SABR

Johnny Blanchard

This article was written by George Rekela.

In 1949 Bantam Books published Joe DiMaggio’s autobiography Lucky To Be a Yankee.  It could be the title of Johnny Blanchard’s life story as well. “I was so lucky to have been a member of the best New York Yankee team ever,” Blanchard says, referring to the 1961 Bronx Bombers. “With any other organization, I probably would have made the majors faster [he was signed by New York in 1951], and I might have had a longer career, but I wouldn’t trade my days with the Yankees for anything.  I was truly blessed in that regard.”

With the Yankees, Johnny Blanchard played baseball on a national stage.  The Yankees drew coast-to-coast television coverage and were World Series participants in all but one of John’s years in New York.  Blanchard was the catcher in the historic seventh game of the 1960 World Series, a contest considered by many to have been the greatest game ever played. 

It was a single by Blanchard in the top of the 8th inning that drove in left-fielder Yogi Berra and gave New York what appeared to be a commanding 7-4 lead.  Pittsburgh, however, roared back with five runs, topped by Hal Smith’s three-run homer off Jim Coates.  In the ninth, the Yankees tied the score, setting up the confrontation between New York reliever Ralph Terry and leadoff-hitter Bill Mazeroski.  As his pitcher warmed up, Blanchard noticed that Terry was having trouble adjusting to the height of the mound at Forbes Field.  Terry’s warm-up throws were coming in too high. 

“I knew Mazeroski from the minors,” Blanchard said.  “He liked to hit pitches high in the zone.” 

As Mazeroski stepped in, Blanchard signaled for a fastball and crouched low behind the plate.  Terry shook him off and threw a slider shoulder-high.  Mazeroski took the pitch for a ball. 

“I should have called for [pitching coach] Eddie Lopat to come in after that first pitch and talk to Terry.  Ralph’s slider was not working.” 

Instead, Blanchard called for another fastball, and, again, Terry shook him off.  John set another low target, one less than a foot off the ground.  Terry’s slider came in high, and Mazeroski crushed it.  The ball sailed over Berra’s head for a home run, and the Pirates were world champions. 

Blanchard still has nightmares about that game.  “You can’t imagine,” he says, “how many times I have gone through every pitch in my mind, and I still can’t explain to people how we lost not only that game but the other three in that series.”  Blanchard batted .455 in that World Series (his first). 

John Edwin Blanchard was born in Minneapolis on February 26, 1933.  He recalls that, at the age of six, he and his half-brother, Don, 10 years his senior, spent hours together playing catch.  “When John was an 11-year-old grade schooler,” wrote Dick Gordon in Baseball Digest, “he broke 16 windows one summer on homers that sailed out of his municipal playground and into an apartment house.” What did John and his friends do after smashing a window?  “We would all take off running.” 

John eventually enrolled at DeLaSalle High School, a private school on Nicollet Island, surrounded by the Mississippi River and across from downtown Minneapolis.  By this time, his love of sports had expanded to football and basketball.  During his time at DeLaSalle, the football team won a share of the state Catholic high school title. 

But parochial school was not for young John.  “Too much homework,” he says.  He asked his parents if he could transfer to his home school district and Central High School (Blanchard was born and grew up in a house at East 25th Street and Fourth Avenue in south Minneapolis, an area that is now Interstate 35W).  They consented, and Blanchard went on to fame there, excelling in basketball, football, and, of course, baseball.  As a sophomore, he and his Central team advanced all the way to the Minnesota High School Basketball Tournament as the representative from the always-tough Region Five, which then encompassed Minneapolis and communities as far west as 100 miles from the Twin Cities.

In John’s sophomore year the basketball team lost in the state semi-finals to eventual state champion St. Paul Humboldt.  They weren’t as fortunate during John’s junior and senior seasons. 

Squads featuring Blanchard won Minneapolis city championships in basketball, football, and baseball.  He was an all-conference selection in all three sports. “Blanchard may have been the best three-sport athlete to ever come out of Minneapolis,” says high-school sports historian Dana X. Marshall. 

While at Central, Blanchard caught the attention of a local birddog for the Carroll, Iowa, semipro baseball team in the Iowa State League.  He agreed to spend the summer playing for the Carroll team for $265 a month.  Since Blanchard was an amateur, he was hired to work as a groundskeeper for the team to earn the salary.  When asked how much actual groundskeeping he performed, Blanchard says with a wink, “I’ll never tell.” 

