Johnny Blanchard could have stayed in his hometown and played professional basketball with the Minneapolis Lakers, but his passion for baseball led him to the New York Yankees.
Blanchard, a 1951 graduate of Minneapolis Central High School, appeared in five World Series and won two championship rings as a member of the Bronx Bombers. A highlight of his career was hitting two home runs in the 1961 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees won the series in five games.
Blanchard's professional career spanned 516 games in the major leagues. In addition to the Yankees, he played with the Kansas City Athletics, the Milwaukee Braves and the Atlanta Braves. He had a career batting average of .239, with 67 home runs and 285 hits.
He played 694 games in the minor leagues, where he had a batting average of .282 and 122 home runs.
"The biggest thrill was putting on that uniform and taking the field [at Yankee Stadium]," said his son Tim of Chanhassen.
Blanchard was to be at the new Yankee Stadium on Opening Day in April, but he died of a heart attack early Wednesday at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. The Wayzata resident was 76.
Blanchard's high school sweetheart and wife, Nancy, said "it was quite a day" when he signed a contract with the Yankees for $20,000 in 1951. He spent four years in the minor leagues and served in the Army during the Korean War before getting called up to the Yankees in 1955. He appeared in one game that season before permanently joining the roster in 1959.
Blanchard, an outfielder turned catcher, played alongside Yankee greats such as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris. His best year was 1961, when he had a batting average of .305, hit home runs in four consecutive at-bats (a record that still stands) and finished second in voting for the Fall Classic's MVP.
In the off-season, Blanchard was part of a team that practiced against the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers. He averaged 18 points per game and the team wanted to sign him to a contract, but the Yankees nixed the deal, Tim said.
After his baseball playing days were over, Blanchard sold machines for railroads and worked in the printing business. He also coached amateur baseball teams in Hamel, and several of his teams made it to state tournaments. He participated in baseball fantasy camps for adults put on by the Yankees and frequently appeared at baseball card shows on the East Coast.
"Baseball was in his blood," his son said. "He loved the card shows. He'd shake people's hand, ask their name and talk with people. He was the king of storytelling; that was his strength."
Blanchard enjoyed golf and was looking forward to seeing the new Yankee Stadium and participating in an old-timers' game this year.
"He lived a life people would dream of living," Tim said.
In addition to his wife and son Tim, Blanchard is survived by two other sons, Paul, the head baseball coach at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, and Johnny of Minnetonka, and six grandchildren.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Mary of the Lake Church, 105 N. Forestview Lane, Plymouth. Visitation will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday at the David Lee Funeral Home, 1220 E. Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata.