Bench, Johnny Lee

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BENCH, Johnny Lee

(b. 7 December 1947 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), catcher known for controlling the game on both sides of the plate, a distinction that made him the standard by which catchers are judged.

Bench, a Native American, was the third of four children of Ted and Katy Bench. Ted, a truck driver, played semi-professional baseball in Oklahoma and realized his own dream of becoming a major leaguer through his youngest son. At Binger (Oklahoma) High School, Bench was All-State in both basketball and baseball as well as the valedictorian of his graduating class.

Selected during the 1965 amateur draft by the Cincinnati Reds, Bench spent the next few seasons in the minors. As an eighteen-year-old backstop for Peninsula of the Carolina league in 1966, he hit twenty-two home runs in ninety-eight games and was labeled a "can't miss" prospect. The following season he spent four months at Buffalo before taking over the catching duties for the Cincinnati Reds in August 1967.

In 1968, his rookie year, the six-foot, one-inch, 210-pound Bench set records for number of games caught by a rookie (154) and doubles by a catcher (40) and became the first backstop to win the National League's Rookie of the Year Award. The following year, he collected twenty-six home runs and 90 RBI, and became the cleanup hitter for a Reds team that finished in third place, behind Atlanta and San Francisco in the National League's Western Division. Bench became the most feared power hitter on the dominant team of the 1970s.

Bench batted fourth or fifth for Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, which boosted a lineup of stars like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster, and Dave Concepcion. With Bench's leadership behind the plate and his big bat in the lineup, the Reds won six division titles, four pennants, and two World Series between 1970 and 1977. The first of his two Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards came in 1970 when he hit a league-leading 45 homers and 148 RBI, both of which were all-time records for catchers. His second MVP award came in 1972 when he led the league again in homers (40) and RBI (125). But Bench, always one to give credit where it was due, attributed the success of the Big Red Machine to first baseman Tony Perez. "We were able to capture back-to-back world championships in 1975 and 1976 with the game we played best; power, speed, and defense," he said. "But mostly we were steady, and nobody gave us that sense of equilibrium more than Tony Perez. We were winners with him, for so many reasons people not close to the club would never see. Tony's 'stay-with-'em' attitude allowed us to block out all the other pressures of playing the game to concentrate on what really mattered."

Playing with conditions that included broken bones in his feet, numerous knee problems, and what turned out to be a benign lesion on one of his lungs, the native Oklahoman redefined the catching position with his one-handed style, his sweep tag, his catlike quickness and his powerful arm. His oversized, hinged mitt would later become an essential part of every catcher's equipment. He set an endurance record by catching a hundred or more games for thirteen consecutive seasons between 1968 and 1980. By the end of his seventeen-year career, Bench's defensive prowess earned him thirteen consecutive All-Star appearances as well as National League records for catchers, with 9,260 putouts and 10,110 total chances, while also compiling ten Gold Gloves and a .990 fielding average.

Offensively, Bench was just as outstanding, with a career .267 batting average, 389 home runs, and 1,376 RBI. From 1970 to 1980 he averaged 31 home runs and 108 RBI, remarkable statistics for a catcher given the physical abuse endured behind the plate. "Johnny Bench is the greatest athlete who has ever played the game," said Reds manager Sparky Anderson. "It's almost pitiful that one man should have so much talent."

By 1981 Bench was worn out from catching and repeatedly asked to shift to another position. The Reds complied, moving him to first base and later to third before he retired from the game in 1983. He spent nine years with CBS Radio, broadcasting the National Game of the Week, the All-Star Game, the League Championship Series, and the World Series. He has also called Reds baseball games on both television and radio.

During his playing career, Bench dated several women but was very discreet in his relationships. In 1975 he was briefly married to Vicki Chesser, a model from South Carolina, but has since sworn himself to bachelorhood.

Throughout his professional career, the star catcher used his celebrity status to aid worthy causes, including the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Kidney Foundation, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He spent many off seasons appearing in the "Bob Hope Christmas Show." He also actively supports the Cincinnati Orchestra, the Museum of Science and Industry, and his own Johnny Bench Scholarship Fund, which grants financial aid to Greater Cincinnati–area college students.

"People who are sick and less fortunate are wild about their sports heroes," Bench said. "I became sensitive to that after surgeons found a lesion on one of my lungs [after the 1972 season]. That operation had made me well aware of how vulnerable and how mortal I am, that we all are." Bench often avoided the publicity attached to his community service because of a concern that the press would misinterpret his intentions. "When you're in the business I am in, most people see you the way they want to; not for who you really are," he once explained.

Bench was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989, and in 1998 Sporting News named him the greatest catcher ever and the sixteenth-greatest player of all time. A year later he was selected by fans to the All-Century team.

Today Bench serves as a special consultant to the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds and plays on the Senior Professional Golf tour. He lives with his twelve-year-old son in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Bench's autobiography was written with William Brashler and is titled Catch You Later: The Autobiography of Johnny Bench (1979). For more information on his career, see Johnny Bench with John Sammis, Catching and Power Hitting (1975).

William Kashatus