American baseball player
The name Johnny Bench is synonymous with baseball catcher. When Bench came on the Major League Baseball scene in 1968 with the Cincinnati Reds, he became
the first catcher ever to win the National League Rookie of the Year award by showing fans what a good catcher can be both behind the plate and at bat. With his keen eyesight, strong throwing arm, great agility, and savvy working relationship with pitchers, Bench was a defensive force who set records for playing a hundred or more games in thirteen consecutive seasons. Although he developed new catching and throwing postures that made him very effective and helped prevent injury, he still played with injuries to his feet, hands, and back. On the other side of the plate, cleanup hitter Bench could muscle the ball into the outfield and over the fence. Bench finished his career with a then record (for a catcher) 389 home runs. All told, Bench was a pivotal cog in the workings of what became known as Cincinnati's Big Red Machine.
Johnny Lee Bench was born on December 7, 1947, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and raised nearby in the small town of Binger. With his father, a truck driver and one-time semiprofessional baseball player, homemaker mother, two older brothers and a younger sister, Bench formed a close-knit family. Like many boys around Binger, he picked cotton, delivered newspapers, and played sandlot baseball. Unlike the other boys, though, Bench consistently expressed his desire to play ball professionally, a revelation that earned guffaws from his classmates. Yet his father took him seriously. He coached and financially supported Binger's Little League team for several years. The Bench family liked to watch "Game of the Week" on Saturdays. Johnny listened to players give tips and dreamed about being a professional ballplayer like Oklahoma native Mickey Mantle .
Bench was a serious student, earning good grades in high school, and he played both baseball and basketball, for a time preferring basketball. He had big hands and feet, and was able to palm a basketball or hold seven baseballs in one hand. As a teen, hefting 100-pound bags of peanuts onto trucks built up his muscles without needing a weight room. Bench was known as a fastball pitcher, but he also learned the role of catcher as his father advised. "When I wasn't playing I was watching games, just eating and living and breathing sports," Bench recalled in his autobiography, Catch You Later. At age fifteen he was competing against boys several years older in American Legion baseball. In 1965 on a return trip from an out-of-town baseball game, the breaks on the Binger Bobcat team bus failed. At an intersection the bus jumped flipped over the rail and rolled down an incline toward a ravine. Bench hit floor and held on to the bottom of the seat. When the bus stopped rolling, his feet were hanging out the back door, and two teammates lay dead on the hill. This event sobered Bench and he attributed to it a reticence in making friends later in life.
Even so, the seventeen-year-old was about to see a dream come true. He was offered college scholarships to play both basketball or baseball—and he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds organization. Bench played in the minor leagues in Tampa, Florida and the following year played Class A ball in the Carolina League. At this time he started wearing his batting helmet backwards while he caught to protect his head from foul tips and back swings. Unfortunately he couldn't protect his right hand from a foul tip in Buffalo, and his season ended with a broken thumb. While recuperating in Binger, Bench was in a serious automobile accident when a drunk entered the highway on an exit ramp.
Despite being so beaten up, he was ready to play the next spring, and by August of 1967 he was called up to the Cincinnati Reds. Again, this season ended with a split thumb for Bench, who realized that even though he had a great throwing arm, it wasn't any good unless he could handle the ball well. So taking a cue from Cubs receiver Randy Hundley, Bench started hiding his right hand behind him and caught one-handed. "I also creased the catcher's glove diagonally instead of using it like a saucer. That way I could catch more with one hand. My hands are big enough to control the catcher's glove, so the technique was a natural for me," he recalled in his autobiography. By using the batting helmet and the new one-handed technique, Bench was able to spend less time thinking about his safety and more time thinking about the batter, pitcher, and base runners. Bench caught 154 games in 1968, setting a record for a rookie catcher, earning the first of his ten Gold Glove awards, and winning the Rookie of the Year honor.
Drives the "Big Red Machine"
During the 1970s the Cincinnati Reds were one of the dominant teams in baseball, reaching the postseason six times and ending their seasons in second place three other years. Bench was an important gear in that machine. Behind the plate, he took charge of the game. Bench made it a point to know well the ability of his pitchers and the favored pitches of the opposing batters. As Bench noted in his autobiography, "A catcher has to learn how to get the best out of a pitcher, to let him be himself, go to his strengths, and yet still be effective." He continued, "I try to get along personally with pitchers, but the most important thing is to somehow get them to have faith in you in not only receiving but calling the pitches."
According to Bench, part of a catcher's role is to "negotiate umpires," that is, tell them when they could do better, but in a respectful way so as not to get thrown out of the game. "I have a guarded respect for them. I live with them every day and we get along," he once said. "I'll argue because it is essential to beef about bad calls. You cannot feel intimidated or threatened by an umpire. He's human and will use his leverage against you. Getting your say, and keeping an umpire thinking is important for the pitcher and everybody else." Because Bench was so effective in calling the pitches, signaling defensive positions to fielders, and dealing with umpires, he earned the moniker "Little General." Even so, when new manager Sparky Anderson came on board in 1970, he made Pete Rose the team captain, which at first irked the cocky Bench.
|1947||Born December 7 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Ted and Katie Bench|
|1965||Selected during amateur draft by Cincinnati Reds|
|1966||Plays in Carolina League (minor leagues)|
|1967-83||Plays catcher for the National League Cincinnati Reds|
|1983||Bench retires from Major League Baseball|
|1984-93||Works as broadcaster for CBS Radio|
Bench's defensive skills awed fans. Photographers snapped pictures of him holding seven baseballs in one hand. Bench made the oversized glove and backwards batting helmet regular parts of catcher apparel. His posture insured that he could quickly adjust to block an otherwise wild pitch and also minimized the motion needed before he could release a throw. Bench was fond of telling how his father had made him practice throwing twice the distance that a catcher would have to throw from home plate to any base. With his powerful arm, he could and often did throw out runners trying to steal. "Everyone marveled at his arm," Anderson recalled in Sparky. "It was a cannon but others threw harder. What made him so deadly were his quick feet. He got into position to throw faster than a dancer. If he was in a throwing contest, Bench would have the ball on its way to second while the other guys were just cocking their arms." An indicator of his phenomenal defensive skills is this statistic: Bench put out 9,260 runners out of 10,110 chances. For ten years running, Bench won the National League's Gold Glove award. "When we got into a tight game, we never worried about the other team running on us," Anderson revealed. "They had to hit the ball to beat us. Do you realize the edge that gave us over a 162-game season?"
In the lineup Bench rose to the cleanup position, batting fourth or fifth, along with other productive hitters Pete Rose, Joe Morgan , Tony Perez, George Foster, and Dave Conception. During the regular season, he was often a slow starter and streaky batter—either he had it or he didn't—but in post-season games his batting average jumped. According to Anderson, "Bench was a catcher with the batting stats of an outfielder. … He had so much power he looked like a man playing against little boys." Even in their new, more spacious ballpark, Riverfront Stadium, in 1970, Bench hit forty-five home runs and batted in 148 runs, leading the Reds to 102 wins for the season and victory in the National League West by fourteen and a half games—and earning a league Most Valuable Player award. "I had a season I previously only dreamed about," Bench recalled, adding, "It was the kind of year where everything fell in place. I was strong, injury-free, and helping the team in almost every way." Although the Reds swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League playoffs, they lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles.
Matures as Player
Bench and the entire team suffered from a slump in 1971, dropping to fourth place in their only losing season of the 1970s. Like all professional athletes, baseball players have to deal with injuries, particularly muscle pulls, strains, and tears from quick sprints, awkward slides, collisions, and getting hit by the ball. Catchers get often get nicked by foul tips and block pitches and throws with their bodies. Bench spent most of the 1971 season playing injured. While his defense was sound, his offense was dismal. Frustrated, he analyzed his batting stance, tried new techniques, changed helmets, and changed grips. Nothing helped. The team heard jokes about the Big Red Machine turning into an Edsel, and the formerly confident Bench searched his soul. He remembered in Catch You Later, "Going from MVP to MDP [Most Disappointing Player] was a crucial period for me, the closest thing to anything like an identity crisis kids my age had in college or thereabouts." Yet he suffered through this drought and doubt period
The following year, Bench recovered his hitting power with a vengeance. He led the National League in home runs with forty and runs batted in with 125, earning another league Most Valuable Player award. Ironically, during the last months of the 1972 season, a routine physical turned up a spot on Bench's lung. He kept his condition a secret until the end of the season. He even hit a crucial home run to tie the pivotal game of the league championship series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which was then won on a run scored from a wild pitch. After the Reds lost the World Series 4 to 3 to Oakland, Bench had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed from his lung. "I was a new man," Bench recalled in Catch You Later. "The weight of that September diagnosis had been removed. I had a lot of years left."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1967||Named Minor League Player of the Year by Sporting News|
|1968||Named Rookie of the Year by Sporting News and Baseball Writers' Association of America|
|1968-77||Earned ten Gold Glove awards|
|1968-80||Named to All-Star team fourteen times|
|1970||Named National League Most Valuable Player and Major League Player of the Year|
|1972||Named National League Most Valuable Player|
|1975-76||Cincinnati Reds World Series Champions|
|1976||World Series Most Valuable Player|
|1983||Cincinnati Reds establish Johnny Bench Scholarship Fund|
|1989||Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame|
|1996||His No. 5 jersey is retired by the Cincinnati Reds|
|1998||Named greatest catcher ever by Sporting News|
|1999||Selected by fans to the All-Century team|
Catch You Later
Strength alone is no real indicator of anything. You must have the reflexes, the agility, the coordination to go along with it. The Reds were once tested on reflex action and I scored the highest on every exercise. That and the size of my hands have helped me a lot. My strength came, I think, from some of the work I did back in Oklahoma. I still remember throwing 100-pound sacks of peanuts onto the trucks until I was ready to drop….
But there have been a lot of strong catchers who have also been bad ones. It takes a lot more than beef. One thing that never fails to make a catcher look bad is the fact that he has to deal with pitchers. That takes a lot more than big hands and a mask. Pitchers are a breed unto themselves.
A catcher has to learn how to get the best out of a pitcher, to let him be himself, go to his strengths, and yet still be effective….
Source: Johnny Bench (with William Brashler). Catch You Later: The Autobiography of Johnny Bench, Harper, 1979, p. 124.
Reds Pick Up Steam
During the 1973 and 1974 seasons, the Reds worked their way to the top. In 1973 they overtook the front-running Los Angeles Dodgers in September but lost the Pennant to the New York Mets, 3 to 2. In 1974 they ended the season in second place behind the Dodgers. Then years 1975 and 1976 were stellar for the Reds as they won back-to-back world titles. However, Bench suffered a shoulder injury in mid-April when a player collided with him at home plate. Even though he had severely damaged cartilage at the top of his shoulder, Bench played hurt until the end of the season. The Reds ended the 1975 season with 108 wins and a winning margin of twenty games, a club record. In the post-season the Big Red Machine beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in three games to win the National League Pennant and triumphed over the Boston Red Sox in seven games to win the World Series. It was the Reds' first world title in thirty-five years and the third in franchise history. Yet, while winning the world title was satisfying for Bench, his several painful injuries hurt his performance, particularly at the plate, and made him question the wisdom of playing hurt. "I came to realize that the Iron Man philosophy is filled with holes, that today's injured hero doesn't play tomorrow. The body must be understood and catered to. In pro sports, it's all you really have," he explained in his autobiography. After this experience, he determined that he'd no longer play injured.
In 1976 the Reds won 108 games in the regular season. Then they won seven consecutive games in the playoffs and World Series—against Philadelphia, and the New York Yankees. The Reds became the only team in history to sweep the playoffs and World Series. Plagued with muscle spasms in his back, Bench had an off year during the regular season, batting only .234. Yet after discovering that the spasms were linked to a deficiency in potassium, he began taking salt tablets. His performance improved by September and during the National League playoffs and the World Series he rose to the occasion. All told, during the playoffs he batted .333. In the World Series, he went eight for fifteen, with four extra base hits, two of which were home runs, earning six RBIs in four games. Longtime Reds skipper Sparky Anderson has more than once called Bench the best catcher in the business. "Bench was the greatest catcher that ever lived," Anderson wrote in Sparky. "No one ever played his position better than he did. He also delivered key hits all the time."
Of all the positions in baseball, the catcher's is the most physically demanding, so their longevity is limited. Bench suffered from various injuries throughout his career. "I had 15, 16 broken bones and seven broken cups," he once told a Houston Chronicle reporter. In 1978 Bench suffered another back injury at home plate and a few days later broke a bone in his foot. For several years, he played in constant pain and his numbers showed it. The team's fortunes dimmed too as key players became free agents and left the team. In 1981 Bench asked to be moved to another position. For awhile he played first base, then third. Finally, when the Reds finished in last place in 1983, the Big Red Machine ground to a halt and Bench retired.
|CIN: Cincinnati Reds.|
Can't Take the Game Outta the Man
Although Bench retired from Major League baseball, the sport has continued to be an important part of his life. Over the years he has appeared on numerous television programs for the ESPN and Fox Sports networks. For nine years he worked for CBS Radio, broadcasting the National Game of the Week, the All-Star Game, and the League Championship Series. He has also served as a consultant to the Reds, when their catchers need help with their technique. He is the longtime spokesman for Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank and national retailer S&K Menswear. Using his celebrity status to help others, Bench has also often supported medical causes, such as the Heart Association, the American Cancer Society's Athletes vs. Cancer, the Kidney Foundation, and
the American Lung Association. The Johnny Bench Scholarship Fund, which was instituted by the Reds in 1983 to honor Bench's contributions to the team, supports scholar-athletes from Binger, Oklahoma, and from Southwestern Ohio.
In 1989, on the first ballot in which he was eligible, Johnny Bench was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. When Bench was a rookie, he had gotten a baseball signed by the famed hitter Ted Williams . "To Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer for sure." Williams didn't need a crystal ball to make this prediction—he knew talent when he saw it. Bench's plaque in the Hall of Fame succinctly summarizes his achievements: "Johnny Lee Bench, Cincinnati. N.L., 1967-1983, redefined standards by which catchers are measured during 17 seasons with 'Big Red Machine.' Controlled game on both sides of plate with his hitting (389 homers—record 327 as a catcher, 1,376 RBI's), throwing out opposing base runners, calling pitches and blocking home plate. N.L. MVP, 1970 and 1972. Won 10 Gold Gloves. Last game, 9th inning homer led to 1972 Pennant."
Bench likes to share the secrets of his success. As a public speaker, he promotes the formula for success that has worked so well for him on and off the ball field, which he calls the Vowels of Success: "A is the ATTITUDE that you have to have. The attitude you take to your job. E is the EFFORT and the ENERGY that you have to put into something. You know it really is not that hard to give somebody an honest effort. I is for you as an INDIVIDUAL. Each individual has to have their own responsibility. Even as individuals, we must work together as a team. O is the OPPORTUNITY. The opportunities that will come your way. U is the YOU. You are very special and you always have to treat yourself that way." Bench honed his natural talent through hard work and took advantage of the opportunities that came along, in the process becoming the best catcher of his time and making innovations in catching technique that have served other receivers well to this day.
Address: Johnny Bench, P.O. Box 5377, Cincinnati, OH 45201.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY BENCH:
From Behind the Plate, Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Catching and Power Hitting, Viking, 1975.
(With William Brashler) Catch You Later: The Autobiography of Johnny Bench, Harper, 1979.
(With Larry Burke) The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baseball, Alpha Books, 1999.
Where Is He Now?
Johnny Bench lives in Anderson Township, near Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a radio broadcaster, motivational public speaker, and spokesman for a bank. An avid golfer, he is attempting to compete on the PGA Senior Tour.
(With Rich Pilling and Paul Cunningham) Major League Baseball's Best Shots, Dorling Kindersley, 2000.
Anderson, Sparky, with Dan Ewald. Sparky! New York: Prentice-Hall, 1990.
Bench, Johnny, and William Brashler. Catch You Later: The Autobiography of Johnny Bench. New York: Harper, 1979.
Owens, Thomas S. Great Catchers. New York: Metro Books, 1997.
Rhodes, Greg, and John Erardi. Big Red Dynasty. Cincinnati: Road West Publishing, 1997.
Vancil, Mark, and Peter Hirdt, editors. The All-Century Team. Chicago: Rare Air Books, 1999.
Baseball Hall of Fame. http://baseballhalloffame.org/ (October 10, 2002).
JohnnyBench.com. http://johnnybench.com/ (October 10, 2002).
"Johnny Bench Bibliography." Baseball Library. http://www.baseballLibrary.com/ (October 10, 2002).
Major League Baseball. World Series Videos: 1970: Baltimore 4, Cincinnati 1; 1972: Oakland 4, Cincinnati 3; 1975: Cincinnati 4, Boston 3; 1976: Cincinnati 4, NY (AL) 0.
"Player Pages: Johnny Bench." The Baseball Page. http://www.thebaseballpage.com/ (October 10, 2002).
Sketch by Jeanne Lesinski