When he wasn’t toiling as a groundskeeper in Iowa, Blanchard played baseball and was successful enough to attract the attention of big-league scouts.  He played outfield, third base, and shortstop and even pitched a few games.  Led by Blanchard, Carroll won the state championship. 

According to Jim Byrne of the Minneapolis Star, most scouts saw John as a third baseman or outfielder, but he had other options.  John’s prowess on the basketball court caught the attention of head coach Ozzie Cowles, who offered John what amounted to a full ride at the University of Minnesota. 

Major-league baseball scouts had been following young Blanchard since his days in Carroll.  The pressure increased during his senior year at Central. Although 12 of the 16 major-leagues teams scouted him, the Yankees, Tigers, and White Sox showed the most interest. New York scout Joe McDermott captured Johnny’s signature.  Earlier, McDermott had signed both Bill Skowron and Bob Cerv to Yankees contracts.  Although Byrne wrote that the Yankees had signed Blanchard for a lump sum of more than $50,000, Blanchard says, “It was $30,000 with a guarantee of $5,000 per year for the following five years.”  Nevertheless, Byrne called it the “highest bonus ever paid a Twin Cities baseball player.” 

The Yankees, showing considerable confidence in him, assigned Blanchard to their top farm club, the Kansas City Blues.  John wasn’t sure he was ready for Kansas City but said he’d give it his best effort. 

On July 4, 1951, Blanchard boarded a 10:00 a.m. Mid-Continent Airlines flight out of Minneapolis, bound for Kansas City and a career in professional baseball.  He arrived in Kansas City in time to pinch-hit in the first game of a doubleheader.  He singled.  According to The Sporting News of July 18, 1951, Blanchard started the second game of the twin bill and hit safely in seven of his first eight games, producing a .375 batting average. 

The July 25 issue of The Sporting News reported that the Yankees had sent their slump-ridden rookie phenom, Mickey Mantle, to Kansas City.  Kansas City sportswriter Ernest Mehl noted that the Blues had a surplus of outfielders, and one would have to go.  Blanchard, Mehl thought, was the most vulnerable and speculated that he “could use regular work in [sic] one of the smaller clubs in the [Yankees] system.” 

Mehl proved to be a prophet as Kansas City shipped Blanchard off to the Binghamton (New York) Triplets of the Eastern League.  Johnny expected the demotion.  

Things didn’t go as well as Blanchard hoped at Binghamton. Collecting only five hits in his first 45 at-bats, he was mired in a 0-for-29 stretch before hitting a double to break the slump.  However, in trying to stretch the hit into a triple, he passed a runner on the bases and was declared out.  It was a long walk back to the first-base dugout.  The stress of his time in Binghamton gave John an ulcer. 

With Binghamton Blanchard batted only .183 with seven runs batted in (RBIs) in 30 games. His stomach problem likely improved in the offseason with the news that he had been selected to participate in the third annual Casey Stengel Preliminary Camp, held in Lake Wales, Florida.  However, Stengel soon began to see Blanchard as a man without a position.  Then Bill Dickey, Yankees coach and Hall of Fame catcher, had an idea: He would transform Blanchard into a catcher.  [Note: Blanchard also played nine games with Amsterdam (New York) in the Canadian-American League in 1951; some statistical sources indicate that he did some catching with Amsterdam, so it is possible that the conversion to catcher actually began during, not after, the season.]

“The Yankees always needed catchers,” Blanchard said, “especially in spring-training situations to work with their young pitchers.”  Of course, New York also had Yogi Berra behind the plate, and the team knew he was destined to start there for a long time.  Nevertheless, Blanchard took on the duty, figuring it was his best chance to make the majors even if it was as Berra’s backup. Dan Daniel, writing in The Sporting News, reported that Blanchard “drew high praise” from Dickey that spring.  According to John, “[Dickey] really put me through the mill” with endless drills on fundamentals. 

The Yankees’ organization proved it was serious in the conversion of Blanchard to catcher in 1952 when he was assigned to Joplin (Missouri) of the Class C Western Association.  This was to be a learning experience for the youngster.  Joplin’s manager was Vern Hoscheit, who also served as the team’s backup catcher and Blanchard’s potential tutor.   

