- 1951 Minneapolis Central graduate
- Perhaps greatest three-sport prep athlete in city history
- Army vet
- Played in five-straight World Series
- Two-time World Series Champion
- Homered in four-straight at-bats
- Pinch hit for Hank Aaron
- Townball manager
One of the most famous backup catchers in major league history, “Super Sub” Johnny Blanchard played in five-straight World Series with the New York Yankees, hitting two home runs in the ’61 Series to earn his first of two rings. 1961 was his best season overall, hitting .305 with 21 home runs in 243 at-bats over 93 games (54 starts).
The numbers on the back of Blanchard’s baseball card don’t jump off the cardboard, but he is still well-regarded by Yankees fans for his versatility, and clutch postseason production, hitting .429 (9-for-21) between the 1960 and ’61 Series, with five of his nine hits going for extra bases.
Blanchard was born in Minneapolis on February 26, 1933. He began high school at DeLaSalle, but Catholic school wasn’t for him, and he transferred to Central as a sophomore, where he was All-Conference in football, basketball, and baseball. “Blanchard may have been the best three-sport athlete to ever come out of Minneapolis,” high-school sports historian Dana X. Marshall is quoted as saying in George Rekela‘s SABR Bio of Blanchard.
Blanchard had a scholarship offer to play basketball at the University of Minnesota, but opted instead to sign with the Yankees. He was converted to catcher down on the Yankees farm with the help of Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey. Blanchard was never going to win a Gold Glove at the position, however. He led all of organized baseball with 35 passed balls at Joplin, MO in 1952—his first full season as a catcher. There was nothing wrong with his bat, though, as he led the Western Association with 30 home runs, 112 RBI, and 257 total bases while batting .301 en route to being named league MVP.
His baseball career was interrupted, though, when he was drafted into the Army and served in Germany in 1953 and ’54.
He returned to pro ball in 1955, and led the Eastern League with 34 home runs while driving in 111 for Binghamton, NY. He was called up to the majors as a reinforcement in a pennant race with Chicago and Cleveland, but only played in one game—the second game of a doubleheader on the final day of the season. (The Yankees went on to lose the World Series to Brooklyn in seven games.)
He didn’t make it back to the majors until 1959, and then only played sparingly. It wasn’t until August 1960 that he caught a break. Catchers Yogi Berra and Elston Howard went down with injuries, and skipper Casey Stengel (whom Blanchard considered his nemesis) wound up in the hospital. Temporary manager Ralph Houk (a former catcher, who, incidentally, joined the Twins’ front office for the 1987 season) gave Blanchard the start behind the plate in a home doubleheader against Detroit on August 2, 1960, and he stayed there for all 24 innings that day! He homered off the right-field foul pole in the sixth inning of Game One, and hit a walk-off single in the 14th inning. The Yankees won Game Two in 10 innings.
1960 was the first of five-straight years Blanchard played in the World Series with the Yankees. He got into five games in the ’60 Series versus Pittsburgh, going 5-for-11. He was catching Game 7 when Bill Mazeroski hit his famous walk-off home run. (Of course Blanchard’s pitcher shook him off on two-straight pitches. Catchers always know best.) Worth noting that Mazeroski was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, in the same class as Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett, and Hilton Smith, all three of whom played for Minnesota teams—Negro Leaguer Smith with Dick Reusse‘s semi-pro Fulda, MN Giants in 1949.
1961 was Blanchard’s best season, hitting .305 with 21 home runs. He tied a major league record by homering in four consecutive at-bats in July. Of course in true “Suber Sub” fashion, those four consecutive at-bats came over a six-day span—and in pretty epic fashion. On July 21, he hit a two-out pinch-hit grand slam in the ninth to give the Yankees an 11-8 win at Fenway (worth noting that Mantle and Maris went back-to-back in the first). The next day, he hit another ninth-inning pinch-hit homer in a Yankees with at Fenway. He then sat out the next three games before getting the start on July 26 at home versus the White Sox. He homered in his first two at-bats, and missed his fifth-straight homer by mere feet.
He wasn’t done with pinch-hit home runs, though. In Game 3 of the World Series versus Cincinnati, he hit a pinch-hit homer in the top of the eighth to tie that game at 2-2. Roger Maris homered in the ninth for a 3-2 Yankees win, and 2-1 Series lead.
The Yankees took a commanding 3-1 Series lead into Game 5 in Cincinnati. Catcher Yogi Berra sat out with an injury. Not only did Blanchard get the start behind the plate, but he hit cleanup for the first time in his Yankees career! How did he do in his first-ever at-bat as Yankees cleanup hitter in the first inning? Oh, just a two-run homer. The Yankees won the game 13-5 to clinch the Series.
Blanchard won a second World Series ring with the Yankees in 1962.
Though his best seasons were behind him, Blanchard still had some highlight performances in him. On August 15, 1963, he hit a two-run homer and grand slam at Fenway.
In 1965, he played for New York, Kansas City, and Milwaukee. While in Milwaukee, he had the experience of pinch hitting for Hank Aaron. After Aaron fouled strike two off his foot, Blanchard took over for him, inheriting an 0-2 count, and managed to work a walk! This, of course, will instantly remind Twins fans of July 16, 2019 when rookie Luis Arráez inherited an 0-2 count in the bottom of the ninth when Jonathan Schoop appeared to tweak an oblique. Facing Mets closer Edwin Diaz—who touched 100 MPH during the plate appearance—Arráez fouled off five pitches to eventually work a walk. The Twins still lost 3-2, but that gutsy plate appearance by the rookie is etched in the mind of every Twins fan who witnessed it.
I’m always interested in looking at how Minnesota natives did against the Twins—and specifically in Minnesota. Blanchard played 18 games at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington between 1961 and ’65, going 13-for-51 (.255) with seven walks, and three home runs. He hit .222 with seven home runs in 38 games against the Twins overall.
Older fans will remember the liquor store that Blanchard opened in Golden Valley during his playing career, and continued to operate into his retirement. He eventually sold it and got into car sales and other business ventures.
Blanchard managed one of Minnesota’s best amatuer teams, the Hamel Hawks. Blanchard recruited Zimmerman native Sonny Hilyar to be his successor. Sonny took over in 1988, and was inducted into the Hamel Hall of Fame in 2017.
Johnny’s son Paul Blanchard is the longtime head baseball coach at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. 2021 will be his 25th season. He has been known to make guest lecturer appearances on campus, sometimes even passing around his father’s World Series ring.
Johnny Blanchard was a featured guest at Halsey Hall SABR meetings on October 24, 1992 and October 18, 2008.
He died of a heart attack at North Memorial in Robbinsdale on March 25, 2009. He was 76 years old.