I’d guess that most of you reading this article never had the opportunity to watch Johnny Bench play baseball.
I know how you feel. I never watched Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Stan Musial either. And that would have been special.
But if you never saw Johnny Bench catch a game, you missed a lot. You know Bench is a Hall of Famer and was a great catcher but I’m sure you’ve seen some good catchers as well. Why, you ask, does it matter? So what?
Here’s why. Johnny Bench had panache. He had an attitude, a charisma.
You’re a Reds fan, right? If the other team had a runner on first base, you would hope and pray the guy would try to steal second, especially if the Reds pitcher was struggling on the mound. It was a sure out. Johnny Bench would gun them down. He was a gunslinger behind the plate in shin guards.
You’d see a catcher not fast at all as a runner but move with cat-like quickness behind the plate. You’d see laser-like throws to second base, pickoff attempts at first base and aggressiveness you just don’t see from today’s catchers.
Johnny Bench was the most aggressive catcher I ever saw play.
You’d see a player with, as the late, great sportswriter Earl Lawson would say, “had a flair for the dramatic.”
The career of Johnny Bench spanned from 1967-1983. All of those years were with the Cincinnati Reds. Seldom do you see that anymore in the baseball of today. Johnny bled Cincinnati Red. Yaz did the same with the Red Sox. Derek Jeter with the Yankees. Cal Junior with the Orioles.
In that time span in Cincinnati, the Reds won two World Series championships, four National League pennants and six NL West titles along with having baseball’s best record in 1981.
Only three years they were under the .500 mark—1971, 1982 and 1983.
Even at a young age, Bench commanded the respect of Reds pitchers. Frustrated with Reds lefty Gerry Arrigo not throwing hard, Bench caught a fastball from him barehanded during a game. When Tom Seaver gave up a pair of hits and a run in the first inning of a start, Johnny Bench went to the mound. “Are you giving me your best?” asked the Reds catcher. Seaver proceeded to shut the other team down the rest of the night, allowing just that one run.
The respect went both ways. When former Reds hurler Tony Cloninger passed away, Bench tweeted about a time in 1969 when Cloninger got knocked out of a game in the first inning. The next day the Reds were shorthanded and Manager Dave Bristol needed another starter. Who stepped up?
Tony Cloninger. “What a competitor,” said Bench.
Bench’s career can basically be broken down into three stages: 1967-1972, when he went from Rookie of the Year to arguably the best player in baseball; 1973-1980 when he was the catcher for the Big Red Machine at its peak and in its decline; and 1981-1983 when he played third base or first base and didn’t catch on a regular basis.
He played for just four major league managers—Dave Bristol, Sparky Anderson, John McNamara and Russ Nixon. He hit 389 home runs and is the career leader for the Reds. There’s a statue of him by the Reds Hall of Fame– throwing, of course.
And now he’s emerged as a powerful and influential member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s one of baseball’s most effective and respected ambassadors of good will.
Let’s breakdown the career of Johnny Bench and include his “flair for the dramatic” that Earl Lawson wrote about.
Bench exploded onto the baseball scene with a modest, but good rookie campaign in 1968 under Bristol. He narrowly edged Met hurler Jerry Koosman for Rookie of the Year. He got even better in 1969. At the All-Star game in Washington DC at RFK Stadium, he clobbered a home run and was robbed of a second homer by Carl Yasztremski in leftfield.
In 1970, it all came together. Johnny Bench had a monster season, winning the MVP in the National League. At the age of 22, he slammed 45 home runs, drove home 145 runs and batted .293. Sparky and the Big Red Machine reached the World Series. But Bench had a tough year in ’71. Injuries and a post-1970 whirlwind tour that included a visit to Vietnam with Bob Hope led to exhaustion and bad habits at the plate. The Reds skidded to a 79-83 record and Bench heard some boos in Cincinnati.
In March 1972, a cover shot in Sports Illustrated of Johnny Bench grimacing and throwing to second base had the headline, “Johnny Bench Bears Down.” He came back big. He won another MVP at the age of 24 and Bench called it one of his most rewarding seasons. In 147 games that year, Bench batted .270, hit 40 homers and knocked in 125 runs. The Reds won another pennant. A massive story on Bench appeared in Sport magazine by George Vecsey—about his bachelor life in Mount Adams, his love of music, a weekend series with Cubs, even Bench’s views on the death penalty. Bench’s 1972 season not only recaptured Reds fans but cemented them for life.
The Reds battled the defending World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1972 playoffs. Pundits joked that Bench and Pirate rightfielder Roberto Clemente had the best arms on their respective teams, to include the pitching staffs. It was no joke; it was true.
In the deciding Game 5, trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th inning Johnny Bench homered off Pirate closer Dave Guisti over the head of Clemente, in what turned out to be The Great One’s last game. The Reds won minutes later on a wild pitch from Bob Moose allowing George Foster to score the winning run.
Oakland held off Cincinnati in a 7-game World Series that featured six one-run games. The Reds lost, but were back in the hunt.
So was the best catcher in baseball—it seemed.
Unknown to Reds fans, Bench was diagnosed with a lesion in his right lung during a routine physical in the 1972 season. Surgery was held off at Bench’s insistence until the season ended. It was performed at Christ Hospital on December 11, 1972. The lesion wasn’t malignant but it was major surgery– it lasted two hours. And while his status in baseball was still high and he performed very well, the Johnny Bench that we saw in 1970 and 1972 would never return.
