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Conversations with the Herd: Hall of Famer Johnny Bench

By: Brian Frank

Johnny Bench knew what he wanted to do with his life from a young age. In a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles, Bench said he remembers seeing fellow Oklahoma native Mickey Mantle on television when he was only about three and a half years old. He recalls turning to his dad and asking “You can be from Oklahoma and play in the major leagues?” From that point on, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

“My dad started a team when I was six years old,” he remembered. “We drove around in the back of a pickup truck with our Levi’s and t-shirts. We lived in a town of 661 people and we actually had to go around and knock on doors to try find an eighth or ninth kid to play.”

His father, Ted Bench, was a major influence on him throughout his life.

“My dad was a catcher who wanted to play in the major leagues but he served eight years in the war,” Bench said. “He enlisted out of high school. In fact, he didn’t graduate. He joined right away when the bombs hit in Pearl Harbor. He served eight years. He was 25 by the time he got out. It doesn’t sound old today, but it was old back in those days. He never got the chance, but he always talked about playing baseball.”

“My dad started me out as a catcher, but I also had a good arm so I pitched,” Bench continued. “As it turned out I pitched most of my career. I was the number one pitcher in the county and a catcher. I was 84-3 lifetime pitching, so that worked out well. When I pitched, we had a kid, Ronny Paul, catch. Paul would play third, but he didn’t like to play third, so he caught and I would play third. Then I went to American Legion and it was in another town, and I wasn’t on the list of catchers, so I was a first baseman and a pitcher. I didn’t catch really until after… Well I caught some in high school at Binger and at Anadarko. I only caught 17 games before I was drafted and signed with the Reds.”

After being named All-State in both baseball and basketball, and graduating as the valedictorian of Binger High School, he was drafted by the Reds with the 36th overall pick in the second round of the 1965 amateur draft.

“I knew the Cubs scout named Billy Capps was in love with me – and it was just by accident that I was drafted by the Reds,” Bench remembered. “They (the Reds) didn’t know who I was. They had a meeting and somebody asked them, ‘What do you think about Bench?’ They said, ‘We’re not that high on him.’ Then they walked out of the room and said, ‘Who are they talking about?’ They sent two scouts in and saw me play two games and then they drafted me in the second round.”

“The only thing I knew about the Reds at the time was they had lost to the Yankees in ’61,” he continued. “Mantle of course was my idol, being from Oklahoma. That’s all I knew about them. Then I started reading about them and they’d had Frank Robinson, Joey Jay, (Wally) Post, and Vada Pinson, guys that were really, really good players.”

At just 17 years old, Bench headed to Tampa, Florida, to begin his professional baseball career playing in the Florida State League

“I went to Tampa, got off the plane, went to the ballpark, dressed in my uniform, warmed up the pitcher in the bullpen in the seventh, warmed up the pitcher at home plate in the eighth, and then I caught the ninth inning of that ballgame,” he said. “They released the other catcher that night.”

“I had no place to stay. I slept on a hideaway couch in some of the pitchers’ apartment. I had to throw my stuff together and we went to Miami the next day in six station wagons, loaded up and headed to what was then where spring training was for the Orioles, in that huge ballpark. Walls that were 20 feet high all the way around. I faced the number one base stealer – Steve Kolinsky, I can still remember his name. Here I was walking around down there on Biscayne Boulevard or Collins Avenue. I had no clue. Oklahoma City was big, but Miami… it wasn’t that big at the time but all I had to do was get my three-dollar meal money and go to the ballpark and play and take the bus back to the hotel. If there was a coffee shop open we ate and if there wasn’t then you just went to bed.”

He spent the next season playing for the Carolina League’s Peninsula Grays in Hampton, Virginia. He won the league’s Player of the Year Award, hitting .294 with a franchise record 22 home runs and a team leading 68 RBIs in 98 games. He was promoted to Triple-A Buffalo in late July.

The Buffalo News reported at the time Bench arrived in Buffalo that, “Not since Johnny Groth in 1948 had the Bisons received such a celebrated rookie.”

