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The Next-Most Surprising Seasons in Yankees History: 1961 Johnny Blanchard

Seemingly out of nowhere, Blanchard was a star from the bench for the World Series-winning 1961 Yankees.

Yogi Berra Sitting Players

Johnny Blanchard came to this world to play sports, but perhaps more importantly, to play for the Yankees. Born and raised in Minnesota, he was a star in basketball, football, and baseball. Of course, he chose the latter to make his living, and all things considered, he made the right call.

Blanchard was seen as one of the most talented baseball players in his city during his time at Central High School. In fact, high school sports historian Dana X. Marshall is quoted by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) as saying that he “may have been the best three-sport athlete to ever come out of Minneapolis.”

1961 Statistics: 93 games, 275 PA, .305/.382/.613, 21 HR, 159 wRC+, 3.3 fWAR

The Yankees signed him in 1951 after a stint in semi-pro baseball in Iowa. However, a transition to catcher, some slumps in the minor leaguers, and a two-year commitment in the US Army delayed his MLB debut until 1955. He played just one game that season, though.

He wouldn’t return to the majors for good until 1959, when he played 49 games. The following year, he was the catcher in the famous at-bat from Pittsburgh Pirates’ infielder Bill Mazeroski that ended the World Series. His breakthrough, however, would came in 1961.

That year, Blanchard was a 28-year-old backup catcher who had failed to establish himself in the majors to that point. But he was about to have the season of his life. 93 games were enough for him to accumulate an incredible 3.3 fWAR — it was his only season with more than 1.0. That year, he hit 21 home runs (almost a third of his career total), including four in consecutive at-bats — twice as a pinch hitter — during a three-game span.

He hit .305/.382/.613 in 275 plate appearances, with a 159 wRC+ and 54 RBI. He was an important piece from the bench for the World Series-winning Yankees in the year in which Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle fought to establish the new single-season home run record. Not only did he have his best season ever in 1961, but he was also a star in the World Series. He hit two homers against the Cincinnati Reds and averaged .400 for the entire series. In total, he appeared in five Fall Classics.

That 1961 season was the highlight of his MLB tenure, though. He retired with 3.8 fWAR, most of which was accrued that year, and while he had a good 107 wRC+, couldn’t have any campaigns with more than 300 trips to the plate.

His defensive reputation wasn’t very good, but Blanchard logged 1,140.1 innings at catcher and 1,276.1 as an outfielder, with 45.1 as a first baseman sprinkled in. Perhaps another team would have given him more chances to play, but the Yankees had Yogi Berra and Elston Howard at the catcher position around those years.

“I was so lucky to have been a member of the best New York Yankee team ever,” Blanchard said according to the SABR, referring to the 1961 team. “With any other organization, I probably would have made the majors faster, 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.”

He died in March, 2009, a few months before the Yankees won their latest World Series.