By Glen Sparks
Johnny Bench began practicing his autograph while still a grade-school kid in Oklahoma. He was sure baseball fans would one day clamor for that very signature.
Ted and Katy Bench raised a ballplayer. More specifically, they raised a catcher. Ted Bench organized a boys’ team in Binger (pop. 700 or so), located an hour outside of Oklahoma City, when little Johnny was six. The prodigy took his spot behind home plate. Big-league teams need good catchers, Ted said to his son.
Young Johnny Bench, born Dec. 7, 1947, told everyone and wrote it down on every school paper he could: Someday, he’d be a major-league baseball player. Count on it. He never lacked for confidence.
The neighborhood dads watched Johnny fire off his mask to catch pop-ups and hurl fastballs from home plate to second base. This kid is a future big-leaguer, they said with admiration. Yes, he is, Ted agreed.
The Cincinnati Reds selected Bench in the second round of the 1965 draft. Assigned to Tampa in the Florida State League, he only hit .248 and slammed just two home runs. Even so, Bench said, “I wasn’t overwhelmed.”
Bench played a couple of more seasons in the minors and won Player of the Year honors in 1966 for the Peninsula Greys of the Single-A Carolina League. Cincinnati promoted Bench to the big club in August of 1967.
Cincy traded two-time Gold Glove winner Johnny Edwards (only 29 years old) to the Houston Astros as a way to make room for Bench. The young player responded. Bench caught 154 games and was named the National League Rookie of the Year. He also won the first of his 10 Gold Gloves.
Teammates, managers and coaches loved Bench as a team leader. He took charge on the field and in the clubhouse. (One great story: Bench was catching Jim Maloney in a spring training game in 1968. Maloney’s ball wasn’t popping, and Bench told the pitcher exactly that. OK, sure, whatever, kid, Maloney responded. Now, get back behind home plate. Bench did exactly that. He also caught Maloney’s next fastball with his bare hand.)
Pitchers loved the way Bench called a game and the way he framed the ball for umpires. Of course, everyone loved the way Bench threw. He flat-out shut down the running game during an area when teams liked to steal.
Bench put together one of baseball’s all-time great careers. He led the National League in home runs (48) and RBI (148) in 1970 and won the MVP. Bench earned a second MVP two years later, topping all N.L. batters once again in homers (40) and RBI (125).
Sparky Anderson, the Reds manager, said it: “I don’t want to embarrass any other catcher by comparing him with Johnny Bench.”
Cincinnati, of course, is not the quite the metropolitan area of New York of L.A. Bench, though, transcended one of the game’s smallest markets. It helped that he played so many great teams. Bench batted in the middle of the order for the fabled Big Red Machine. He played alongside Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr. The Reds won six divisional titles, four pennants and two World Series with Bench.
Off the field, Bench turned into a celebrity. He sang a few country tunes on the hit TV show Hee Haw, for instance, and took part in the Bob Hope USO tour of Vietnam in the winter of 1970-71. Supposedly, Bench and Hope became good friends and exchanged Christmas cards for years. He also did a turn on Mission: Impossible and hosted his own weekly TV show in Cincinnati.
Bench continued as a star player throughout the ‘70s. On July 15, 1980, he belted a home run off the Montreal Expos’ David Palmer. It was the 314th homer of his career as a catcher, breaking Yogi Berra’s record for backstops. (Bench had smashed 33 homers up to that point while playing other positions.)
Bad knees and other ailments forced Bench to retire following the 1983 season. He was just 35 years old. Bench ended up with 389 career homers (327 as a catcher) to go with 1,376 RBI and a .267 batting average (.342 on-base percentage, .476 slugging percentage). Writers selected Bench for the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, in 1989 with 96.42 percent of the vote.
Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza latter surpassed Bench’s home run mark for catchers. Bench still holds the record with 10 grand slams as a catcher. The great No. 5 was chosen for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. His larger-than-life statue stands outside the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. For Reds fans, this catcher from little Binger, Okla., will always be bigger than life.