Bench’s first game playing for the Bisons drew a huge crowd because it was Meat Cutters Union Day, with the union buying out the stadium for a flat fee and then distributing the tickets. In front of the largest baseball crowd at War Memorial Stadium in five years, 20,965 fans, 18-year-old Bench was poised to make his Bisons debut.

Bisons coach and Buffalo native Sibby Sisti told the Buffalo News that Bench “put on a hitting show in batting practice.”

Bench was batting eighth and catching in the first game of a doubleheader against the Richmond Braves.

“I can still remember the third batter was a guy named Smokey Garrett,” Bench said, “and he foul tipped the ball into my thumb and broke it – and I was done.”

The broken thumb ended his season with the Herd before he even had an at-bat – and things were about to get even worse for him.

“I went back to Oklahoma,” he remembered. “I went up to see a friend of mine. Driving back, I pulled out on a four-lane to pass a bus and there was an Oldsmobile on the wrong side of the road, a drunk driver. He hit me in the door.”

Lucky to escape the accident alive, the injuries he sustained would linger throughout his career and still bother him to this day.

“I’ve been suffering with it – back problems and everything else,” he said. “But it didn’t break any bones. That was a miracle. That’s what the doctor said, that it was amazing. Anyway, I went to the instructional league after that and I got a chance to come back to Buffalo in 1967.”

He spent pretty much the entire ’67 season with the Bisons and has many great memories of that year.

“I stayed at the Kenmore Apartments which used to be the Kenmore Theatre, then it became the Kenmore Apartments, right across the street from Angelo’s, the best pizza place in the world,” he recalled. “I ate there 90 percent of the time.”

The 19-year-old prospect roomed on the road with a player 11 years older than him, 30-year-old Steve Boros. Boros, who went on to a long career as a major-league manager and coach, had already played in parts of seven big-league seasons with the Tigers and Reds.

“He was a reader,” Bench said of Boros. “He was quiet. He was just so confident and smooth. He was an older guy that had done his duty. He’d been on the road so long, he was just used to staying in his room reading. He would talk philosophy and talk about baseball.”

Bench remembers being mentored by Boros and some of his other older teammates.

“I had trouble with the curveball,” he said, “and Dom Zanni and Jim Duffalo said, ‘You’re coming to the park kid.’ So we went out about 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon and they threw me curveball after curveball after curveball to try to improve me hitting the curveball. The next night I hit two home runs off Sam Jones.”

“We had Duke Carmel at first,” he continued. “Gordy Coleman got sent down. We had Lenny ‘Boom Boom’ Boehmer, and we had a bunch of older guys. I just kept my head down. The guys took me out and watched after me. They were great guardians and mentors. I’ll never forget them for what they gave to me.”

Bench with the Bisons.

Another young prospect on the Bisons at the time was 21-year-old Hal McRae, who was promoted to Buffalo at the beginning of July. McRae would go on to collect 2,091 hits and 191 home runs in 19 big-league seasons, as well as manage the Kansas City Royals for four seasons and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for two.

“Hal and I were drafted the same year,” Bench said. “We were in Tampa, Florida together. Hal was just one of those guys – one of his favorite expressions was about the meal money, which wasn’t much, it was ‘sleep late, eat once, take home plenty.’ I’ll remember that until my dying day. He was just a natural. He came out of Florida. He could run and he could really do a little bit of everything. He was funny. He loved the game of baseball – and he could hit. But I don’t think at that time I could imagine him having his career that he had because I didn’t know what career I was going to have. We were just young kids. We had blinkers on basically. We were there to play. It was our life and our love and that’s why I guess we both made it and did well.”

Bench also served in the U.S. Army Reserve while playing for the Bisons.

“In 1966, they put me in the Army Reserve and I did basic training at Fort Knox and combat support training at Fort Dix,” he said. “Then I had to make monthly meetings in Cincinnati. I had monthly meetings for the reserves and so I had to be back for that. I became an assistant cook when I got to Cincinnati but I was in the field artillery unit. I went over to an engineering group – they transferred me over to that. So I had to do summer training – two weeks training for the army. So I had to skip two weeks out of the season each year.”

Lou Fitzgerald began the 1967 season as Buffalo’s manager.

