Classic Yankees: Johnny Blanchard

One day, I’ll put up a post on one of the retired numbers, a Martin “Classic Yankee”, Reggie, Mickey, Maris, heck, I’ve already done Dickey.

The point is, people know about Ruth, Gehrig, Joe D., Mickey, etc., several times over. Their stories have been told countless times.

One thing I like to do in these “Classic Yankees” bits is to spotlight the other players. Ones who may not have been great HOF stars or icons, but who in their own way are part of Yankees lore.

Some were All-Stars, although not Hall-of-Famers. Some may have only had a brief moment in the sun, but that brief moment (think of say, Brian Doyle in the 1978 WS) helped to win a title.

Johnny Blanchard fits that category.

Blanchard was a third-string catcher for the Yanks in the early 1960s. That’s third-string behind Elston Howard and Yogi Berra, meaning not much playing time. The lefty-swinging Blanchard could also play the OF, and he had enough power to be a dangerous pinch-hitter. Defensively, Blanchard wasn’t in the class of Ellie or Yogi.

Blanchard came to the Yankees in 1955, the same year as Elston Howard. While Howard got significant playing time, Blanchard got into just one game, going 0 for 3 with a walk.

He didn’t make it back to the Yankees until 1959.

In 1959, Blanchard made it back, playing LF, RF, C and 1B. He was just 10 for 59 (.169) with 2 HR and 4 RBI. Of his 49 games played, just 28 were in the field, which would be typical of his career. His OPS+ was a 53.

Blanchard got 99 AB in 1960, and hit .242-4-14, OPS+ 95. He had an excellent WS, going 5 for 11 in five games, with two doubles and 2 RBI. He got into 53 games, 28 in the field.

What people forget is this: it was Blanchard who was behind the plate when Mazeroski hit his WS-winning HR in Game 7. Yogi was in LF, the one watching the ball clear the wall at the 406 sign. Howard was HBP in the top of the second in Game 6, and the HBP forced Howard out of the rest of the WS. Blanchard replaced Howard at catcher, and went 3 for 4, the two doubles, and an RBI. He then went 1 for 4 with an RBI in Game Seven.

Blanchard had a year in 1961 that bench players dream of. He hit .305-21-54 in just 243 AB. His OPS+ was a 168. He played in 93 games, 48 at C, 15 in the OF, the rest strictly as a PH.

In fact, Blanchard holds the WS record for most pinch-hit AB with 10 (Wikipedia).

Blanchard was one of six Yankees to top 20 HR in that 1961 campaign (Maris 61, Mantle 54, Skowron 28, Berra 22, Howard and Blanchard 21 each) as the Yanks set a then-record with 240 HR. (No DH then, too!)

Blanchard’s great season off the bench was obviously overshadowed by the achievements of Maris, Mantle and Ford.

On July 21, 1961, Blanchard came up to bat in Fenway Park with the bases loaded, two out, and the Yanks trailing 8-7. Blanchard’s PH grand slam won the game.

The next day, in his next at bat, Blanchard came up in the top of the 9th, again at Fenway, again with two out, and homered to tie the game.

Blanchard then didn’t play for a couple of days. On July 26th, at Yankee Stadium against the White Sox, he got a start at catcher, batting fifth. In his first time up, in the bottom of the first, Blanchard followed a Mickey Mantle HR (Mickey’s 39th of the 54 he hit that year) with one of his own. That made it three consecutive at bats, three HR.

But Blanchard wasn’t finished. Blanchard led off the bottom of the fourth with yet another HR, marking four consecutive at bats with a HR. In the sixth, Blanchard came close to making it five consecutive at bats when he flied out deep to RF.

Despite being a bench player, Blanchard was intentionally walked nine times in 1961, which ranked him fourth in the league (and the trivia question is this: Maris was NEVER intentionally walked in 1961, despite the 61 HR, mostly because he had Mantle hitting behind him most of the time).

