Let’s start with this Sparky Anderson quote, taken from The Sporting News Selects Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players:
Bench is the greatest athlete who ever has played the game. It’s almost pitiful that one man should have so much talent.”
Johnny Bench was 22 years old at the time of Anderson’s quote and in the midst of arguably the greatest season ever by a catcher.
Jay Bruce is 22 now and we’re hoping he’s the future. At 22, Johnny Bench was selected the best player in baseball.
In 1970, Johnny Bench batted .293 with 45 home runs and 148 RBI, not to mention winning his third straight Gold Glove and winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. For fun, he even played center field two games that year. (He also won the Major League Player of the Year Award from “The Sporting News.”)
The Reds Reds moved to Riverfront Stadium (from Crosley Field) on June 30 of that year, just in time to host the 1970 all-star game. Through June, Bench was batting .298 with 25 homers and 65 RBI. The move to Riverfront didn’t slow down the Reds’ superstar. From July 1 through the end of the season, Bench hit .287 with 20 homers and 83 RBI. Bench’s major competition was from teammate Tony Perez, who had batted .362 with 27 homers and 79 RBI through June 30. After June 30, Perez cooled to .282, 13 homers, and 50 RBI giving Bench the edge he needed to lead the league in homers and RBI.
It was also Perez’s career year…he batted .317 with 40 homers and 129 RBI. Perez finished 7th in batting average, third in homers, and 2nd to Bench in RBI.
But it was Bench’s year, leading the Big Red Machine to the World Series, only to lose to the Orioles in five games. While Bench didn’t finish in the top ten in batting average, .293 was an outstanding figure (Atlanta’s Rico Carty won the batting average title hitting .366). The Cubs’ Billy Williams finished second in homers with 42.
It wasn’t the only season that Bench won two legs of the Triple Crown. In 1972, Bench won his second MVP award, leading the National League with 40 homers and 125 RBI, while batting .270. This race was a little closer. San Diego’s Nate Colbert finished second in homers with 38 and the Cubs’ Williams finished second in RBI with 122.
Bench finished the first half of the season batting .283 with 24 homers and 72 RBI. During the second half, Bench hit .251 with 15 homers and 53 RBI. He won the fifth of his 10 career Gold Gloves.
Bench also led the league in RBI in 1974 with 129. He finished second in homers with 33, to Philadelphia’s Mike Schmidt, who went yard 36 times. And, yes, he won the Gold Glove for his defense and fabulous control of the running game when steals were a factor in major league ballgames.
Bench is the only catcher ever to lead a major league in home runs or runs batted in. One has to wonder how much more damage he could have done if he had played another position.
Cy Seymour came the closest to winning the batting Triple Crown for the Reds with his monster 1905 season when he batted .377 with 8 homers and 121 RBI (losing the home run crown by one to teammate Fred Odwell). Bench is one of four Reds’ hitters to win the home run and RBI legs in the same season, the others being Big Red Machine teammate George Foster, his BRM hitting coach Ted Kluszewski, and 1880’s slugger Long John Reilly. Bench and Foster both did it twice. Frank Robinson won the Triple Crown after being traded to the Baltimore Orioles, but, surprisingly, never led the league in a triple crown category as a Red.
For his career, Bench won two MVPs, was the MVP of the 1976 World Series, won 10 Gold Gloves, had more RBI than any player in the 1970’s (1013), and was named to 14 all-star teams.
So while we’re hoping the Legend of Jay Bruce fully develops, keep in mind that greatness typically happens early for the greatest players of all time. Great players like Johnny Bench.