The Joplin experience was taxing for Blanchard as he led all of Organized Baseball in passed balls with 35.  He participated in 123 games, 119 of them behind the plate.  It was at the bat, however, that he shined, leading the Western Association with 30 home runs and 112 RBIs.  He also led the league in total bases with 257, while batting .301, and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. 

Then the bottom dropped out.  John was drafted into the U.S. Army, a two-year commitment that he says slowed his development as a ballplayer. Blanchard knew he was in trouble at basic training in Fort Roberts, California, in 1953, when the company commander announced to the assembled trainees that he had no love for professional athletes.  And he knew Blanchard was a ballplayer. 

Blanchard eventually was shipped out to Neu-Ulm in Bavaria, Germany, where he was allowed to play ball in 1954 with the U.S. Army 47th Regiment team, the Raiders.  The team played a split-season and lost the first half to an Army squad led by future major-leaguer John Roseboro.  In the second half, the Raiders defeated Roseboro’s team in the standings, then whipped them in the playoffs.  The team went on to defeat the VII Corps Jayhawks for the U.S. Army in Europe championship. 

“The guys and I were supposed to be shipped to Colorado for the All-Army Tournament there,” Blanchard remembers.  “But it never happened.  Our team wasn’t entered in the tournament.” 

His service obligation completed, Blanchard returned from Germany on a cruise ship, ready to report to the Yankees’ advance school.  Among the 32 other players at the 1955 camp were Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, Johnny Kucks, Whitey Herzog, and Mickey Mantle’s brothers Roy and Ray. 

After spring training, the Yankees shipped Blanchard out to Denver, which had replaced Kansas City in the American Association following the relocation of the American League Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City. However, John’s stay with the Denver Bears was a short one in 1955 as he participated in only four games before being shipped back to Binghamton. 

Former Yankees star George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss was the manager at Binghamton, and he thought Blanchard had developed some bad habits playing service ball.  “Stirnweiss was on my back day and night,” Blanchard told Phil Pepe in a Sport magazine article.  “He’d stand behind me while I caught batting practice, and, if I didn’t move fast enough for a pitch, he’d crack me on the ankle with a fungo bat.  He told me what a wonderful opportunity any fellow has to stick in baseball if he can be a catcher.” 

It wasn’t all bad, however.  The Sporting News on May 25 reported, “Three Triplets Johnny Blanchard, Sam Suplizio, and Bob Meisner belted homers in a come-from-behind win over Wilkes-Barre before 8,271 home fans.”  The trio’s home runs that night increased their total to 31 in 33 games.   

Blanchard went on to catch 125 games for Binghamton in 1955.  At the plate, he drove in 111 runs and led the league with 34 home runs.  Behind the plate, he threw so hard he eventually suffered a torn rotator cuff.

“After our last game,” Blanchard told Brian Stensaas of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “I was at a pizza parlor with the ball club.  The phone rang, and this guy says, ‘John, this is George Weiss.  I want you in New York tomorrow morning.’  I hung up.  I thought it was a prank call.  The phone rings again, and all I hear is ‘Don’t you ever hang up on me again!’  I knew it was real then.  I drove to the Bronx.” 

General manager Weiss had decided New York could use all the help it could get in its battle with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox for the 1955 American League pennant.  The Yankees had recalled Richardson and pitcher Jim Konstanty from the minors, and manager Stengel announced to The Sporting News that “no more additions” would be made to the team.  It was a considerable surprise, then, for the crusty old manager to learn that Weiss had brought up Blanchard.  He was reminded that a third catcher backing up Berra and Howard would be advantageous, especially since Stengel, The Sporting News pointed out, was “forced to make a catcher out of Hank Bauer in the final meeting with the White Sox.” 

Blanchard had only three at-bats in his major-league debut season of 1955 and didn’t return until the 1959 season.  However, when he first arrived at Yankee Stadium, clubhouse manager Pete Sheehy issued him uniform No. 38.  Sheehy must have figured Blanchard would be coming back because he didn’t issue the number to anyone else in 1956, 1957, or 1958. 

Blanchard played winter ball in the Dominican Republic for manager Joe Schultz.  Once again, the arm problem flared up.  Blanchard was given a shot of what turned out to be 97 percent cortisone and three percent Novocain.  “All of a sudden I had a new arm,” he says. 

