In Johnny Blanchard’s Day

There may be no crying in baseball, but there's lamentation. Doug Burns remembers the game before fantasy leagues, when a hero might send a postcard from New York.

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One of the more endearing original documents I’ve seen in some time was penned by the teen-age hand of Johnny Blanchard, the one-summer Carroll (Iowa) Merchant baseball player who went on to win World Series titles with the New York Yankees.

Blanchard, who died March 25 in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, played for Bill Farner’s semi-professional Merchants in 1950 in the west central Iowa city of Carroll, between Blanchard’s junior and senior years at Minneapolis Central High School. Carroll played in the Iowa State League, a circuit that enjoyed success in the early 1950s before television dominated leisure time. Blanchard is the most successful player to emerge from that team.

In September of 1950, Blanchard wrote this wonderful letter to Mr. Farner that Kitty Sheehan, daughter of the late Tom Sheehan (then player-manager of the Merchants), was kind enough to share with me.

During his Yankees career, Blanchard sure didn’t leave Carroll out to dry. A young Barry Bruner, then and now a Yankees fan, sent a letter to Blanchard in the New York area and received a thoughtful hand-written note on the back of a collectible postcard in return.

Courtesy of Douglas Burns
Johnny Blanchard played for the New York Yankees 1955-1965, but before that he was a star on the Caroll Merchant team.

“It was kind of an annual tradition that I’d write my heroes,” Bruner, now a 58-year-old attorney, said. “The vast majority of them would write back. Guys would take the time to hand-write them and send them to you.”

The accessibility and decency of players like Blanchard who emerged from the town-team leagues no doubt made the game of baseball something far more in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today.

“That was really the most I ever got into baseball — it was really good,” said Art Neu, a Carroll attorney now in his 70s who recalled attending Merchants games.

As a counterpoint to Merchants-vintage baseball, I participated as a fan in the Major Leagues e-era Sunday night with media colleagues from Carroll Broadcasting and others in a fantasy draft. In fantasy baseball we act as virtual general managers and select players for our rosters in anticipation of earning points each week based on the statistical performances of the squad.

Tom Hanks was spot-on when, in the movie “A League of Their Own,” he observed there is no crying in baseball. Well, there’s no team loyalty or sentimentality in fantasy baseball. You take the best players with the best numbers when they’re available — even if they play for teams you despise, like, well, the Yankees. And you monitor it all real-time on the Internet. The faster you get information on an injured player or waiver, the better chance your team has.

The interactivity of following baseball this way clearly has merits.

Courtesy of Barry Bruner
A card Blanchard signed for a fan back in Carroll, Iowa

But it hardly compares to getting a postcard from Johnny Blanchard.

This isn’t just idle complaining.

Several years ago I was part of a group (Barry Bruner included) that attempted to resurrect the concept a town team along the lines of the Merchants. We held many meetings and even traveled to Clarinda, Iowa, to check out prospects for bringing a Carroll, Iowa, team into the MINK League (Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas).

The Clarinda A’s, one of the MINK squads, boasts an impressive list of alumni, including former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith.

MINK teams consist of unpaid players from the college ranks or those looking to hone skills for a shot at professional ball. The teams are run like minor league operations with strong associations to the cities in which they are based.

For many reasons, although we had strong interest from MINK League officials in Carroll and practical assurance of a “yes” vote for entry, the idea just didn’t generate enough interest or support in Carroll.

The Clarinda trip didn’t end up being a total loss, though. I got Ozzie Smith’s autograph on a picture that’s but a short reach away from my desk.

 

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