Series (vs Pittsburgh) – The Orioles lost
1973 ALCS (vs Oakland) – The Orioles lost
1974 ALCS (vs Oakland) – The Orioles lost
One thing that really strikes me, looking back on those Orioles teams was the lack of overall ultimate success. This was a team full of great players – many future Hall-of-Famers (Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer), with a Hall-of-Fame manager (Earl Weaver) and All-Stars galore and yet they won only two World Series. Their lack of ultimate success reminds me of the Yankees of the early 2000s – always a top team, often getting very close, and often ending the season in bitter disappointment.
If their had been a Wild Card back then, the Orioles may have had a few more rings as they finished in second place in 1968, third in 1972, and second in 1975 and 1976. Wow! Those were great teams.
In 1979, the Orioles reached the World Series and lost, again to the Pirates.
In those days, I always rooted against the Orioles. As I grew up being focused on the Yankees, I saw the Orioles for the threat they were – probably immediately. They were just too, too, too good.
Looking back, I feel kind of bad for the Orioles and their fans of that era. They faced some great short-term great teams (The Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967, the Miracle Mets of 1969, and then some power houses – The Swingin’ A’s and the Big Red Machine, and those great Pirate teams. Oh, and the late 1970s Yankees too.) In a different time, the Orioles, as great as they were, might have had even more championships.
Great defense helps teams win – and those Orioles teams had great defense. Brooks Robinson held down third base, Mark Belanger was a great defensive shortstop, and Paul Blair caught everything in centerfield.
Blair won 8 Gold Gloves, including seven in a row from 1969 through 1975.
Paul Blair isn’t remembered as a great hitter, but he hit better than most people probably realize.
From 1966 to 1974, he hit .265 overall. That’s not bad in an era dominated by lower batting averages. Blair also had some pop in his bat. In that period, he clubbed 113 homers.
They didn’t look at WAR then, but he was a special player when one looks back that way on his career. Here are his bWAR totals by year beginning in 1967:
1967 – 6.8
1968 – 2.2
1969 – 7.1
1970 – 5.9
1971 – 2.9
1972 – 2.5
1973 – 4.9
1974 – 5.3
Blair’s last two seasons in Baltimore saw him hit poorly. He batted just .218 in 1975 and .197 in 1976.
I recall the story of Paul Blair being beaned by a pitch that led him to be a more reluctant hitter. I heard that a lot as a kid, but that beaning took place in 1970 and he had some great seasons after that. It seems that tale is more of a legend than fact.
Blair was traded to the Yankees in 1977 for Elliott Maddox (another outstanding defensive player) and Rich Bladt (who isn’t much remembered).
Paul Blair had two pretty good years with the Yankees in 1977 and 1978. He played in 83 games in 1977 and 75 games in 1978. In 1977, be batted .262, but he seemed done as a hitter by 1978 batting just .176.
As a Yankee, it was Paul Blair who was sent to play right field in 1977 in that infamous game when Reggie Jackson was pulled from the game in the middle of the inning by manager Billy Martin. This resulted in the argument and almost fight in the dugout between Martin and Jackson.
Paul Blair also has the game winning hit in Game 1 of the 1977 World Series, a walk-off single in the 12th inning.
He wasn’t a regular, of course, but Paul Blair did help those Yankees teams. There is something special about winning players. If we continue the chart above to include his Yankees years, it looks like this:
1977 ALCS (vs Kansas City) – The Yankees won
1977 World Series (vs LA Dodgers) – The Yankees won
1978 ALCS (vs Kansas City) – The Yankees won
1978 World Series (vs LA Dodgers) – The Yankees won
In 1979, Blair played for the Cincinnati Reds with a lot of those players that be battled against earlier in the decade. Talking about defense, that 1979 Reds team had their own share of Gold Glove winners (Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, and Cesar Geronimo).
Blair returned to the Yankees, very briefly (just 12 games) in 1980.
Paul Blair isn’t remembered as much today, but in his time, he was a top ballplayer, a defensive wizard, and a true winner.