“He was a wonderful baseball man, terrific,” Bench said of Fitzgerald. “A story about Lou Fitzgerald that’s very interesting is he had a – well it wasn’t (in Buffalo) I don’t think, he was managing somewhere else and this kid from the major leagues couldn’t throw a strike. So they sent him down and said pitch him – I don’t care how many he walks, keep him in the game. Lou said to him before the game started, ‘I don’t care if you walk 27 people, you’re going to be in there for nine innings.’ The pitcher started the game and he walked the first three batters. Lou came out and the pitcher was ready to hand the ball to him and Lou said, ‘Nope. You have 24 to go.’ That’s one of my favorite stories.”

However, after a slow start, the Reds moved Fitzgerald to their Double-A affiliate, the Knoxville Smokies, and promoted 36-year-old Knoxville manager Don Zimmer to lead Buffalo. Zimmer, who’d go on to a long career as a manager and coach, was in his first season as a manager.

“Then Don took over,” Bench said. “He was the greatest, most absolute wonderful guy in the world.”

Of course, Bench remembers playing games at War Memorial Stadium, affectionately known locally as The Rockpile.

“It was the football field as well – and they put the fence up around there and they had the short right-field porch,” he said. “I think I hit one home run into right field off Sam that day I hit two home runs. I was just playing baseball. You’re playing in the stadium where The Natural would be later on.”

However, as the season went on, games had to be moved to Hyde Park in Niagara Falls due to police warnings about unsafe conditions in the neighborhood surrounding War Memorial Stadium and the recommendation that night games not be played there.

“We had to go all the way over to Niagara Falls to finish the season,” he said. “It wasn’t the greatest, but I got to go by the Falls every day – I mean it was an unbelievable experience.”

The conditions at Hyde Park were slightly less than major-league.

“It was just like a snow fence they put around the outside of this football field,” Bench said. “We had the marker lines going across the field and they were uneven – and they weren’t lines, they were actually almost dug out. We had the worst field.”

In the first International League game ever played at Niagara Falls, the Bisons played the Rochester Red Wings, led by manager Earl Weaver and starting pitcher Jim Palmer, both future Hall of Famers. The Red Wings jumped out to an early 7-0 lead. But Palmer began to struggle in the third inning. After allowing a run to score, Palmer walked Cal Emery to load the bases for Bench.

“Jim says the manager (Weaver) came out and said ‘Throw it down the middle. He’s just a young kid,’” Bench said. “So I hit the grand slam off him. He said he grooved it because he was just trying to get it over. I don’t find it a big deal in my career, hitting a grand slam off Jim – but Jim does because it was the only one he gave up in his career.”

Nineteen-year-old Bisons slugger.

Bench hit .304 with 47 RBIs in his final 53 games for the Herd. He had a stretch just before being called up to Cincinnati when he went 16-for-25 (.600). In 98 games with the Bisons, he ended up with a .259 batting average. Despite being only 19 years old and missing numerous games due to Army Reserve School – the Buffalo News estimated he missed a “whole month” of the season because of Army Reserve duty – he was leading the league with 68 RBIs when he was called up, eventually finishing just two behind league leader Curt Motton of Rochester. He also led the team with 23 home runs, only two home runs behind league leader Jim Beauchamp of Richmond. He also finished second in the I.L. with a .520 slugging percentage and seventh in the league with an .818 OPS.

Cy Kritzer, who began as a sports reporter at the Buffalo News in 1929, raved about Bench’s play with the Bisons, writing, “No barrier in professional baseball is too far for Bench’s power. In that respect, he is superior to any catcher we’ve seen in our time reporting on the Bisons and the International League.”

Kritzer also wrote that, “Bench is the best catcher to come out of the I.L. since Roy Campanella went up from Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

It wasn’t just his ability to produce at the plate that was impressive. His legendary defensive ability was also evident during his time in Buffalo. Don Zimmer told The Sporting News, “When Bench is catching, you hope the runners try to steal.”

Other teams also took note of the young prospect’s burgeoning greatness. Toronto Maple Leafs manager Eddie Kasko told the Buffalo News, “Bench improves every time you see him. He’s the difference between a winning ballclub and an also-ran. He awes you when you’re operating against him.”

