Grave Story: Johnny Blanchard (1933-2009)

Here lies Johnny Blanchard, a long-time backup outfielder and catcher and a World Series hero. He was one of the great pinch hitters of his era. Blanchard played for the New York Yankees (1955; 1959-65), Kansas City Athletics (1965) and Milwaukee Braves (1965).

Johnny Blanchard was born in Minneapolis on February 26, 1933. He attended Central High School, where he pitched and played third base, outfield and shortstop on the baseball team. He also hit over .350 for his sophomore through senior seasons. He graduated from Central High on June 14, 1951, and signed a three-year contract with the Yankees worth at least $50,000 on July 3. The Associated Press reported that 12 of the 16 MLB teams were interested in signing him.

Blanchard credited his half-brother, Don Squire, for training him. “When I was six years old, he bought be a tennis ball and a 10-cent bat, and we’d go over to the park and work together for hours,” Blanchard said. “Don would never would give up on me. He’d keep me going from dawn until dusk.”

Source: Rocky Mount Telegram, February 4, 1962.

Blanchard started off with the Kansas City Blues, which was a AAA team. He was over his head and knew it. He was eventually sent down to Binghamton so a kid named Mantle could take his spot. They’d end up becoming friends and occasional roommates. Blanchard played for three teams in the Yankees’ organization in 1951, including the brilliantly named Amsterdam Rugmakers of the Canadian-American League. He hit .208 in 53 games but brought his average up to over .300 with the Joplin Miners in 1952. His lefty swing was compared to Mantle in terms of power. Blanchard’s 30 homers that season were more than double anyone else on the team. The Yankees, unsure of where to play him, were trying to groom him as a catcher.

Blanchard spent the next two years in the armed forces, and he helped lead the 47th Infantry Regiment to the GI World Series championship. When he came back in 1955, he slammed 34 more homers for Binghamton. That was the second-highest total in the Eastern League’s history to that point. The Yankees gave him a one-game call to the majors for that performance. He started against Boston on September 25, 1955 and went 0-3 with a walk. He wouldn’t get back to the majors for another four years.

While Blanchard didn’t have much to prove with his bat, his fielding at catcher was suspect. It was understandable, given that he was learning an unfamiliar position. The Yankees also had veteran Yogi Berra and replacement Elston Howard at catcher, so there was no push to rush Blanchard to the majors. So, he stayed in the minor leagues, hit for good averages and decent power. Bill Dickey, the Yankees Hall of Fame backstop before Berra, worked with him.

“He’s a Yankee. He’s big, strong and can hit that long ball,” Dickey said. As far as his catching, he said, “Improving all the time. Needs work, lots of it.”

The Yankees must have decided Blanchard was ready in 1959, as he was brought to the majors for good. Ralph Houk, who replaced Casey Stengel as Yankees skipper, managed him in the minors and had faith in the converted catcher. Blanchard hit poorly in 49 games that year, with a .169 average and 2 homers, but he played the corner outfield spots, as well as catcher and first base, so that versatility may have bought himself some extra time. He responded in 1960 with a .242 average and .414 slugging percentage. He played the final two games of the World Series against the Pirates, when catcher Howard broke his finger on a pitch from Bob Friend. He whacked a couple of doubles in that game and singled in Game 7, which of course was won by the Pirates on a Bill Mazeroski home run. He hit .455 in the Series, with 2 doubles and 2 RBIs.

Blanchard’s best season came in 1961, when he slashed .305/.382/.613 in 93 games. He homered 21 times and drove in 54 runs. He homered in four consecutive at-bats, which was a record at the time. Two of those came in pinch-hitting appearances. Another one of his four pinch-hit homers in ’61 helped defeat his hometown Twins on June 5. “Sorry, I had to beat the Twins with it, but I needed that homer – first pinch-hit I got this season,” he said.

Thanks to injuries to Berra and Mantle, Blanchard saw plenty of action in the 1961 World Series against the Reds. He hit a pinch homer that tied Game 3, which the Yankees went on to win 3-2. He also blasted a 2-run home run that led off the scoring in a 13-5 rout in Game 5, which clinched the Series for New York.

