Obituary: Paul Blair / Orioles center fielder won 8 Gold Gloves

Feb. 1, 1944 - Dec. 26, 2013

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Paul Blair, the fleet and elegant ball hawk who roamed center field for four World Series champions, the Baltimore Orioles twice and the New York Yankees twice, died Thursday in Baltimore. He was 69.

A hospital spokesman in Baltimore confirmed the death without giving a cause. Mr. Blair’s wife, Gloria, told The Baltimore Sun that her husband had collapsed during a charity bowling event. He survived a heart attack in 2009.

Perhaps the finest outfielder of his era, Mr. Blair was known for his speed and grace, and for his ability to read a hitter’s swing and make a quick break on a fly ball. Brilliant at tracking balls hit over his head, he routinely positioned himself in shallow center to be able to snag line drives over the infield and to keep runners from taking an extra base on singles up the middle, yet it was a rare fly ball that landed between Mr. Blair and the fence.

His range was extraordinary — he twice led the American League in putouts — and his arm was strong and accurate; over 17 seasons, he threw out 104 runners from center field.

He won eight Gold Glove awards, given annually to the three best outfielders in each league, including seven in a row from 1969 to 1975. Based on range factor — defined as putouts plus assists per nine innings — Mr. Blair was superior as a fielder to both Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.

Mr. Blair was the Orioles’ starting center fielder from 1965 to 1976, when the Orioles won the American League Eastern Division title five times, the pennant four times and the World Series twice, in 1966 and 1970. For most of that time he played for Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, who emphasized power, pitching and defense on the theory that denying a run to the other team is as valuable as scoring one yourself.

Mr. Blair, who had the outspoken gratitude of Oriole pitchers, including Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, was integral to Weaver’s implementation of this philosophy, and Weaver once said admiringly that Mr. Blair never made a great catch because he never had to; he was always standing under the ball when it came down.

His bat was not the equal of his glove, though he had a handful of valuable seasons at the plate, especially early in his career — including 1967, when he hit .293 and led the league with 12 triples, and 1969, when he hit .285 and drove in 76 runs — and he once hit a rare inside-the-park grand slam.

He was significantly better overall in the postseason, hitting .288 in 28 games over six World Series, including 9 for 19 in the Orioles’ five-game victory over Cincinnati in 1970. His home run off Claude Osteen of the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the 1966 Series was one of only three Oriole hits, but it was also the only run in a 1-0 Oriole victory.

And though Mr. Blair was only a reserve outfielder for the Yankees in their championship years of 1977 and 1978, his 12th-inning single gave the Yankees a walk-off win over the Dodgers in the 1977 opening game, propelling the team to its first World Series title in 15 years.

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