By Thom Loverro
When Paul Blair got called up to the big club in Baltimore in August 1964, he was staying in a hotel with a white teammate, Frank Peters, who had been called up the day before.
They went to dinner at a downtown restaurant, and Blair, who grew up in Los Angeles, found out quickly that Baltimore was a southern town.
"I went in with him, and man who owned it told me that I couldn't eat in there because I was black," Blair told me in an interview a few months back.
"The irony of it all after the 1966 World Series, after I hit a home run in the third game, the same guy comes up to me and wanted me to make an appearance in his restaurant," Blair said. "He was going to pay me to come and sign autographs. I said, no, if I can't eat in your restaurant, I'm not going to come there and sign autographs."
Blair -- the eight-time Gold Glove centerfielder who died of a heart attack on Thursday night at the age of 69 -- may have been turned away that night at a Baltimore restaurant. But he found a home in Charm City, in large part because he was part of one of the great baseball teams of the 20th century -- four American League pennants and two World Series titles from 1966 through 1971 -- and, more importantly, part of a team where, according to Blair, there was no color.
"Race was never an issue with that team," Blair told me. "There was absolutely no color. We were all brothers. We were all members of one family and that was the Baltimore Orioles, and that's all that mattered.
"We never had a problem like that, and Frank and Brooks get a lot of credit for that, especially Brooks," Blair said. "Here you had a guy from Arkansas that didn't have a prejudiced bone in his body. When your leaders are like that, the others have to follow."
Frank and Brooks Robinson couldn't have come from more opposite backgrounds. Brooks came from Little Rock, Ark., the battle line in civil rights movement, where the governor of the state called out the National Guard to surround Central High School to stop integration. Frank came from Oakland, Calif., which would be the birthplace of the Black Panthers. But the two superstar players set the tone in an Orioles clubhouse that belied the racial turmoil that was tearing the country apart, according to Blair.
"Frank and Brooks were close," Blair said. "The whole team was close. No color. Family. One goal, to win ball games and win championships. But we liked each other and treated each other as if we were all brothers."
Blair said when the Orioles faced the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1966 World Series, the experts expected the upstart American League club to go down easily in defeat.
"We got no respect going into that 1966 World Series," Blair said. "People were saying we would be swept, that we didn't have a chance of winning. We knew we were a good team, and we knew they were going to have a fight on their hands.
"I understood who Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were," Blair said. "I was from Los Angeles. I understood who the Dodgers were. But we thought we were just as good or even better, and if he played like we were capable of playing, we would win. We won the first game, Frank hits a home run and Brooks hits a home run behind him, and we felt right there that we were going to win this World Series."
Hank Bauer was the manager of that Orioles team, but he was fired in 1968 and replaced with a feisty minor league skipper named Earl Weaver. "I played for Earl in the minor leagues," Blair said. "We were the champions and I won the MVP in Elmira.
"I knew Earl and knew how he managed," Blair said. "The thing that Earl did, he was the type of guy who would take up the arguments with umpires because he didn't want us to get thrown out of the game. He knew the game, knew what buttons to push on every player."
He pushed the right buttons for the Orioles to reach the World Series in 1969 with a team that won 109 games. But they would be facing a team of destiny -- the Miracle Mets -- and lost in five games. "You don't get to the World Series if you're a bad team," Blair said. "They had great pitching. But every break that could go wrong for us did, and it went right for them. We all felt if we got it back to Baltimore, we would have won."
The Mets loss, Blair said, was still a wound he carried around years later. "We came to spring training in 1970 with a chip on our shoulders because of that 1969 World Series," he said. "I've still got a chip 44 years later. I still can't believe they beat us. The best team did not win. There is no question that we were a better team than they were. No question about it. We were a much better team than the Mets, but the fates of the baseball Gods shined on them in the World Series."
Blair and the Orioles turned things around in 1970, repeating as American League champions and returning to the World Series to face the Cincinnati Reds, in what became the Brooks Robinson show. The third baseman cemented his legacy as the identity of third base with his great glove work. He was named the series MVP, batting .429. The only player to have a better batting average for Baltimore in those five games? Blair, who hit .474.
"Brooks didn't do anything that was unusual for us because we've seen him make plays like that ever since I was there," Blair said. "He was the best third baseman that ever lived. The 1970 series was a showcase to the rest of the world how good Brooks Robinson was."
The Orioles won their third consecutive American League pennant in 1971, and went up against the Pittsburgh Pirates. This one they lost, in seven games -- a loss Blair said he could live with. "We played well, but we just didn't win that seventh and final game," he said. "That one I can accept, but I still cannot accept the 1969 World Series loss."
The loss to the Pirates would be the end of the run for that Orioles team. Frank Robinson was traded that winter to the Dodgers. Blair was traded six years later to the New York Yankees (he would be the outfielder Yankees manager Billy Martin sent out to replace Reggie Jackson in right field in 1977 when Martin thought Jackson loafed on a play). Blair was released by the Yankees in 1979, signed as a free agent with the Reds and then finished his career back with the Yankees in 1980.
After 17 major league seasons, Blair wound up with 1,513 hits, and hit 134 home runs, with 620 RBIs and a .250 average. His best year offensive season was 1969, when he slugged 26 home runs, drove in 76 runs, stole 20 bases and batted .285. He was never the same at the plate after he was beaned by California Angels pitcher Ken Tatum in 1970. But Blair made a living with his glove, and despite winning eight Gold Gloves -- seven in a row from 1969 to 1975 -- he was overshadowed on a team of stars like Brooks and Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and others on those standout Orioles teams.
Paul Blair was fine with that. "Recognition doesn't bother me," he said. "I appreciate the fact that I got to play 17 years in the big leagues. I understood what I did and it's fine with me."
Thom Loverro is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who has covered sports in the nation's capital for two decades. He also co-hosts a sports talk radio show on ESPN 980 in Washington and is the author of 11 books.