In 1961, the newly minted expansion New York Mets started signing eligible players, before the MLB team had ever taken the field. Among the first signees was 18 year old outfielder Paul Blair, signed for a $2000 dollar bonus right out of high school by west coast scout Babe Herman. Herman, by the way, had been a hard-hitting outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Blair would go on to a very successful MLB career… but not for the Mets.
The culprit was an MLB program, the first year draft, that was in effect in one form or another from 1959-1964. It only applied to minor leaguers who had completed their first year in organized baseball. Each team was allowed to protect one first year player. But the rest of the first year players were vulnerable to being claimed in the draft for $8,000.00. Teams could protect other first year players by putting them on the 25 man roster, but they would have to stay there all season, they could not be optioned with the exception, of course, of the one protected man.
The Mets assigned Blair to Santa Barbara of the Class C California League for the last part of the 1961 season. He was overmatched there, producing a slash line of .228/.317/.391. He did go to the Florida Instructional league that fall, and apparently played much better there. He caught the eye of an Oriole scout and they claimed Blair from the Mets.
Blair went on to have a great career, mostly with Baltimore. The speedy center fielder with great instincts and a strong arm went on to win eight gold gloves at that premium position. Note that all Met outfielders combined have won a total of five gold gloves since the team started in 1962.
Blair played for the fine Oriole teams of the mid 60s to the mid 70s, including the World Series winning 1970 team, and the ‘69 team that lost to the Mets. One of his best years was 1967, with a slash line of .293/.353/.446. That line was put up right in the so called modern dead ball era with the enlarged strike zone and elevated mound that reduced offensive numbers across the board.
The first year draft had been implemented by MLB to hold down the big bonuses that were being paid to amateur free agents. If a big budget team signed two players to $100,000 bonuses, they would likely lose the unprotected one or else keep the youngster on the team all year. Some pretty good players were claimed due to the rule, future stars Glenn Beckert, Lou Piniella and Jim Wynn were all claimed in the same year that Blair was.
It seem especially punitive that expansion teams like the Mets were subject to this draft rule. They had started from nothing, and seemingly were penalized for being diligent in scouting and signing players. The owners relented and allowed the four expansion teams, the Mets, Houston, Angels and Senators to protect four first year players. However that rule was enacted in December of 1963, after Blair had been grabbed by the Orioles.
It would have been nice for the Mets to have had an outfield of Blair, flanked by Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee, for many years. If the Mets had managed to keep Blair, there might have been a different outcome to the 1973 World Series. The A’s beat the Mets, four games to three, with two of the Met losses being by one run. Don Hahn played center for the Mets in that series, and it could have been a different outcome with Blair in the outfield.