Many of you know by know that Johnny Bench sent out a tweet last Friday that he would be unable to attend the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown this year because he has contracted COVID.
The news shouldn’t have come as a shock, given the current state of affairs going on, but when it happens to someone you know or in this case, a baseball player of incredible magnitude, it hits hard.
The outpouring for Bench on twitter wasn’t surprising despite that venue being so nasty at times. Reggie Jackson even sent a tweet wishing him well and he talked about their memories of the 1971 All-Star Game when Reggie slammed a drive off Dock Ellis that crashed into a light tower at Tiger Stadium. Man, that was one heck of a shot
We all know Johnny Bench’s legacy with the Cincinnati Reds. He was a Red his entire career. There were two different MVP seasons. He’s considered– rightly so– the greatest catcher of all time. I concur with that. Mike Piazza may have been a better hitter, Pudge Rodriguez may have been better on defense but all around, well, Sparky Anderson said it best after the 1976 World series after Bench slammed a pair of home runs in Game 4.. “Don’t ever compare any other catcher with Johnny Bench,” said Sparky as he held court after the game. “It would be embarrassing.”
That said, I’m reasonably confident I can speak for The Nation in wishing Johnny Bench well and to a speedy recovery. So on that note, here’s eight special moments in the career of the Greatest Catcher of All Time.
The Home Run and Al Michaels’ call
You know about this one. Game 5 of the 1972 playoffs against the Pirates. Reds trail by one run in the 9th inning. Dave Guisti on the mound. Bench leads off. In his second season as a Reds broadcaster, Al Michaels called Bench’s ensuing home run over Roberto Clemente’s head and the right field wall. Tony Perez followed with a base hit and moments later George Foster scored on a wild pitch with Hal McRae at the plate. Bittersweet though– this was Clemente’s last game. The Great One died months later in a plane crash in an effort to deliver much needed supplies to victims in Nicaragua of an earthquake from Puerto Rico.
The Perfect Postseason
The Big Red Machine was 7-0 in the 1976 postseason. They swept the Phillies and Yankees to become the only team to ever do that. And in Game 4 of the World Series, Bench blasted a pair of home runs to cement their championship and was the MVP. The second one clinched the game and Gary Nolan’s first World series win.
1969 All-Star Game
Played in Washington, D.C. at RFK Stadium for Major League Baseball’s Centennial, Bench hit a home run early in the game and Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski robbed him of a second home run later in the game. MVP Willie McCovey (one of the greatest pure sluggers of all time) hit two homers himself in the National League’s win, off Blue Moon Odom and Denny McLain. Ironic Yastrzemski robbed Bench as their paths met six years later in the World Series and they were inducted together in the Hall of Fame in 1988. Two class acts who played their entire career for the same respective team.
Johnny Bench Night Home Run
Naturally, Riverfront Stadium was sold out on September 17, 1983 on Johnny Bench Night. Naturally, Bench was honored in a 50-minute pregame ceremony that featured a letter from President Reagan. And naturally, Bench– who always had a flair for the dramatic– delivered again.
The Reds trailed 2-0 in the third inning against Dave Madden when Paul Householder opened the inning with a single. One out later, Bench hit a game tying home run that electrified the crowd. Marty and Joe were ecstatic in the broadcast booth. So was Redleg Nation.
Ending Blue Moon’s Mad Dash
Game 5 of the 1972 World Series was close, like six of those seven games were. With the Reds leading by a run in the 9th and Oakland pitcher John “Blue Moon” Odom in the game as a pinch runner at third base and one out, a pop up was hit down the right field line by Bert Campaneris off Jack Billingham. Joe Morgan caught the ball, slipped, then threw a strike to Bench who made a perfect catch and tag of a sliding Odom to end the game with a double play. It was vintage Morgan. And vintage Bench. A Hall of Fame connection to win a World Series game.
Home Run #388
This one was special to me. It was Bench’s last game in St. Louis in 1983 on Sunday, September 4 and naturally, Reds Manager Russ Nixon didn’t start him– Steve Christmas caught that day for the Reds. The Cardinals led 4-1 in the 8th inning, two on, one out and Bruce Sutter on the mound. Bench came in as a pinch hitter and connected for a three-run homer. Cincinnati eventually lost in the 9th inning with Ben Hayes on the mound but I was fortunate enough to snap a photo of Johnny’s home run with a 35mm camera and zoom lens. An 8 X 10 of that photo is now in my sports room autographed by the Greatest Catcher of All Time.
Bench’s home run against Tom Terrific
Just a year after his Game 5 heroics against Pittsburgh, Johnny Bench did it again against the New York Mets in Game 1 of the 1973 National League playoffs. Seaver was fantastic that day, striking out 13 Reds, but Jack Billingham was pretty good too. The Mets led 1-0 in the 8th when Pete Rose rapped a home run against Seaver to tie the game. And in the 9th inning, it was Bench that finished the game when he connected off Tom Terrific to win the game.
Johnny Bench didn’t catch Tom Seaver’s only no-hit game– Don Werner did. He also missed out on catching George Culver’s no-hit game in 1968, since it was the second game of a twin bill and Pat Corrales caught that one. But he was able to catch the last one thrown by Jim Maloney in 1969 against the Houston Astros. Maloney, one of the best right-handed starters ever for the Reds, had previously thrown no-hitters against the Mets (he lost that 1-0 in 11 innings) and the Cubs (he won that one 1-0 in 10 innings thanks to a Leo Cardenas home run.) There wasn’t as much drama against the Astros– the Reds won 10-0 as Maloney struck out 13 batters. Bench contributed one out himself as he picked Jimmy Wynn off first base after a Maloney walk.
There are certainly others– not once, but twice, Bench hit three home runs off Steve Carlton in the same game; the first was in 1970, the second in 1973. And Carlton, a Hall of Famer, was wicked tough. Or how about the game on June 30, 1970 when he was on the field when the Reds closed Crosley Field after Wayne Granger retired Bobby Bonds in the 9th inning, his torrid home run stretch in 1972 or his appearance on Mission Impossible in 1970.
Some of you may have your own personal memories of him that would make your own list.
Today, he’s an ambassador for baseball. He’s still a Cincinnati Red. Always will be.
And Johnny Bench is still the Greatest Catcher of All Time.