In this next piece on classic Yankees, we explore something different. What makes a Yankee a classic Yankee? Is it being a Yankee for his whole career? In the last piece, I explored Jimmy Key, who started in Toronto and ended in Baltimore. Why, Babe Ruth (a classic Yankee if there ever was one) started with the Boston Red Sox and ended with the Boston Braves. Is it being a star or a starter? Is it a classic moment, like the one Don Larsen had?
I won’t try to define that. Sometimes how the moment is seized makes a Yankee a classic Yankee. Here is an example.
In this segment, I profile a player who was past his prime when he became a Yankee. When he played for the Yankees, he didn’t hit much, and was a backup outfielder. He is best known for being an Oriole.
Paul Blair spent just over two years as a Yankee. From 1964 to 1976, the graceful CF was in Baltimore, where he made a heck of a mark. Just 22 in 1966, his HR in Game 3 of the World Series that year won that game 1-0. It helped the Orioles (the former St. Louis Browns) win the first World Championship for that franchise. The following year, Blair won the first of his eight Gold Gloves. He was the starting CF for the Orioles when they won pennants in 1969, 1970, and 1971, winning another World Series in 1970. He made the ALCS with Baltimore in 1973 and 1974.
In the very first ALCS game ever played, Game 1 of the 1969 ALCS, Blair’s squeeze bunt in the bottom of the twelfth scored Mark Belanger with the winning run as the Orioles beat the Twins, 4-3. It was gutsy, for there were two out when Blair laid down his bunt. The Twins manager could only shake his head in admiration, for it was “Billyball” at its best. The Twins manager that saw that play happen? Billy Martin.
In the early 1970’s, Blair was beaned by a Nolan Ryan fastball. As I recall Blair from his Yankee days, he “stepped in the bucket” a lot after that.
January 20, 1977, saw a change in the White House as Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as President. That day saw a different kind of change for the Yankees. On that day, the Yankees traded Elliott Maddox and Rick Bladt to Baltimore for Blair.
Now, the Yankees already had Mickey Rivers. Blair would turn 33 just a few weeks after the trade, but was coming off two consecutive seasons of hitting .218 and .197. However, it wasn’t Blair’s bat that the Yankees were looking for.
Rivers, for all his great speed, didn’t have a great arm. Neither did Roy White in LF. The Yankees’ newest acquisition, Reggie Jackson, wasn’t known for his defense, and Lou Piniella wasn’t known for it either. The Yankees were looking for someone who would be a defensive replacement in the outfield. Who better than someone with eight Gold Gloves?
In 1977, Blair was just that someone. A backup OF who had just 164 AB in 83 games. He hit a respectable .262, with 4 HR and 25 RBI. The OPS+ was just 90, but as you saw from his 1975 and 1976 seasons, Blair’s best days with the bat were behind him.
Remember what I wrote in the Jimmy Key article about getting players with postseason experience? Blair had that experience with two World Championship rings and four World Series appearances. That experience came in handy for the Yankees in 1977 and 1978.
You may have seen The Bronx is Burning, an account of the 1977 Yankee season. You may recall that when Billy Martin pulled Reggie from that game in Fenway in June, 1977 for loafing, that it was Blair who replaced Reggie in RF.
Well, in the fifth and final game of the 1977 ALCS (best-of-five, not best-of-seven back then) the starting RF wasn’t the high-priced, flashy acquisition of the year before, Reggie Jackson, but it was his backup, the defensive specialist, Paul Blair.
It was a controversial decision that had it backfired, would surely have cost Billy Martin his job. Benching your star? How do you bench your highest-paid player with the pennant on the line in a do or die game?
At that point in the series, Reggie was just 1 for 15. Not only that, his defense was always suspect, and Martin was concerned about that on the AstroTurf of KC. Before the game, Martin discussed his move with owner George Steinbrenner. Catfish Hunter strolled by, and the “Boss” asked Catfish if Reggie could hit the Royals’ starter that night, Paul Splittorff. Without breaking stride, Catfish said, “Not with a ****ing paddle.”
And so, in the most important game of the year, Paul Blair was the starting RF. Not Reggie Jackson.
In the 8th, the Yanks were down 3-1, one out, men on 1st and 3rd when Reggie Jackson pinch-hit for DH Cliff Johnson (Doug Bird had replaced Splittorff on the mound for KC). Reggie’s single cut the KC lead to 3-2.
Blair, who started the game batting eighth, led off the top of the 9th with the Yankees losing 3-2. The Yankees needed base runners. Blair, a backup OF, and one you didn’t expect to be starting this do-or-die game, singled. It sparked a three-run rally that put the Yankees into the 1977 World Series.
But Blair’s 1977 postseason heroics weren’t done yet. In the top of the 9th of game 1 of the 1977 World Series, Blair went to RF, replacing (ironically) Reggie Jackson for defensive purposes. The Yanks held a 3-2 lead, but the Dodgers tied it up. In the 10th, Blair was called upon to lay down a sacrifice bunt. I’m sure Yankee manager Billy Martin remembered the 1969 squeeze by Blair in Game 1 of that ALCS that beat him. But Blair could not get the bunt down properly and instead of a sacrifice, it was a force out at second. The game went on, into the twelfth.
In the twelfth, Willie Randolph doubled and Thurman Munson walked. Blair, in replacing Jackson, was now the cleanup hitter and with no outs and runners on 1st and 2nd, was once again called upon to bunt. Once again he failed, but this time, with two strikes and the bunt sign removed, he singled to win the game 4-3. It was the Yankees’ first World Series win since Game 6 of the 1964 World Series.
Blair had a very rough 1978 with the Yanks, hitting just .176 with 2 HR and 13 RBI. Would you believe that in the course of that year, that Blair wasn’t only a backup OF, but also saw time at 2B, SS and 3B?
But once again, in the postseason, Blair came through. Mickey Rivers was battling some injuries, and while Blair was hitless (0 for 6) in the ALCS vs. the Royals, he did go 3 for 8 in the World Series vs. the Dodgers.
Blair went 1 for 5 in two games for the 1979 Yankees before being released. He was picked up by the Cincinnati Reds and although his stick was even weaker (.152 overall in 1979), he did help the Reds into the postseason (Blair didn’t play for the Reds in the 1979 NLCS). In 1980, Blair finished his career with the Yankees, playing in twelve games and going 0 for 2.
Blair only hit .250 for his career. He is remembered as a defensive specialist, what with his eight Gold Gloves. His average 162 game season was .250-11-52 with 14 SB and an OPS+ of 96. The two-time All-Star got MVP consideration in four different seasons.
Was he special in his Yankees’ career? No. But in the course of just a few days in October, 1977, he was very special, for he helped win the deciding game of the 1977 ALCS as well as Game 1 of the 1977 World Series.
Sometimes, the star is someone you least expect, like Don Larsen in 1956, Brian Doyle in 1978, Luis Sojo in Game 5 of the 2000 World Series or Paul Blair in 1977.
Sometimes how the moment is seized makes a Yankee a classic Yankee. Carpe diem.