In the offseason, Stengel reminded Dan Daniel of The Sporting News that Blanchard “was Bill Dickey’s choice for Berra’s successor” but noted that Elston Howard, Charley Silvera, and Lou Berberet ranked ahead of the Minneapolis native.  Casey had a special fondness for Howard.  “He can do three things well—catch, pinch-hit, and play the outfield,” Stengel said.  The Yankees kept Howard and Silvera and shipped Blanchard to Birmingham of the Southern Association. 

The 1956 season in the South was not particularly pleasant for Blanchard although he wound up with solid numbers (.270 batting average, 17 home runs, and a spot on the Southern Association All-Star team).  First, there was another medical problem (hemorrhoids) in May.  After recovering from what The Sporting News referred to as “a minor operation,” Blanchard “came off the bench to hit a pinch-homer in the 12th inning May 18 to spark Birmingham to a 5-3 win over Memphis.”  

Later in the year, his rotator cuff problem returned.  Blanchard says he should have sat out a year, but he played winter ball in Puerto Rico under Ralph Houk. Once again, the cortisone worked wonders. 

Spring training came and went in Florida in 1957 with Blanchard one of the final Yankees cuts.  This time, he was dispatched to Denver. Fortunately for Blanchard, Ralph Houk was serving as manager. 

“Houk could give you the impression that he was a very hard-boiled guy,” Blanchard said, “but he knew how to communicate with all of his players from part-timers to front-line players.”  Under Houk at Denver, Blanchard had one of his best minor-league seasons, batting .310 with 18 home runs and 86 RBIs.  He made the All-Star team, and the Bears won the American Association playoff championship and then the Junior World Series.  Perhaps Blanchard’s biggest thrill came on June 23, 1957, when Ryne Duren pitched a no-hitter at Bears (later Mile High) Stadium, a remarkable feat because of the high altitude and low humidity of Denver.  Blanchard was Duren’s catcher that night.  The two have remained close friends. 

After his stellar year at Denver, Blanchard was certain that the Yankees would promote him to the big-league roster.  He had won the James E. Dawson Memorial Award, presented annually by the Yankees to the most outstanding rookie in camp.  “I felt I had a good chance to stick,” Blanchard told Murray Olderman in The Sporting News. He even got as far as Yankee Stadium on Opening Day—only to be handed a plane ticket to Indianapolis to catch up with his Denver team. The Yankees reportedly received trade offers from other major-league teams for Blanchard, but the organization chose to ignore them. 

With Denver in 1958, John continued his steady play.  He increased his RBI total to 96 while hitting 19 home runs and batting .291.  He also caught 141 games for the Bears.  “I’ll always be a crude catcher,” he told Olderman.  “I can only get so good.  Maybe I catch one-handed too much.” 

The Yankees in spring training in 1959 knew they either had to keep Blanchard on their active roster or release him.  “I was out of options,” he remembers. 

If there was no room for him, with Berra and Howard ahead of him, Blanchard would become “another Charlie Silvera.”  Silvera, who toiled for the Yankees from 1948 through 1956, was known as “Yogi’s caddy.”  He never played in more than 58 games and had only 429 at-bats in his entire Yankees career.  

In 1959, Stengel used Blanchard in the same sparing manner as he had Silvera.  If he was going to get any playing time, Blanchard realized, he had to find another position.  He hoped to get playing time at first base or in the outfield and offered to shag flies in the outfield during practice.  His attempts to get Stengel’s attention worked, and he was occasionally used as an outfielder in 1959. 

“In June [3] of that year,” he says, “we were playing the Tigers at night at Briggs Stadium, and the old man [Stengel] starts me in right field.  There was a big crowd, more than 40,000.  Things went okay for me in the field.  I caught three balls.  Frank Lary was pitching for Detroit.  They called him the ‘Yankee Killer.’  [Leading off] the third inning, I hit my first major-league home run.  Not many Yankees can say that they hit their first homer off Frank Lary.  And, yeah, we won the game 6-5.”  

