The passing of Paul Blair on Thursday evoked a terrible oversight by the New York Mets organization at the earliest stage of their franchise. The Mets once envisioned a time when Blair would roam the outfield, hauling down long drives to the depths of what would be their new home in Flushing. So how did this budding franchise let one of the best center fielders of his era slip right through their fingertips?
Blair was signed by scout Babe Herman in 1961 from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles as an infielder for the princely sum of $2,000. His hometown Dodgers had passed on him, citing his small size after a tryout at the Coliseum.
“I was depressed about being rejected by the Dodgers,” Blair said to Robert Lipsyte in 1969, “and I would have signed with anyone; I just wanted to play major league ball.”
The Mets assigned Blair to their Class-C affiliate in Santa Barbara, under the watchful eye of Gene Lillard.
Author Mike Huber relayed in his SABR bio of Blair how Blair seized an opportunity on the first day of practice that started him on the road to becoming a Gold Glove caliber center fielder.
"The first day the coach told us to run out to our positions," Paul once told a reporter. "Well, seven players went to shortstop and six went to second but only one went to right. And I knew I could throw better than him and run better than him. So I ran out to right and played there. Then the center fielder got hurt and I moved to center."
While Blair’s .228 average and 147 strikeouts in 122 games didn’t set the world on fire, his 17 home runs and 20 outfield assists were enough for the Mets to give him a deeper look at their instructional winter league in Florida.
“I didn’t exactly have a bang-up year,” Blair said in a 1966 Associated Press article.
Given the time to further show off his tools, Blair started to turn heads with his skilled play.
“Everybody on the team said that he was going to be in the big leagues one year,” said fellow Mets farmhand and winter league teammate Larry Boerschig via telephone shortly after Blair’s passing. “He was one of the few of the bunch down there that you could see who had something a little extra.”
The Mets, who left him unprotected in the winter draft, realized they had a commodity on their hands more valuable than they initially thought. They tried to hide Blair by having him sit in the stands with a faux ankle injury.
“I didn’t play for two weeks. I was supposed to have a sprained ankle,” Blair said to the Associated Press. “The day of the draft I was supposed to have started playing.”
Despite the Mets last-minute efforts to stash away Blair’s talents, the Orioles swooped down upon on the young outfielder. Just as he was to have resumed playing, he entered the clubhouse to find out he no longer belonged to the team.
“I went to my locker and everything was packed up,” he said.
There was much speculation on the executive who didn’t see fit to protect Blair from being drafted. One source reported that Blair didn’t make the grade with Mets scout Eddie Stanky. The exact person in the organization remained a mystery to Blair; one that he had no desire to unravel.
“All I know,” Blair said to Bill Christine of the Pittsburgh Press in 1969, “is that somebody over there [New York] didn’t like me. Somebody thought I wasn’t good enough.”
It was tough at first for the 18-year-old to face the news that the Mets had given up on him so quickly, but he found solace knowing he was wanted by Baltimore.
“Sure, I was jolted,” he said to the Associated Press in 1969. “But I realized that somebody in the Baltimore organization had seen something they liked about me or they wouldn’t have been willing to invest their money in me.”
Blair made his major league debut with the Orioles on September 9, 1964, and the following season, he cemented himself as their center fielder for years to come. In all, Blair played in 17 major league seasons from 1964-1980, winning eight Gold Gloves, and four World Series titles, two as a member of the Orioles, and two as a member of the New York Yankees.
Blair had no qualms about how his career progressed from his start in the Mets system when queried by the Associated Press prior to the 1969 World Series, just before he was to square off against the organization that provided him his entry into professional baseball.
“I’ve never regretted the way things worked out,” he said. “Maybe I could’ve made more money playing in New York but then again, maybe they would have rushed me to the majors and I might not have had time to develop properly."