“It was a slider,” he said of the Joey Jay pitch he put in the bleachers. “I don’t know how good it was. I can’t tell you how great it feels to be world champions.”

Blanchard and the Yankees won another World Series in 1962 over the Giants. Blanchard struck out in his only appearance in the Series. He appeared briefly in the Yankees’ World Series losses in 1963 (to the Dodgers) and ’64 (to the Cardinals) with no hits. He was struggling during the regular season as well. He hit 13 homers in 1963 and 16 the following season, but his batting average dropped into the .220s and .230s. He surged back in 1964 by hitting .255 with 7 home runs and 28 RBIs. He still had value as a “super sub.” Whenever Mantle or Roger Maris was injured, Blanchard would step in and club a few long balls until the regular sluggers were healthy again.

“This is what makes this team so great,” Maris said while recovering from what the newspapers called a “mild rectal operation.” “It’s not a one-man or two-man team. It’s a team of a lot of fine guys – like Blanchard. So Mickey and I have been out of the line-up. What difference does it make? Old Blanchard is hitting better than either of us.”

Johnny Blanchard as a member of the Atlanta Braves. He never actually played with the team, though. Source: The Atlanta Constitution, March 18, 1968.

Blanchard got off to the slow start in New York in 1965. After a .147 average in 12 games, he was traded to Kansas City for Doc Edwards on May 3. He broke down sobbing in the Yankees locker room when he heard the news. He hit an even .200 with 2 home runs in 52 games with the A’s before he was on the move again. The Braves purchased his contract in September in an attempt to stay in the pennant race. He appeared in just 10 games and went 1-for-10, with his sole hit being a pinch-hit home run off the Giants. All total, he hit .183 with his three teams.

Blanchard had long wanted to play for the Twins and tried to get the Braves, now playing in Atlanta, to trade him. When no deal materialized, he retired to tend to his liquor store business in Golden Valley, Minn. (The store’s phone number spelled out Y-A-N-K-E-E-S.) He considered a comeback in 1967 but decided against it in the end, stating that he’d lose money moving his family to the Braves’ training camp. He changed his mind in 1968, though, and spent Spring Training with the Braves in West Palm Beach as a 35-year-old who had been out of baseball for two years. He said he’d turned his life around, which included giving up drinking, for another chance.

“I feel I still have a year or two left. I was kidding myself about being out. I missed it too much,” Blanchard said. He hoped that a comeback could lead to a coaching job or an executive role in the game, but it was not to be. The Braves cut him after about a month.

In his 8-year career, Blanchard slashed .239/.317/.441, with 285 hits in 516 games. He recorded 200 RBIs and 137 runs and homered 67 times. Of those home runs, 7 came as a pinch-hitter. He had the best luck against Milt Pappas, knocking 5 of his pitches out of the park. He also had a .345 batting average in five World Series, with 4 doubles, 2 homers and 5 RBIs.

Back in Minneapolis, Blanchard worked as a television sports broadcaster in between comeback attempts. He sold the liquor store in Golden Valley and worked in hotel-motel promotions, as well as sporting goods sales, printing and railroad equipment sales. Blanchard never did get a job in the MLB, and he feared that his reputation as a heavy drinker during his playing days was held against him. He went to rehab to quit drinking in the mid-1970s, though. He managed the Hamel Hawks, a local team that featured two of his sons, pitcher Tim and catcher Paul, in the early 1980s.

“I’m happiest with baseball,” he said, “but I’m 0-for-90 in trying to get back into the game at the professional level.”

Blanchard was one of the last people who visited Mantle before his death in 1995, along with Moose Skowron and Hank Bauer. The two had been friends since Mantle bumped him from the Kansas City roster in 1951, and Blanchard sometimes worked as a coach at Mantle’s fantasy camps. Blanchard related that the former Yankees reminisced about the old days, but Mantle kept dozing off.

“The poor guy, with the drugs they were putting in him, he could not keep his eyes open,” Blanchard said. “He was worried we would miss our planes. Can you imagine him worrying about us when he’s in the shape he was in? We stayed for about four hours.”

Johnny Blanchard died in Robbinsdale, Minn., on March 25, 2009, from a heart attack. He was 76 years old. He is buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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