It was a rare moment of triumph for Blanchard that year.  It also was a disappointing year for the team.  The Yankees had won the American League pennant every year except 1954 between 1949 and 1958.  New York finished third in 1959 with 79 wins and 75 losses. Yankees fans were stunned.  Many said Stengel had lost his touch.  As for Blanchard, he participated in a dozen games behind the plate, eight in the outfield, and one at first base.  Some days it appeared to him that Casey had forgotten he was on the team.  He batted only .169.  The home run he hit off Lary on June 3 was the first of only two he hit that year. 

In 1960, just when Blanchard believed he had no chance, Berra and Howard were injured, and Stengel landed in the hospital.  Temporary manager Ralph Houk was quick to use him.   

Houk had been a catcher himself, and he saw things in Blanchard that Stengel didn’t see.  “Houk told me that a catcher was like a second manager, always trying to stay one step ahead of the batter and base runner,” Blanchard told Dick Gordon. 

“[Stengel] just didn’t like me,” Blanchard told Phil Pepe.  “He didn’t give me a chance.  I think he didn’t know I was around.  He never gave me the time of day.”  After Stengel and Houk had discussed Blanchard’s status with the team, Blanchard caught both ends of a doubleheader the next day (August 2, 1960). 

The first game went 14 innings.  Blanchard batted eighth in the lineup behind Clete Boyer.  In the sixth, he homered off the Yankee Stadium right-field foul pole to tie the game 1-1.  He singled in the seventh as New York took the lead at 2-1.  The Tigers tied the game in the ninth when Al Kaline singled in Frank Bolling.  The Yankees failed to score, and the contest into extra innings.  Then, in the 14th, Blanchard singled to left, sending in Gil McDougald with the winning run.  The second game, which the Yankees also won 3-2, went 10 innings, with Blanchard behind the plate for the duration—24 innings in one day. 

The relationship between Blanchard and Stengel was strained. Casey was now 70 and no longer as sharp as he’d been, but he had enough talent on the Yankees to win, even without direction, and (most important) had the support and adoration of the New York media, who quoted his ramblings and malapropisms as if they had come from the mouth of God.  During a ballgame, he might doze off, even snore.  “We were playing the White Sox at Comiskey Park [September 7, 1960], and the old man is nodding off in the dugout.  We’re behind in the eighth inning and the situation calls for a pinch hitter, but Casey is asleep.  Someone shook him, and he shouted, ‘Get Blanchard.’ I got up there with Moose Skowron and Yogi on base and doubled them both in.  We won 6-4.” 

After the game Blanchard and shortstop Tony Kubek were walking side-by-side, trailing Stengel by a good distance, as the team advanced up the ramp leading to the dressing room.  They overheard Stengel say, “Anyone can manage this team!”   

Without hesitation, Kubek yelled, “That’s right Casey!  Anyone can do it!”  The gnarled old manager halted and turned around to look at who spoke.  “I stopped in my tracks and glared at Kubek,” Blanchard recalls.  “I’m sure the old man thought I’d said it, not Tony.” 

Blanchard also had little use for general manager George Weiss.  “In 10 years, I never got the idea he [Weiss] knew who I was.  If they stuck a pencil in my hand, I could have been just a reporter to him.” 

Houk was named to replace Stengel after the 1960 World Series, and Blanchard felt like a man released from prison. Houk produced excellent results in 1961 by using Blanchard in 93 Yankees games as a catcher, outfielder, or pinch-hitter. 

On June 15, his pinch-single in the 11th inning against Cleveland drove in the winning run, giving the win to Terry.  Eleven days later, Blanchard pinch-hit with a runner on in the eighth inning and homered to tie the score against the expansion Los Angeles Angels.  New York won it in the ninth inning. 

On July 21, Mickey Mantle and Minnesota-born Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs in the first inning for the Yankees against Boston at Fenway Park, but it took a two-out, ninth-inning, pinch-hit grand-slam home run by Blanchard to win the game 11-8.

The next day Blanchard pinch-hit a solo shot in a three-run ninth inning to beat the Red Sox again. He sat out the third game in Fenway (July 23) and the doubleheader against the White Sox in Yankee Stadium on the 25th.   Blanchard homered in his first two at-bats against the White Sox at Yankee Stadium July 26.  Over five days he’d homered in four consecutive at-bats and just missed a fifth when he drove Floyd Robinson back to the wall. 

