Paul Blair – Yankee infielder and post season hero

In 1978, when Derek Jeter was four years old, another shortstop for the Yankees wore the number two on his uniform. That shortstop was Paul Blair. Yes, that is correct, Paul Blair. But before we get to that story, there is another story you should hear about Paul Blair’s Yankee tenure and concerns two pivotal post season games–one in 1977 and the other in 1978.

Blair, who passed away this week at the age of 69, should rightly be remembered as one of the best fielding center fielders ever through the glory years of the Baltimore Orioles from 1965 to 1976. He was an eight time Gold Glove Award winner in center and fits right in with Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger as the Orioles collected some of the best fielders in baseball history. Baseball-reference.com ranks Blair as the third best fielding center fielder behind only Andruw Jones and Willie Mays.

But by 1977, Blair was past his glory years and was traded to the Yankees for Elliot Maddox and Rick Bladt, neither of which panned out for the Orioles. With the Yankees from 1977 to the early part of 1979 season, Blair won two more Championship rings with the Yankees to build his career total to four. But with the Yankees, he was a role player as a defensive replacement late in games for Mickey Rivers or Reggie Jackson. He also made the occasional start against tough left-handed starters.

It was in two such starts in the post season that gives him a special mention in Yankee lore for post-season heroes. The first such occurrence was in the fifth and deciding game of the 1977 championship series against the Kansas City Royals.

The series was tied at two games each and the Royals had Paul Splittorff on the mound. The tough lefty had gone 16-6 that season for the Royals and had already beaten the Yankees in the first game of the series. He had handled Reggie Jackson with ease so the Yankees decided to sit Jackson in this pivotal game and started Paul Blair in right field.

Ron Guidry started the game for the Yankees and did not have anything that day. The Royals jumped out to a 3-0 lead on him and knocked him out of the game after just two and a third innings. Mike Torrez and Sparky Lyle held the Royals scoreless the rest of the way, but the Yankees were not doing much against Splittorff.

A single by Thurman Munson in the third scored a single run and Reggie Jackson pinch hit and hit a single to score another run in the eighth after a Willie Randolph lead-off single knocked Splittorff from the game. But the Yankees still trailed the Royals by a run entering the ninth inning.

Paul Blair led off the ninth with a single off reliever, Dennis Leonard. He went to second on a pinch hit walk by Roy White. The Royals brought in the tough lefty, Larry Gura, to face Mickey Rivers. But Rivers won the battle and hit a single up the middle to score Blair, who raced home with the tying run. White ran to third on the hit and scored the winning run on a Willie Randolph sacrifice fly the following batter. An error gave the Yankees a third run for a 5-3 lead that Sparky Lyle made hold up in the ninth. The Yankees, in part due to the rally started by Paul Blair, headed to the World Series.

The 1978 World Series pitted the Yankees once again against the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Dodgers had gotten off to a quick 2-1 lead in the Series after three games. If the Yankees lost the fourth game and had gone down 3-1 in the series, it seemed improbable they would come back.

And it did not look good for the first seven innings. Paul Blair got the start in center over Mickey Rivers because Tommy John started for the Dodgers. Blair led off for the Yankees in the bottom of the first with a single but was thrown out at home in that first inning after a single by Thurman Munson.

That outfield assist was by Reggie Smith of the Dodgers from right field. Smith had a huge day as he hit a two-out, three-run homer for the Dodgers off of Ed Figueroa in the fifth inning to put the Dodgers up, 3-0.

The Yankees struck back for two runs in the bottom of the sixth on a Reggie Jackson RBI single and a throwing error by Bill Russell on a possible double-play ball, but were still down, 3-2 heading into the eighth inning.

Paul Blair led off the bottom of the eighth with a single which knocked Tommy John from the game. Blair went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Roy White against Terry Forster and then scored the tying run when Thurman Munson hit a double off of Forster. The tying run allowed the Yankees to battle for ten innings and then win the game in the bottom of the tenth to tie up the Series. Of course, the Yanks went on to win their second World Series in a row.

