Remembering Johnny Blanchard

johnnyblanchard_250.jpgFAREWELL, JOHNNY BLANCHARD
Johnny Blanchard had a tough road to the Major Leagues with the Yankees. Three things got in his way: Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and the United States government.

The lefty-swinging Blanchard turned pro as an 18 year old in 1951, and broke out the next year at Joplin, batting .301 and leading the league with 30 home runs and 112 RBI. It seemed like the Yankees had another potential impact player on their hands, but at that moment the military swooped in and claimed Blanchard for two years. These would be two crucial missed years in his development, as the Yankees were in the process of deciding if Blanchard was an outfielder or a catcher, and Blanchard could have used the time to cement his backstopping skills.

Instead, with the gap in training and the roadblocks that were Berra and Howard, Blanchard spent his time in the upper Minors both catching and playing the outfield — in the Majors he would prove to be a Casey Stengel-style super-sub, not only catching but playing first base, left field and right field as well. Though Stengel would only have Blanchard for parts of two seasons, and there was less room in Ralph Houk’s scheme for such players than there was in Stengel’s, the Old Man might have gotten Blanchard 400 plate appearances a year. Houk got him about 250, and it’s very difficult for a player to achieve any consistency in such sporadic playing time.

After his hitch, Blanchard picked up where he left off, at least offensively, batting .281 with a league-leading 34 home runs for Binghamton of the Eastern League in 1955. He got a brief call-up that September, but he seemed to stagnate a bit at that point. A return to what was essentially the Double A level at Birmingham didn’t do anything for his development, and a two-year stay at Denver in the American Association, while superficially productive, don’t impress given what we know about playing at altitude. The Yankees were seemingly not impressed either, or felt that with Berra and Howard there was simply no room, so Blanchard was 26 by the time he got a sustained shot at a Major League job. Even as Berra began to transition to part-time catching and outfield work, there weren’t many opportunities to play. Blanchard was set to have been baseball’s greatest power-hitting bullpen catcher.

This would be how he was remembered if he hadn’t had such a terrific season for the 1961 Yankees. He was an important part of that championship, a 109-53 ballclub, batting .305/.382/.613 and socking 21 home runs in just 243 at-bats. Everything went right for him. He killed the ball whenever he started, and though not a great pinch-hitter in his career, he was great that year, going 7-for-26 with four home runs. On July 21, 22 and 26 he set a record by homering in four consecutive at-bats — a ninth inning pinch-hit grand slam at Fenway Park that erased an 8-7 deficit, another ninth-inning shot the next day, this one a solo shot that tied the game at 9-9 (the Yankees would go up 11-10 later in the inning and win the game). Houk didn’t find a reason to use Blanchard in the next four games, but he started on the 26th at home against the White Sox and pitcher Ray Herbert. Blanchard batted fifth behind Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. After Mantle hit a two-run shot in the first, Blanchard followed him with a solo shot of his own. That was home run No. 3. The fourth game leading off the fourth inning. Not bad work for a part-time player.

Blanchard also had a terrific World Series in 1961. In Game 3 he pinch-hit for the pitcher in the top of the eighth with the Yankees trailing, 2-1. A solo shot changed that, allowing for a Maris shot leading off the top of the ninth to give the Yankees a decisive 3-2 lead. With Mantle hurting, Blanchard started Game 5 in right field, batting cleanup. The game was all Yankees, going into the books as a 13-5 victory. Blanchard keyed the rampage with a two-run homer in the first, and added two other hits in the ballgame.

You might imagine, and Blanchard might have imagined too, that ’61 would have meant more playing time, or at least more of a regular platoon role, but it didn’t work out that way. Howard and Berra were still around, and Houk didn’t see Blanchard as an asset behind the plate anyway, largely shifting him to the outfield in subsequent seasons. Simultaneously, the big home runs of ’61 worked against Blanchard’s approach at the plate. “I was going for the downs, swinging for the long ball,” he told Peter Golenbock. “I’m not up there to punch the ball around. No, I didn’t need that.” This did mean more home runs — he hit 29 in 464 at-bats split across 1962 and 1963, but it also meant that he hit only .228; a line drive might be caught or land safely, but a fly ball that doesn’t leave the park is almost always an out.

Blanchard’s approach also meant the end of his pinch-hitting prowess. Few players are consistent in that role, but Blanchard’s big swing seemed to ensure that he wouldn’t be one of the few who are. He batted .120 as a pinch-hitter in 1962, .071 in 1963, and .258 in 1964, albeit with just one home run. He barely played in the last three World Series of the Yankees dynasty. In May, 1965, he and pitcher Rollie Sheldon were dealt to the Kansas City Athletics for the punchless reserve catcher Doc Edwards. It was a pure giveaway, one that exemplifies just how emphasis was placed on batting average in those days; despite the low averages, inability to hit left-handers, and lack of definitive position, Blanchard’s power and versatility made him a very useful player, particularly at Yankee Stadium. Even as his career with the Yankees declined, he still had his moments. When Maris went out of the lineup in mid-1963, Blanchard got most of the starts in right field, batting .302/.357/.603 with six home runs and 17 RBI in 17 games.

His was not a great career, and on another team, it might not have been a particularly memorable one, but the great thing about the Yankees is that they’ve had so many spotlight moments that players like Blanchard, who never established themselves as stars in the traditional sense, were still able to become historic players through their important roles in the pageant of 26 championships. Blanchard goes to his reward in good company, and the Yankees were in good company with him.

Those of you who live in the glorious Garden State, tomorrow beginning at 6 p.m., Jay Jaffe, Cliff Corcoran and I will be appearing at the Rutgers University Bookstore (Ferren Mall,
One Penn Plaza, New Brunswick, N.J. — just across the street from the train station, for anyone who wants to take mass transit) to talk baseball and sign books and veal cutlets. We will also be joined by my pal Allen Barra, whose biography of Yogi Berra I have already recommended to you. He’ll be signing those too, I imagine. If I know Allen and myself it will be a fun, rambling evening of baseball talk. Hope to see you then, because after that I plan to wrap myself in blankets for awhile and heal up my annual tour cold — and write more! More! More! More! 



    When I was growing up, Johnny Blanchard was my 2nd favorite player on the Yankees. After all these, I can’t even remember why, but I’m sure his production during the 1961 season had something to do with it. I hate that I’m getting so old now that my heoes are passing on. I would like a do-over!

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