On September 29, Blanchard singled and homered to drive in both runs in a 2-1 victory over Boston.  The home run was Blanchard’s 21st and last of the season. New York finished the season with 109 wins and 53 losses.  Second-place Detroit finished eight games behind.  “That Yankee team was the best in baseball history,” Blanchard.  “I have no respect for anyone that says it wasn’t.” 

Blanchard helped set a record in 1961 for most home runs by six teammates in a single season.  Roger Maris (61), Mickey Mantle (54), Bill Skowron (28), Yogi Berra (22), Elston Howard (21), and Johnny Blanchard (21) combined for 207 home runs. 

New York’s opponent in the 1961 World Series was the Cincinnati Reds, surprise winners of the National League pennant.  The Reds won the pennant by four games over Los Angeles and featured a strong pitching staff and an outfield led by National League Most Valuable Player Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson.  The teams split the first two games at Yankee Stadium, Whitey Ford pitching a shutout in the opener and Joey Jay taking Game Two for the Reds.  

In Game Three at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Blanchard’s pinch-hit home run tied the game in the eighth inning, and Maris’s ninth-inning homer off Bob Purkey proved to be the difference in a 3-2 win for Arroyo.  Behind Ford, New York waltzed to a 7-0 win in the fourth game. 

The fifth game took place on October 9 in Cincinnati.  Mantle and Berra had been scratched from the lineup with injuries, but the news eluded Blanchard, who was going through his warm-up routine.  Told that the lineup Houk posted not only had him in it but batting cleanup as well, Blanchard had one reaction:  “Damn near a good case of diarrhea.”  He had never batted cleanup as a Yankee, but he didn’t have time to worry about his nervous stomach, smashing a two-run home run in the five-run New York first inning that all but sealed Cincinnati’s fate.  He also contributed a double and a single in the Yankees’ 13-5 victory. 

The 1961 season was Blanchard’s best.  He batted .310 with a .613 slugging average.  He hit four pinch-home runs and homered once for every 11.5 times at bat (Maris, who broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record that year, had one in every 9.7 at-bats). 

Blanchard hoped to get into 100 games in 1962, a mark he’d never reached in the majors, but it didn’t happen.  At age 29, he was beginning to slip.  He did have some good days in the 1962 season, one that resulted in another World Series championship for the Yankees.  On a snowy April 19 at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Blanchard, batting fifth behind Maris and Mantle, singled in the first inning to give the Yanks the lead.  In his next at-bat, he homered, driving in Mantle and Tom Tresh in what eventually became an 11-5 win. 

On May 30, before 39,720 spectators at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, Mantle was injured, and Houk inserted Blanchard into the cleanup spot.  John responded by homering off the Twins’ Joe Bonikowski, driving in three runs and giving New York a 5-0 lead.  He later doubled and singled in the Yankees’ 10-1 drubbing of Minnesota. 

The rest of the season provided few highlights and saw Houk more reluctant to use Blanchard.  In fact, during the 1962 World Series, which went seven games, Blanchard had only one at-bat (he struck out).  In the November 3, 1962, issue of The Sporting News, writer Bob Burnes speculated in a front-page story that Blanchard could be packaged with other Yankees in a deal for a starting pitcher such as Art Mahaffey of the Phillies.  Blanchard was deemed expendable in part because his batting average had fallen to .232 despite his having as many game appearances as he did in 1961. 

Blanchard’s 1963 season was similar to that of the previous year, except for a reduction in the number of games played to 76.  There were some spectacular games. Against the Angels in a three-game stretch from July 22 to July 24, he belted three homers and drove in nine runs.  On August 15, he hit a pair of home runs and drove in six runs against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Overall, it was a terrible year; 16 homers and 45 RBIs look good, but his .225 batting average and .305 on-base percentage were downright ugly. 

The Yankees won the American League pennant again but were swept in the World Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Blanchard appeared in only one game in the Series, going hitless in three at-bats. 

In the offseason, Houk was named Yankees general manager and Berra was made manager.  Early on, Yogi indicated that Blanchard would spend more time catching.  “Johnny will get plenty of chances to get back in the groove as a catcher,” he told Til Ferdenzi in The Sporting News.  But there was a new contender for the catching job.  Jake Gibbs, an All-American quarterback from the University of Mississippi, had turned down a lucrative professional football career to sign with the Yankees and had seen major-league action with the team in 1962 and 1963.  Blanchard reacted to Gibbs with quiet confidence, saying he hoped to stick around awhile longer. 

