Friday, December 27, 2013

Mike Hegan, 1942-2013; Paul Blair, 1944-2013

Mike Hegan died on Christmas Day. Born on July 21, 1942, in Cleveland, the son of Indians catcher and Yankee pitching coach Jim Hegan, he reached the majors with the Yankees in 1964, and played in that year's World Series. After spending the '65 season in the minors, he was back up to the big club in '66 and '67, but was back in the minors in '68, and was left unprotected in the expansion draft.


He was taken by the Seattle Pilots, who became the Milwaukee Brewers after 1 season. He was the first All-Star in the franchise's history (after the preferred selection, 1st baseman Don Mincher, got hurt and couldn't play), and went to the Oakland Athletics, winning the World Series with them in 1972.

He came back to the Yankees the next year, and was the last batter in the last game at the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium. In 1974, he returned to Milwaukee, and closed his career in 1977.  From 1976 to 2007, he held the record for consecutive errorless games by a 1st baseman, finally broken by (believe it or not) Kevin Youkilis.

He then broadcast for the Brewers, and then for the Indians, until heart trouble forced him to retire.  He was 71 years old.

*

As I said, Hegan's last year in the majors was 1977.  That's the first season of which I have any real memory.  It was also Paul Blair's first season as a Yankee.  But he had already had a distinguished career in the Orange & Black of Baltimore before putting on the Pinstripes.


Born on February 1, 1944 in Cushing, Oklahoma, he grew up in Los Angeles, and, like Hegan, reached the majors in September 1964, as the Orioles, Yankees and Chicago White Sox were in a wild 3-way race for the American League Pennant. The Yanks ended up beating the ChiSox by just 1 game and the O's by 2.

But in 1966, the Orioles won the first World Championship by a Baltimore baseball team since 1896, and the first ever for that particular franchise -- its first Pennant since 1944, when they were the St. Louis Browns. Blair was the starting center fielder, and became one of the best in the business. In Game 3 of the '66 Series, he provided the game's only run with a home run off Claude Osteen of the defending World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Usually wearing Number 6, he is a member of the Orioles' team Hall of Fame.

Like Oriole shortstop Mark Belanger, the man known as Motormouth wasn't much of a hitter, but was a sensational fielder. Though he wasn't as bad as Belanger, and had his moments, leading the AL in triples in 1967 and in sacrifice hits in '69.

He won a Gold Glove in 1967, and then every year from 1969 to 1975. That O's team was loaded with good fielders: Belanger, 3rd baseman Brooks Robinson, 2nd baseman Dave Johnson (generally known as "Davey" by the time he became the Mets manager) and 1st baseman John "Boog" Powell became known as the Leather Curtain for their glovework. With Blair centering Don Buford in left field and Frank Robinson in right, the Baltimore defense usually gave manager Earl Weaver's fine pitchers the backup they needed, and the O's could usually find enough hitting to make the difference. Weaver used to say, "The Oriole way is pitching, defense and three-run homers" -- not just home runs, but with men on base, usually produced by the Robinsons and Powell.

The O's won the Pennant in '69, '70 and '71, and the AL Eastern Division in '73 and '74. Although they were shocked by the Mets in the '69 Series, and the Pittsburgh Pirates launched a great comeback against them in '71, they beat the Cincinnati Reds in '70.  Still, the O's weren't quite the juggernaut that the Yankees had been from the early 1920s to the mid-'60s, and they may not even have been as good as the A's they beat in the '71 AL Championship Series, but lost to in the '73 and '74 ALCS, led by Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter.

On January 20, 1977, the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as President, the O's traded Blair to the Yankees for Elliott Maddox and Rick Bladt. Blair was assigned Number 2, used the season before by Sandy Alomar Sr., and now, of course, identified mainly with Derek Jeter.

Yankee manager Billy Martin wasn't happy about owner George Steinbrenner and team president Gabe Paul forcing the signing of Reggie as a free agent onto him, and he frequently removed Reggie late in games, putting Blair in for defensive purposes.

Most notoriously, on June 18, Reggie misread a ball hit by Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox, at the time one of baseball's most powerful sluggers but also one of its slowest runners, and Reggie let Rice reach 2nd base. Billy sent Blair out to right field. Seeing the mound conference, Reggie walked over to the right-field wall, and started talking with backup catcher Fran Healy in the bullpen, when he saw Blair trotting out with his glove. "You comin' in for me? Why?" Reggie asked. Blair, not sure himself, told him, "Billy's the manager, go ask him." Then came the confrontation in the dugout.

The Yankees won the Pennant anyway, and in Game 1 of the World Series against the Dodgers, Billy again replaced Reggie with Blair for defense. Except the Dodgers tied the game up, and now the Yankees had to go into extra innings with Paul Blair as the cleanup hitter -- a man with a lifetime batting average of .250, OPS+ 96, 1,513 hits, and just 134 home runs. (He hit 26 in 1969, but never topped 18 again. To be fair, though, Baltimore's Memorial Stadium was a serious pitcher's park.)

Paul Blair as your cleanup hitter, instead of the Hall-of-Famer in the making, the man about to be nicknamed Mr. October? No problem: In the bottom of the 12th, Blair singled home Willie Randolph with the winning run: Yankees 4, Dodgers 3.

Blair would play in 4 games in that Series, and in all 10 of the Yankees' postseason games in 1978, for a total of 4 World Series rings -- one of 7 players ever to win 2 with the Yankees and 2 with another team. (The others are Babe Ruth, Herb Pennock, Johnny Hopp, Enos Slaughter, Reggie and Catfish.) He was released by the Yankees early in the 1979 season, played that year with the Reds, and was brought back to the Yankees briefly in 1980, now wearing 27, as 2 had been given to Bobby Murcer.

Blair coached in college, first as the head man at Fordham University in The Bronx, and later at Coppin State College back in Baltimore.  He retired to Owings Mills, Maryland, the town known to sports fans as the corporate headquarters and training camp of first the NFL's Colts, and now the Ravens. In the 2007 ESPN miniseries The Bronx Is Burning, he was played by Seth Gilliam -- probably due to Gilliam's having appeared in the Baltimore-based TV show The Wire. His son Paul III also played pro ball, although he didn't reach the majors.

He enjoyed bowling, and was doing so on Christmas Day, when he suffered a heart attack, and died yesterday. He was 69.

Of the 1977 Yankees, Blair was preceded in death by Catfish and Thurman Munson; of the 1978 Yankees, those 2, plus Jim Spencer and Paul Lindblad.

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