“The way I see it, the first thing you want in a catcher is the ability to handle the pitchers. Then you want defensive skill, and, of course, the good arm. Last of all, if he can hit with power, well, then you’ve got a Johnny Bench,” said longtime front office executive Frank Cashen. Reds manager Sparky Anderson was more succinct: “I don’t want to embarrass any other catchers by comparing him with Johnny Bench.”
Bench, raised in the tiny town of Binger, Okla., was taught catching at an early age by his father. Making his major league debut in 1967 at the age of 19, he would go on to play his entire 17-year big league career (1967-83) with the Reds, providing everything you could ask of from a backstop.
As the leader of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine team of the 1970s, in which he helped the franchise to four National League pennants and two World Series titles, the rugged and durable Bench was a 10-time Gold Glove Award winner as the result of his skilled handling of pitchers, unparalleled defensive skills and a lightning quick throwing arm that would intimidate would-be base runners. Bench also provided a potent bat, knocking out 389 home runs and leading the league in RBI three times and homers twice. Highly honored during his career, Bench won the 1968 NL Rookie of the Year, was a two-time NL MVP (1970 and 1972) and 14-time All-Star.
When Ted Williams once autographed a baseball for Bench, he wrote, “To Johnny, a Hall of Famer for sure.”
Bench received the game’s ultimate honor when he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989. “Johnny Bench’s desire to succeed and his excellent work habits were two of the reasons why he was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot,” said longtime Orioles manager and fellow Hall of Famer Earl Weaver.
Bench spent part of his Hall of Fame induction speech putting the honor in perspective. “I had no idea that the Hall of Fame was waiting for me. I don't think that any youngster ever dreams of that or ever thinks that's possible. You might think of All Star games and World Series but certainly you wouldn't think of the Hall of Fame because that is a place for the fantasies.”