So Paul Blair had two meaningful moments in the post season for the Yankees in those two years as their role player.

But what about that infield thing?

On June 14, 1978, the Yankees played an epic game at home against the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners bombed Andy Messersmith and Ken Clay and took advantage of some sloppy Yankee defense to score seven runs by the fifth inning. Fortunately for the Yankees, the Mariners’ pitchers were not much better and the Yankees pecked away at the lead.

In the bottom of the eighth, Cliff Johnson hit a two-run homer pinch hitting for Fred Stanley to bring the Yankees to a 7-7 tie with the Mariners. The Yankees must have been short of infielders so Billy Martin moved Graig Nettles to short to cover for Stanley and after 392 minor league games in the outfield and after over 1,800 games as a Major League outfielder, Paul Blair was moved to third base.

The game went in to the tenth still tied and Sparky Lyle, who had pitched five innings that day, finally tired and gave up two runs in the top of the tenth. But in the bottom of the tenth, third baseman, Paul Blair, who had not received any action at third for his two innings there, hit a three-run, walk-off homer to win the game. It was one of only two homers he hit all season.

Two days later, in a Yankee loss to the Angels, Martin again used Blair at third late in a game after pinch hitting for Brian Doyle. Again, Blair did not get any chances there.

On June 22, 1978, the Yankees were in Detroit to play the Tigers. Ron Guidry was a perfect 11-0 for the season. The Tigers’ Ron LaFlore led off for the Tigers and hit a solo homer in the first off of Guidry. But the Yankees could do nothing with Dave Rozema for eight innings and trailed, 1-0 heading to the top of the ninth.

The Yankees, desperate for some offense, had Jim Spencer pinch hit for Brian Doyle in the top of the eighth, but he struck out. Doyle had replaced Willie Randolph in the fifth as he must have been hurt. That left the Yankees with no more infielders and in the bottom of the eighth, Paul Blair started the inning at second base. When Steve Kemp came to bat, Martin switched Stanley and Blair and Blair moved to shortstop!

The Yankees rallied for four runs in the top of the ninth to take a four run lead. The bottom of the ninth got a little messy for the Yankees as Ron Guidry started the inning off by walking the lead-off batter and Goose Gossage came in. After a strike out and a walk, Blair got his first action at short. Milt May hit a grounder to Chris Chambliss who threw to Blair for the force out at second. Gossage would go on to preserve Guidry’s twelfth win.

In a loss against the Red Sox on June 26, 1978, Martin again put Paul Blair in the game at second base and flip-flopped he and Doyle on successive batters to give Doyle the best shot at fielding the ball. But Jim Rice did hit a grounder to Blair which Blair successfully converted to the last out of the inning.

Blair again entered a game on July 9, 1978 against the Brewers and again did the flip-flop thing by batter starting from the sixth inning to the end of the game. This time he flip-flopped between second and third. He did make an error as the second baseman in the seventh that allowed a run to score.

Blair played second and short on July 21 and pinch hit and played short on July 28. That would proved to be the end of his infield career and he was limited to the outfield the rest of the season.

The total of Blair’s infield statistics:

  • 2B – 6.2 innings, 2 putouts, 3 assists, one error.
  • SS – 4.2 innings, 1 putout, 0 assists and no errors.
  • 3B – 16.2 innings, 1 putout, 1 assist, 2 errors and one double-play.

Not bad for a guy who had never played the infield in professional ball.

From all accounts, Paul Blair was just as classy and fun a guy off the field as he was on the field. On the field, he will be remembered for being one of the best defending center fielders ever who had some good offensive seasons and won four rings in six World Series played. He will always be remembered in Baltimore and rightly so. But he had his role with the Yankees and had some big moments and did some things he had never done before.

Rest in peace, Mr. Blair.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

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