In 1964, Berra made good on his promise to use Blanchard more as a catcher than an outfielder and even used him at first base.  Blanchard responded by raising his batting average to .255, but his number of at-bats slipped from 218 to 161.  Under Berra, the Yankees were a dysfunctional lot and appeared out of the pennant race.  Surprisingly the team went 22-6 in September and edged the White Sox for the flag on the next to the last day of the season.  However, New York lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games (Blanchard had one hit in four at-bats), and Yankee owners Dan Topping and Del Webb fired Berra the day after the final game of the World Series, replacing him with Cardinals manager Johnny Keane. 

Topping and Webb’s next move was to sell the Yankees.  On November 2, 1964, CBS purchased 80 percent of the team for $11.2 million.  The sale ushered in the movement toward corporate ownership in major-league baseball.  Not apparent at the time was the fact that Topping and Webb were looking for buyers earlier than 1964.  The pair had initiated numerous cost-cutting measures in order to maximize their profits at the time of the sale.  “The farm system was virtually barren,” wrote Peter Golenbock in Dynasty, adding that the combination of “no farm players” and “disastrous management” contributed to the Yankee downfall. 

“We bought a pig in the poke,” said Mike Burke of CBS.  The Yankees finished sixth in 1965.  Gone from the 1961 champions were Skowron and Berra. Of the 1961 Yankee Opening Day lineup, all except Mantle were gone by 1967.  On Monday, May 3, 1965, came Johnny Blanchard’s turn to leave.  

Blanchard and pitcher Rollie Sheldon were traded to the Kansas City Athletics in exchange for Howard “Doc” Edwards, a journeyman catcher who had never hit more than six home runs in a single season.  Blanchard was devastated.  Upon hearing the news in the bowels of Yankee Stadium, he bolted for the trainer’s room, where Elston Howard was undergoing treatment for an elbow injury. Within five minutes, Howard emerged to talk with reporters.  Blanchard stayed behind.  “John’s crying like a baby,” Howard said.  “He’s all tore up inside.”  When Blanchard finally left the trainer’s room, the reporters were still there. “I never felt so badly [sic] in my life,” he told Steve Jacobson of Newsday “I’ll never feel as badly [sic] again.” 

Blanchard clung to a hope that he might return to the Yankees one day. Ralph Terry, Enos Slaughter, and Bob Cerv had returned to Yankee Stadium after exile to Kansas City.  But that had been when Arnold Johnson, a business partner with Del Webb, had owned the Athletics and let the Yankees make his team a glorified farm club.  In 1965, however, the egocentric Charles O. Finley owned the club, and he proclaimed that those days were gone forever.  Of course, Charlie had his own way of doing business, and it wasn’t the cool, buttoned-down Yankee way. 

Blanchard’s introduction to the Athletics and the ways of egocentric owner Charles O. Finley was bizarre. “The first night I get to Kansas City, I put on that ugly green-and-gold costume they called a uniform.  Haywood Sullivan was the manager, and he told me I was catching, so I put on my shin guards and chest protector, got my mitt, turned my hat around, and was ready to run out onto the field.  By this time, the pitcher was warmed up, and I was ready to take my position behind the plate.  But Sullivan stopped me [and the rest of the team] in the dugout.  ‘Wait a minute,’ he said.  Then we heard trumpets.  Out in centerfield were these guys dressed like court jesters playing long trumpets.  All of a sudden an outfield gate opens and out comes a mule.  I ask Sully what’s going on.  He tells me the mule is named Charlie O.  ‘The mule will walk to home plate.  When it gets there, we will sing happy birthday to it.  I told Sullivan there was no way I was going to join in.  I said I was going back to the clubhouse [which I did].  Sully said they were going to fine me $100.  ‘Make it a thousand, I said.’” 

Blanchard recalled another game in which Jim “Catfish” Hunter was called in to pitch with the Athletics holding a slim 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth inning—and had to ride Charlie O. to the mound.  According to Blanchard, Hunter at first encountered difficulty mounting the beast, and then nearly fell off.  When the animal bolted and veered off toward the outfield grandstand, “Catfish was hanging on for dear life.  We could see him pulling on the mule’s mane, and the mule’s eyes bulging out of its head.  Catfish finally gets the mule to the mound, then slips and nearly breaks his back getting off of it.”  [Note: The incident with the mule actually occurred in a game in which Hunter was the starting pitcher in Los Angeles on September 4. According to The Sporting News, “After the A’s batted in the top of the first, Charlie O. hauled starting pitcher Jim (Catfish) Hunter from the bull pen to the mound to face the Angels.”]

