If you formed an all-star team of South Los Angeles high school players who went on to make a name for themselves in major league baseball, Paul Blair might be right there in center between Eric Davis and Daryl Strawberry. Blair, who also played basketball and ran track at Manual Arts, was the very definition of a slick glove man on the Baltimore Orioles teams that won world championships in 1966 and 1970. In the 1966 World Series, he beat the Dodgers with a home run off Claude Osteen that was the only run of game 3. The following day, the Orioles swept the Dodgers to win the series.
Blair played in six World Series (two of them with the Yankees) before he was done without hitting another home run. His overall lifetime record includes 1,947 games, 134 homers, 171 stolen bases and a batting average of .250 in 17 seasons, including part of one with the Reds. After his retirement in 1980 Blair remained in the Baltimore area and died tonight at a hospital after losing consciousness while taking part in a celebrity bowling tournament. Here's the AP story and the Baltimore Sun.
Blair was voted eight Gold Gloves for fielding during his career, including seven straight seasons. He was called Motormouth in the big leagues, presumably in the good way. "He never stopped talking, and it wasn't always about baseball," said Al Bumbry, Blair's successor as the center fielder in Baltimore. "He was very humorous, so funny. Everybody loved him."
Baseball writers and bloggers in Maryland and New York are all over the news. Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun:
When you grew up in Baltimore, in the late 1970s/early 1980s there were certain things you had to accept or you would never be able to speak at the dinner table. They were truths passed down by my father, brothers and sisters...
Don’t ever act like someone could play a better center field than Paul Blair. It just wasn’t humanly possible, I was instructed...
I never got to witness first-hand Blair’s play. But I’ve seen enough video over the years to almost trick myself into thinking I watched the real thing: Those ubiquitous shots of Blair playing a shallow center, then streaking to the wall -- only a fading No. 6 visible before the ball disappears into his outstretched glove. It seemed like there were hundreds of those plays during his 13 seasons in Baltimore.
He was so good that his exploits on the field were passed down from one generation to another. About that, I can speak from experience.
In the early 1960s, teams could sign anyone they could convince to take their money. The Dodgers gave Blair a tryout but passed, apparently thinking he was too slight. He signed with the Mets then moved to the Orioles.
That South LA all-star team: It would also have to include Hall of Fame players Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith, and might make a place on the bench for George Hendrick, Bob Watson, Bobby Tolan, the late Angel Lyman Bostock and the late Dodger Willie Crawford. Either Gene Mauch or Sparky Anderson could manage the team (depending on whether you wanted to win or lose...)
Related: The Society for American Baseball Research has posted an impressive article on the legendary sandlot mentors of Los Angeles: Scouts, coaches and promoters.
Photo: Paul Blair in 2007