Bench was named the Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the Year when the season ended. He was also named an end of season Topps Triple-A All-Star.

In late August, Bench received word that he’d been called up to the Cincinnati Reds to make his major-league debut.

“Zim called me,” he remembered. “I was staying in a hotel. It was the last week of the season basically and I had given up the apartment and I was staying in a hotel. I can’t believe I remember all this stuff – Buffalo was really special. He called me and said (in Zimmer’s voice), ‘Kid, you’re going to the big leagues. Get out of here. You’re going to do good.’ I said, ‘Thanks Zim.’ Everybody called him ‘Zim.’ I got in my car and drove to Cincinnati and stayed at the Sheraton Hotel the first few nights. When I went to the ballpark and looked at the lineup, I was starting.”

He ended up playing in 26 games for the Reds that season, collecting his first major-league hit in his third game against Phillies hurler Chris Short. He also hit his first big-league home run, off Braves pitcher Jim Britton at Atlanta Stadium.

“I only needed two more at-bats to disqualify myself as a rookie – and I was in the lineup,” he said. “I tried to pick a guy off first base. I think it was (Don) Kessinger that was on first and I tried to pick him off and I swung out to throw it to first and Glenn Beckert reached out and tipped it and it broke my thumb – and that’s how I stayed a rookie.”

His second thumb injury in two seasons caused him to reevaluate how he was receiving the ball behind the plate.

“I had time to think to myself, this is stupid,” he explained. “I broke my thumb twice. This is stupid. Randy Hundley had been using the hinged glove, and I think Elston Howard also. I said I’m going to try that. At that point, I developed my own style and had to learn how to transfer and how to do it – and it came easy. That’s when I started putting my hand down by my thigh. I never had another broken finger after that.”

In 1968, Bench’s first full-season in the big leagues, he showed the world the player he’d be. He hit .275 with 15 home runs and 82 RBIs, and was named the National League Rookie of the Year. He also became the first rookie catcher to win a Gold Glove Award and was an N.L. All-Star. The highlight of his first All-Star Game actually came before the game was even played.

“I was sitting in the clubhouse and I was not going to leave my locker,” he said. “I didn’t want to spike anybody. I’m 20 years old. I was picked as an alternate catcher. I was sitting there and Willie Mays was sitting right across from me – and he walked over to my locker and said, ‘You should have been the starting catcher.’ After that, it didn’t matter what happened the rest of the time, whether I got into the game or not. But I did catch the ninth inning of that ballgame.”

He improved his numbers during his sophomore season, hitting .293 with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs. He also became the youngest player to ever hit a home run in an All-Star game that season. Then in 1970, at just 22 years old, he broke out and won the N.L. Most Valuable Player Award, hitting .293 and leading all of major-league baseball with 45 home runs and 148 RBIs. He hit three home runs in one game that season against future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton – incredibly, a feat he’d repeat three years later against Carlton.

That season, the Reds brought in future Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson to lead the team.

“He was a mentor,” Bench said of Anderson. “He was a friend. He was a great manager – and we saw that coming, because every time he managed he was three or four innings ahead of the other guy. He knew how to manage players, but he listened to us. He would actually call Pete (Rose), Joe (Morgan), Tony (Pérez), and myself in individually and he would ask our opinion on certain players that might be available for a trade. Our first day out of spring training he stopped me and said ‘John, what would you think if we did this, this, and this in spring training.’ And I thought to myself, wow, he thinks I’m a professional. He’s treating me like a man. Before, you always had management at the higher level and the players were just down here at the lower level. When he asked me that, I felt a glow. He had me from the very beginning.”

Bench also played in his first World Series in 1970. He helped lead the 102-60 Reds to a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS. Cincinnati then took on the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Injuries to Cincinnati’s starting pitching ended up being a big factor in the series, which the Orioles won in five games.

“They had four 20-game winners and our starting pitcher was number five in our rotation,” Bench said. “We didn’t quite match up the way it was. It might have been different had Bernie Carbo been called safe at home plate on the missed tag (in Game One). It was a ghost tag and he was called out. It may have changed things. But they were a great team, obviously.”