Blanchard’s stay in Kansas City did produce some personal highlights, such as the night of May 7 when he went 3-for-4 with RBIs against the Angels in Los Angeles.  Nevertheless, the hapless A’s lost the game by the score of 5-4. 

On September 9, Finley sold Blanchard to the Milwaukee Braves.  It would be his first (and only) stint as a National League player.  As the 1965 season wore down, Blanchard appeared in 10 games for Milwaukee, during one of which he got his only National League hit (a homer).  And, there would be another highlight.  “I’m one of the few guys who can say they pinch-hit for Hank Aaron,” Blanchard says.  Aaron had fouled the second strike off his foot and couldn’t continue, so manager Bobby Bragan sent Blanchard in.  “I’m proud to say that, despite going up to the plate with a two-strike count, I managed to draw a walk.” 

For Blanchard it was the last hurrah.  His career was basically over.  (The 1965 season also marked the last year for the Braves in Milwaukee as the team moved to Atlanta.)  As far as Blanchard was concerned, his career ended when the Yankees sent him to Kansas City; he wanted to be a Yankee or nothing. 

After sitting out the 1966 season, an old itch returned.   Blanchard had discovered it was hard to walk away.  He tried to get back in the game and even wrote to some Japanese ballclubs. 

The Braves owned Blanchard’s rights and gave him permission to attend spring training with them.  When that opportunity fizzled in 1967, (for “business and personal reasons” he told The Sporting News), he tried again in 1968, willing to do anything to play. 

He celebrated his 35th birthday that year in spring training.  Braves manager Luman Harris told Wayne Minshew of The Sporting News that Blanchard “has been a pleasant surprise.  He walked in here the first day of camp and started swatting line drives.”  Blanchard officially was a non-roster player.  His contract was with Atlanta’s top farm club in Richmond, Virginia. 

Blanchard thought he’d be a player-coach with the Braves’ farm club in Richmond, but on the last day of spring training the bat boy gave him his pink slip and drove him to the airport. 

Blanchard was on his own, a civilian.  While still with the Yankees, he had begun operating a liquor store on Olson Memorial Highway at Winnetka Avenue in Golden Valley.  Johnny Blanchard Liquor Store had the easy-to-remember phone number of Y-A-N-K-E-E-S, although Blanchard paid tribute to the local team with a tall flag pole that carried a banner on game days to indicate whether the Twins had won or lost. 

While still an active player, Blanchard married the former Nancy Carey. The union produced three sons.  He eventually sold the liquor store and was involved in car sales, the construction equipment industry, and the printing business.  He even managed one of Minnesota’s top town-ball teams, the Hamel Hawks. 

“We [the Hawks] just try to play a fundamental game,” he told an Associated Press reporter in 1981.  “I’m happiest with baseball.  It’s fun working with these kids.”  He did reveal that he “found it difficult to go from the big leagues to the brown-bag league.”  He also told the reporter that he longed to join the Twins in some coaching capacity but had been turned down by Johnny Goryl, who had managed the Twins from August of 1980 to May of 1981. 

His role as manager of the Hamel Hawks, Blanchard says, was rewarding because “I get to be Casey Stengel for two hours.”  It was interesting that he mentioned Stengel (“the old son of a bitch”), whom he still considers to have been his nemesis.  

Blanchard tells a story he heard from a great pitcher: “Warren Spahn was with New York in the National League in 1965, I was with Kansas City in the American League, and Stengel was the Mets’ manager.  By this time, as Warren told it, Casey was 75 years old and spent a good deal of his time in the dugout snoring and farting.  Spahn was sitting in the dugout, and the game situation called for a pinch hitter.  Casey had to be shaken out of this dreams and told what’s happening.  Once he understood, the old man blurted out, ‘Get Blanchard!’” 

Jeff Brubaker also provided information for this biography.

Note

A version of this biography appeared in the book Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley (Nodin, 2009).

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Photo Credit

The Topps Company

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