Still, Bench caught and caught and caught some more. The long list of backup catchers—names like Pat Corrales, Bill Plummer, Joe Nolan, Hal King, Donnie Werner —would continue to grow. In Game 1 of the 1973 NL playoffs against the Mets, Johnny Bench again showed his flair for the dramatic with a 9th inning, game winning home run off Tom Seaver but then the Pete Rose War erupted at second base in Shea Stadium and the Reds lost a bitter, nasty 5-game playoff series against the Ya Gotta Believe Mets that incredibly hurt Reds fans.
1974 was even more frustrating. The Reds had the second-best record in baseball. They were also second in the NL West to the Dodgers and missed the playoffs. (No Wild Card teams back then, fellas).
Then came the Golden Years, 1975 and 1976 which produced the world championships and Bench winning the MVP in ’76 against the hated Yankees by blasting a pair of home runs in Game 4 of the sweep and batting 533 in the Series after a sub-par season when he batted just .238 because of injures and a failing marriage. “Don’t compare any other catcher to Johnny Bench,” said Anderson after the game. “It would be embarrassing.”
Sparky wasn’t finished. “God touched Johnny’s mother and said, ‘I’m gonna give you the greatest catcher in the history of baseball’”
Johnny Bench continued to catch and catch some more. The Reds wouldn’t win the NL West again until 1979 and by then, Perez, Rose, Sparky and Morgan were gone. It wasn’t the same team.
Lawson interviewed Bench in Tampa during spring training of 1980 and Johnny was nostalgic that day. He looked at the lockers of his current teammates but his mind drifted back to when he was a rookie. “I remember the chuckle of Vada Pinson,” said Bench. “The gruff voice of Deron Johnson. The wisecracks of Chico Ruiz and Tommy Helms and everyone getting on the cases of guys like Gerry Arrigo, Lee May, Tony Perez and Big Bob Lee.”
After the 1980 season, Johnny Bench—who never gave ultimatums—made one to Dick Wagner, the Reds General Manager. He didn’t want to catch full-time anymore, wanting just to do it two days a week. Wagner balked, claiming Bench was putting the team on the spot. “I’ve kept the Reds off the spot,” replied Bench, “for 13 years.” With Dan Driessen at first base and Ray Knight at third, where would Bench move to? But Driessen was mired in an early season slump and Bench went to first base. He was hitting .341 when he broke his left ankle sliding into second base to break up a double play on a Knight ground ball. After the 1981 season, Wagner traded Knight, opening a spot up for Bench. The Reds 1982 Opening Day catcher was Alex Trevino.
An era truly did end that day. Johnny Bench not behind home plate? It was like a bitter divorce. The Reds had no charisma, no cohesion. Alex Trevino? Oh my God.
Wagner traded both Foster and Ken Griffey (along with Knight) from the Reds and they went from a team with the best record in 1981 to last place in the NL West in 1982.
The next year wasn’t any better. That’s when Johnny Bench announced that he would retire after the 1983 season.
On September 4, 1983, Johnny Bench played his last game in St. Louis during a weekend visit by the Reds. I went to the game on Sunday, hoping to see him play one final time. Naturally, Nixon didn’t start him. Naturally, the Reds were losing 4-1 in the 8th inning. And with Cardinal closer Bruce Sutter on the mound, it didn’t look good.
Bench pinch-hit for backup catcher Steve Christmas with one out and two on on in the 8th inning. Cardinal fans greeted the Reds catcher with a standing ovation. Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck showered Bench with praise. Again showing a flair for the dramatic, Bench connected for a three-run homer off one of the best closers in baseball.
The Reds eventually lost the game, of course, when the Cardinals quickly dispatched reliever Ben Hayes with three hits and a run in the bottom of the 9th.
Nobody cared. Johnny Bench delivered what the fans wanted to see.
Despite having a substantial number of adult beverages at that game, I managed to get a good camera shot of Bench’s home run with a 35mm zoom lens from my seat down the third base line.
On a whim, I had an 8 X 10 photo made of the shot. I got it developed at Midwest Camera Shop on Broad Street in Galesburg. The guy who developed the photo was Bob Sheehan. “Hey,” said Bob, who would become Mayor of Galesburg years later, “that’s not a bad shot!”
I mailed it to Johnny and asked for an autograph. I kept the letter short but added at the end, “If you’d like a photo or two of this, just let me know.”
Two weeks later, I got the photo back and Johnny Bench had signed it. Along with it came a typewritten letter from Christina Ferguson, who must have been his secretary. “Johnny would like to have a copy or two of this photo.”
It was home run #388. I sent two 8 X 10 photos to him. The one he autographed for me is proudly displayed in my sports room. He hit #389 at Riverfront Stadium against Houston later in September.
I really wish you young guys– you too Ashley and Mary Beth– could have watched Johnny Bench in action. You adore Joey Votto like a rock star and I get that. I really do. Joey’s a special player.
But man, oh man, you should have seen Johnny Bench catch a game. It was a huge comfort level. You had the best catcher in baseball. You had one of the best ever– wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform.
Just the name, Johnny Bench. It’s magic. It still is in 2019.
For those of us who were lucky enough to see him play baseball, we were blessed. It was a once in a lifetime baseball experience.
Sort of like watching Roberto Clemente. Or Reggie Jackson at the plate taking a ferocious swing. Watching Dave Parker uncork a strong throw from rightfield. Bob Gibson’s grimace or the incredible grace and power of Sandy Koufax pitching.
Johnny Bench is #5.
He’s all ours, Reds fans.