The Orioles earned Bench’s respect during the series.

“Brooksy is one of my favorite people ever in life,” he said of Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson, who put on a defensive clinic throughout the series.

“I remember Earl (Weaver) running out there to the mound. I guess getting his TV time – I always say that to him anyway. But he was a great manager. I got upset one time about him running out there and I sort of screamed something at him and Sparky said ‘John, he’s earned the respect. He’s earned the respect to do whatever he wants to do.’ So that was the end of that.”

“I was disappointed. We had this great team that didn’t win – and that’s why the trades were made the next year.”

The big trade was acquiring second baseman Joe Morgan, centerfielder César Gerónimo, starting pitcher Jack Billingham, third baseman Denis Menke, and outfielder Ed Armbrister from the Houston Astros. That trade helped form the team that would eventually win back-to-back World Series championships.

In 1972, Bench won his second N.L. MVP after once again leading the major leagues with 40 home runs and 125 RBIs. The Reds defeated the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates in a hard-fought five-game NLCS. In the decisive game five, the Reds trailed 3-2 heading into the ninth inning. Bench showed his flair for the dramatic by hitting a leadoff home run to tie the game. George Foster scored on a wild pitch later in the inning – and the Reds were headed back to the World Series, where they’d face the Oakland A’s.

Home run in the ninth inning of Game Five of the 1972 NLCS.

“The guy we never considered was Gene Tenace,” Bench said of the eventual World Series MVP. “He hit four home runs in that series and it was just totally amazing. It wasn’t in the scouting report that he had that kind of power. We weren’t trying to groove it for him – but he didn’t miss a pitch that entire series.”

The A’s ended up prevailing, winning Game Seven by a score of 3-2. Bench remembers the emotion of the series being demonstrated by his former Bisons teammate Hal McRae when he pinch-hit with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning of Game Seven.

“Hal got up to bat with the bases loaded and hit a deep flyball to left field that Joe Rudi jumped up against the fence and caught,” he said. “It turned out to be a sacrifice fly, but I will always remember Hal coming back to the dugout with tears in his eyes because this was a chance for us to win it. It could have won the game for us.”

Bench played the entire post season with the knowledge that he had a serious health situation. He learned in August of that season that he had a growth on his lung that had to be removed.

“I was very worried,” he remembered. “I found out about it in August. They took all the x-rays, did all the tests, tuberculosis, histoplasmosis, and they did a bronchoscopy but they couldn’t get down to where it was. I knew about it and I knew I was having surgery after the season. I knew it during the playoffs. So if I didn’t play again, I knew I’d been the MVP, I’d been to the White House, I’d done a million things that nobody else could probably achieve, but everybody wanted to achieve.”

“But I wasn’t the same player (after the surgery) because they cut my nerves, they cut bone, they cut muscle. So I wasn’t the same player. I finished up my career okay, but I was suffering a little bit from that and the injuries I’d had in the car wreck when I was 18 were now starting to surface more and more in my back, my shoulders, and elbows. I needed lots of surgeries and stuff to make it happen.”

The Big Red Machine returned to the Fall Classic in 1975. After sweeping the Pirates in the NLCS, they played in what is considered one of the greatest World Series of all-time against the Boston Red Sox.

The Reds took a three games to two lead in the series. Game Six went back-and-forth until Carlton Fisk eventually won it for the Red Sox in the bottom of the 12th inning with a solo home run down the left-field line. The home run, with Fisk waving his arms in the air to coax the ball to stay fair, is still one of the most memorable moments in baseball history.

“Pat Darcy pitched the 11th and he came out to pitch the 12th inning because the only pitcher we had left was Clay Kirby and his arm basically was broke – I mean not really, but he couldn’t pitch,” Bench remembered. “Pat started warming up and he barely got it to home plate. I looked over to the dugout and told Sparky, ‘No chance that we’ll get out of this inning.’ I think what Pete (Rose) said was, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ And Sparky’s wanting to die because now we’ve got to play a Game Seven – and we’d already been through a Game Seven (in 1972) with Oakland.”