Blanchard was a very important player for the Yanks in the 1961 WS, one in which he hit 4 for 10 with a double, 2 HR and 3 RBI.

In Game 3 of that WS, the Yanks were trailing 2-1 heading into the top of the 8th. The Series was even, and the underdog Reds were about to take a two games to one edge over the Yanks. Blanchard’s PH HR tied the game, and a HR by Maris in the top of the 9th gave the Yanks a 3-2 victory.

For Game Five, the Yanks had a dilemma. Granted that they did have a three games to one lead in the Series, but Mantle was out. The Mick missed Games One and Two (he missed most of the last two weeks of the season) and gamely tried to play in Games Three and Four. But the wound from his operation (hip abscess after an infection from a shot; there are different reasons why he needed the shot, and it’s a long story) opened up and the Mick was done. Maris, who only went 2 for 19 in the 1961 WS, had to play CF. Ford twisted his ankle in Game Four, shortly after breaking Babe Ruth’s record for consecutive scoreless WS innings pitched, and probably couldn’t pitch Game Seven had the Series gone that far. Yogi Berra fell and injured his shoulder (that Crosley Field LF terrace). So for Game Five, the OF was Hector Lopez in LF, the slumping Maris in CF, and Blanchard in RF.

The subs, Blanchard and Lopez, came through. Blanchard hit cleanup, and went 3 for 4 with 2 RBI, including a HR. Lopez hit seventh, and was 2 for 4 with 5 RBI. In a year dominated by Maris, Mantle and Ford, it was the scrubs who won the game that gave the Yanks the 1961 World Series Championship.

Blanchard, save for 1961 and the .305 batting average, never hit much for average or was very good defensively. His ability lay in the fact that he was a lefty hitter who could pop one into the short porch at the Old Stadium. In 1962, Blanchard came down to earth from his unbelievable 1961 season by hitting .232-13-39, OPS+ 97. 93 games, 64 in the field. He had one at bat in the WS, and struck out.

In 1963, Blanchard hit just .225, but did have 16 HR and 45 RBI in 218 at bats. His OPS+ was a 112. The power was needed, since out of his 77 games played, 64 were in the OF. Mantle missed about 2/3 of the season with a broken foot and torn knee cartilage after running into a chain-link fence in Baltimore in early June. Maris missed about two months. Blanchard did have the low B.A., but at least he supplied some of the power that was missing when the M&M boys were out.

In the 1963 Series, Maris was injured in Game Two, and was then done for the Series. Blanchard started in RF in Game Three (vs. Drysdale, a game the Yanks lost 1-0) and went 0 for 3. He didn’t play in Game Four because he was a lefty bat, and that game was started by Koufax.

Blanchard was back to his normal playing style in 1964, getting in 77 games, 42 in the field. He hit .255-7-28, OPS+ 115. He was 1 for 4 in the WS with a double.

In the WS (1960-1964), Blanchard was 10 for 29 (.345) with four doubles, 2 HR and 5 RBI.

Blanchard was just 32 years old in 1965, but that season would prove to be his last. After 12 games with the Yanks, Blanchard was just 5 for 34, .147, 1 HR and 3 RBI. He was dealt to the KC A’s with P Rollie Sheldon for Doc Edwards (Catcher) in early May. The trade broke Blanchard’s heart. He hit .200-2-11 for the A’s in 120 at bats before being sold to the Milwaukee Braves (their last year in Milwaukee) for whom he was 1 for 10, a HR, and 2 RBI. For 1965, Blanchard hit .183-4-16, OPS+ 52.

Blanchard, who wore No. 38 in Pinstripes, never wanted to be anything but a Yankee. After the 1965 season, he retired with a career .239 average, 108 OPS+, 67 homers and 200 RBI’s.

He was a close friend of Mickey Mantle’s and served as one of the pallbearers at his funeral. He died at the age of 76 in 2009 from a heart attack.

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