Baseball's greatest catcher
"I remember I said to Red Smith, 'I've seen Campy and Berra, this fellow's better than that. And Red said to me, 'I've seen Dickey and Mickey Cochrane, and this fellow is better than them also. Ergo, Johnny Bench is the best catcher who ever lived," says writer Roger Kahn on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Johnny Bench, who won two MVPs and 10 consecutive Gold Gloves, will be profiled on Tuesday, October 25 at 4 p.m. ET.
Often cited as the best catcher in baseball history,
Selected for 14 All-Star teams, Bench was a lifetime .267 hitter with 389 homers as he set a major league record for home runs by a catcher with 327. (Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza have since passed this mark.) He is the only catcher to ever lead his league in total bases, when he accumulated 315 in 1974.
The righthanded-hitting slugger topped the National League in homers twice, with a career-high 45 in 1970 and 40 in 1972, winning the MVP award both years. He led the league in runs batted in three times (with 148 in 1970, 125 in 1972 and 129 in 1974).In the postseason, Bench's performance rose a notch, as he belted 10 homers, including five in the World Series.
Defensively, the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Bench set the standard for catchers of his era. His exceptionally large hands made him a natural to adopt the hinged mitt and one-handed catching style introduced by the Chicago Cubs' Randy Hundley. An innovator himself, he was the first backstop to wear a protective helmet in a game.
With his throwing hand behind his back to protect it from foul tips, Bench caught 100 or more games in each of his first 13 full seasons to establish a National League record. He also set NL marks for most career putouts and chances, both since surpassed.
Trained by his father Ted to throw 254 feet - twice the distance from home plate to second base - from a crouch, Bench boasted that he could "throw out any runner alive."
Born on Dec. 7, 1947 in Oklahoma City, Bench grew up in the small town of Binger, Okla. Encouraging his son's dream of becoming a major leaguer, his father advised him that the quickest route to the end was as a catcher.
Besides starring behind the plate in high school, Bench also was a basketball standout and was the valedictorian of his graduating class. Selected by the Reds in the second round of the 1965 amateur draft, he had a mediocre year with Tampa of the Florida State League.
While he hit only .163 in 26 games in his introduction to the majors, in spring training of 1968 no less an expert than Ted Williams gave the rookie a baseball signed, "To Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer for sure."
A confident Bench predicted he would be the Rookie of the Year - and then delivered, edging out New York Mets lefthander Jerry Koosman. The first National League receiver to win that honor, Bench hit .275 with 15 homers and 82 RBI while setting the major league record for most games caught by a rookie, 154.
He hit 26 homers and had 90 RBI in 1969. The Big Red Machine matured with Bench. In 1970, his first MVP year, the Reds swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS despite Bench's .222 average. However, they lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles, with Bench batting an even more anemic .211.
After slumping to .238, 27 homers and 61 RBI in 1971, Bench rebounded the next year with his second MVP season. With the Reds trailing the Pirates by a run in Game 5 of the NLCS, Bench homered to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Then the Reds scored another run to win the pennant. However, in the World Series, Bench hit just .261 with one RBI as the Reds fell to the Oakland A's in seven games.
Bench continued to supply a good deal of the power for the Reds through the early 1970s, topping 100 RBI in every season from 1972 to 1975. He hit .263 with one homer and one RBI in the 1973 NLCS, in which the Reds came up short in five games against the Mets. The following year, the Reds dropped to second in the N.L. West even though Bench had one of his better years (.280, 33 homers, 129 RBI).
The Reds were back on top again in 1975, with Bench's 28 homers and 110 RBI leading the team. But it was a different story in the postseason this time, though Bench was not at his best, as the Reds won their first World Series since 1940. Surviving Carlton Fisk's Game 6 homer, they rallied in Game 7 to beat the Boston Red Sox in the Series. Bench managed only a .167 average in the postseason.
It was the complete reverse in 1976. Bench had one of his least productive regular seasons (.234, 16 homers, 74 RBI), but hit .333 as the Reds swept the Phillies in the NLCS and soared to a .533 average, with two homers and six RBI, to win World Series MVP honors as the Reds swept the Yankees. He also demonstrated the quality of his arm by throwing out Mickey Rivers in the first game and dissuaded the Yankees from running on him again for the rest of the Series.
The performance indirectly caused a mini-controversy when Reds manager Sparky Anderson asserted that Yankees catcher Thurman Munson didn't belong in the same ballpark as Bench. The Yankees fired back and then former Dodgers star Duke Snider chimed in with the opinion that Bench would have been only a backup to Roy Campanella.
After a final 100-RBI season in 1977, Bench began to put up numbers that were good but not great. By 1979, when the Reds regained the division title, he was down to 22 homers and 80 RBI and a .250 average with only one RBI in a three-game loss to the Pirates in the NLCS.
Bench lingered in Cincinnati longer and more awkwardly than other members of the Big Red Machine. A mediocre 1980 season (.280, 24 homers, 68 RBI) was followed by an injury plagued 1981 that ended his streak of 100-game seasons behind the plate. Though he hit .309 (the only time he was above .300), he had only 178 at-bats and most of those as a first baseman.
Then, saying that his ailing knees would no longer enable him to catch, he persuaded manager John McNamara to allow him to close out his career as a third baseman. The result in 1982 was not only a team-high 19 errors, but also a marked lack of range that had pitchers complaining about having the best catcher of his era behind them rather than in front of them.
After hitting .255 with 12 home runs in 1983, Bench called it quits. He was only 35.
After retiring, Bench turned to broadcasting with CBS Radio and later had a show on the Reds Radio Network. He also hosts cable golf shows, does considerable charity work, and lectures regularly for substantial fees.
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