The Reds fell behind 3-0 the next day in Game Seven before battling back to win 4-3 and become World Series Champions.

“Nothing like it,” Bench said of the feeling after the game. “Nothing like it. Individually you can be great, but when you walk into that locker room after the World Series, everyone is a winner. Twenty-five players, manager, coaches, equipment men, trainers, everyone. It was one of the most exhilarating things anybody could experience.”

The next season, Bench struggled with back and shoulder issues.

“I had been injured,” he said. “I had cartilage damage and I had to have it removed after the season. So I didn’t have a great year.”

Home run in ninth inning of Game Three of 1976 NLCS ties game.

He made an adjustment to his swing to compensate for the injuries and ended up having his best postseason ever. In the NLCS, he slashed .333/.385/.667 with a game tying home run in the ninth inning of game three, in a three-game sweep over the Phillies. He then won World Series MVP, slashing an incredible .533/.533/1.133 with two home runs, a triple, and a double in a sweep of the Yankees in the World Series.

“That was pretty special,” he said of the Reds undefeated post season. “I ended up hitting .300 plus or something in the playoffs and then had the World Series with the two home runs and six RBIs, the average and everything else – but best of all we were World Champions again.”

“By that time, we became known as one of the great teams in history. You were playing with four guys (Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Pérez and Davey Concepción) who were as good as there’s ever going to be – and then when you say the ‘Great Eight’, and include (George) Foster an MVP, César Gerónimo a Gold Glover. We had Ken Griffey in right field hitting .300. When you start thinking about that, it’s amazing how good that team was and how today it’s still revered and respected.”

The next season, Bench belted 31 home runs and had 109 RBIs. In 1979, he helped lead the Reds to another division title. Cincinnati had the best overall record in baseball during the strike shortened 1981 season, but didn’t make the playoffs because the season was divided into a first and second half with the winner of each qualifying for the playoffs. It was during that season that the wear and tear of catching forced Bench to move out from behind the plate and start playing first and third base on a regular basis.

He ended up announcing his retirement during the 1983 season. The Reds held Johnny Bench Night to honor him on September 17, 1983, at Riverfront Stadium against the Houston Astros. A sold-out crowd of 53,790 fans turned out to pay tribute to their hero and thank Bench for all he’d done in his 17 seasons with the Reds. A 50-minute pregame ceremony honoring Bench preceded the game. Starting at catcher for the final time in his career, Bench gave his fans what they came for when he lined a two-run home run over the left-field wall in the third inning for his 389th and final major-league home run. He put his index finger in the air after he rounded first base and then gave a curtain call when he returned to the dugout.

Johnny Bench night home run.

Bench had given everything in his career for his team and he appreciated the fact that the Reds and the fans had set aside a night to honor him.

“That night was for me,” he said. “The rest of the nights were for the team. But that night was totally for me. I couldn’t believe the crowd and the way it all turned out.”

Two weeks later, in his final major-league at-bat, Bench hit a pinch-hit, two-run single against the San Francisco Giants at Riverfront Stadium – and thus ended one of the most remarkable careers in baseball history.

He finished his career with the most home runs ever by a catcher (since broken), was a two-time N.L. MVP, World Series MVP, 10-time Gold Glove winner, 14-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, two-time major-league home run leader, three-time major-league RBI leader and – perhaps most of all – the leader of one of baseball’s greatest teams, The Big Red Machine. His 389 home runs and 1,376 RBIs are still Reds franchise records. He’s a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, his number 5 is retired by the Reds, and a statue of him stands outside Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Widely regarded as the greatest catcher ever, he was selected as the first-team catcher on Major League Baseball’s All-Time team in 1997 and elected to Baseball’s All-Century team in 1999.

In a career that began in Oklahoma, quickly moved through the minor leagues, and then dominated major-league baseball for 17 seasons, Bench, as his Hall of Fame plaque reads, “redefined standards by which catchers are measured.” Or, as his old manager Sparky Anderson said, “I don’t want to embarrass any other catchers by comparing him to Johnny Bench.”

Bench's statue at the entrance to Great American Ballpark. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles


In the Parade of Legends in Cooperstown in 2023. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles


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