Before I set out to write this series about complementary greats, I was originally looking at the career of one particular Yankee: Johnny Blanchard. More specifically, I looked back on his performance in 1961. That ‘61 season is a huge one in Yankee history and most notably remembered by Roger Maris’ chase of the single season home run record.
Blanchard doesn’t stand out in the history books, but his 1961 campaign prompted me to begin this series, covering the likes of Bob Meusel, Willie Randolph, and Oscar Gamble. They were among a fraternity of players who were impactful members of the Yankees, but due to a variety of reasons, might have been overlooked.
He didn’t exactly fit the bill of a starting player for our roster, but from the beginning, I intended to give Blanchard the role of utility player and designated pinch-hitter. Now, it’s time to salute him.
Career NYY stats: .245/.325/.461, 115 OPS+, 126 BB, 146 SO, 454 Games
Blanchard has a career WAR of 1.5, and he split those 454 games playing mostly catcher and corner outfield. He also won a couple of World Series and had above-average hitting seasons in 1963 and 1964 with an OPS+ of 113 and 114 respectively.
In 1961, seemingly out of nowhere, Blanchard was absolutely tremendous as the primary bat off the bench. In 93 Games and 275 plate appearances, he ran a .305/.382/.613 with 21 home runs and 168 OPS+, and a team-leading nine intentional walks.
Blanchard would later go on the record saying that the 1961 team was the best Yankees team of all-time. He gets the nod here also for his performance in the playoffs. While the Yankees went 2-3 in five World Series with Blanchard, he went 10-for-28 with six extra-base hits.
Johnny Edwin Blanchard, a native of Minneapolis, loved to play ball with his older brother, and according to Dick Gordon in Baseball Digest, once broke 16 windows of an apartment house during a single summer of hitting long balls out in the park.
As a high school athlete, Blanchard became one of the more prominent names in the history of the state, being selected as an all-conference player in three different sports (basketball, football and baseball). Dana X. Marshall, a high school sports historian, was quoted as saying that Blanchard may have been the best three-sport athlete Minneapolis had ever seen.
Blanchard spent a summer playing ball for the Carroll, an Iowa semi-pro baseball team and his play there called the attention of major league scouts that also had to compete with a scholarship to play basketball for the University of Minnesota. By the time the Yankees obtained his signature, Blanchard allegedly became the recipient of the highest signing bonus to an athlete from Minneapolis, receiving $30,000 and another yearly $5,000 for the following five.
Blanchard had a fascinating journey that involved a two-year army stint in Germany and also learning the catcher position long after his pro-career began to try and get a backup spot behind Yogi Berra. When his journey with the Yankees ended in 1965 following a trade, he was absolutely devastated and cried extensively.
Playing for the Yankees meant the world to Johnny Blanchard, and following a season away from the Bombers, he retired from professional baseball. He remained a staple at future Old-Timers’ Days until his passing in 2009.