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Johnny Bench

Johnny Bench

Position(s):
C, 1B, 3B, CF, LF, OF, RF
Nicknames:
Little General
Born:
December 7, 1947
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6' 1"
Weight:
197 lbs
Major League Debut:
8-28-1967 with CIN
Allstar Selections:
1968 GG, 1968 ROOK, 1969 GG, 1970 GG, 1970 ML, 1970 MVP, 1971 GG, 1972 GG, 1972 MVP, 1973 GG, 1974 GG, 1975 GG, 1975 LG, 1976 BR, 1976 GG, 1976 WsMVP, 1977 GG, 1981 HA
Hall of Fame:
1989

Johnny Bench

"You don't compare anyone to Johnny Bench.  You don't want to embarrass anybody." - Sparky Anderson

Generally considered to be the greatest catcher in major league baseball history, Johnny Bench redefined his position for future generations of receivers.  Big and strong, while also possessing tremendous agility behind the plate and a cannon-like throwing arm that intimidated opposing baserunners, Bench set a standard to which very few catchers have even come close.  A powerful hitter as well, Bench led the National League in home runs twice, and he topped the senior circuit in runs batted in on three separate occasions. 

Biography:

Born on December 7, 1947 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Johnny Lee Bench first began entertaining thoughts of playing major league baseball during the 1950s while watching fellow Oklahoma native Mickey Mantle perform in the World Series on national television.  Bench later revealed that he said to himself at the time, "You mean, you can be from Oklahoma and play in the major leagues!"

After being selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the second round of the 1965 amateur draft, Bench made his major league debut with the team some two years later, in August of 1967.  Although Bench batted only .163 in the 26 games in which he appeared the remainder of the season, his confidence was buoyed in spring training the following year when an impressed Ted Williams presented an autographed baseball to the youngster that said, "To Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer for sure."  The 20-year-old lived up to the high expectations that were set for him by catching 154 games for Cincinnati, hitting 15 home runs, knocking in 82 runs, batting .275, capturing N.L. Rookie of the Year honors, and making the first of 13 straight All-Star Game appearances at catcher for the National League. 

Bench's offensive production surpassed that of every other catcher in the league.  Even more impressive, though, was his tremendous defensive ability, which earned him the first of his 10 consecutive Gold Gloves.  Stating confidently, "I can throw out any man alive," Bench intimidated opposing baserunners with his powerful throwing arm.  Longtime General Manager Harry Dalton expressed his admiration for the young catcher's throwing ability when he commented, "Every time Bench throws, everybody in baseball drools."  Bench also possessed great quickness behind the plate, and he did an exceptional job of handling Cincinnati's pitching staff.  Veteran righthander Jim Maloney once noted, "He'll (Bench) come out on the mound and treat me like a two-year-old, but so help me, I like it."  It was actually an incident that occurred in spring training of 1968 involving Maloney and Bench that enabled the catcher to quickly establish himself as a leader on the team.

Maloney, an eight-year veteran at the time, had endured numerous injuries through the years that significantly reduced the velocity on his once-noted fastball.  Nevertheless, he continued to "shake off" his young catcher's signals for breaking balls, preferring instead to throw his rather mediocre fastball.  An exasperated Bench bluntly told Maloney, "Your fastball's not popping," to which the veteran righthander replied with an expletive.  To prove his point, Bench finally called for a fastball, and after Maloney released his pitch, the catcher dropped his mitt and calmly caught the offering barehanded.  Maloney never again questioned the receiver's signal-calling abilities.

Bench clearly established himself as baseball's best catcher in 1969, hitting 26 homeruns, driving in 90 runs, scoring 83 others, batting .293, and clouting his first All-Star Game home run.  The Reds posted 89 victories – their highest win total since 1965 – and finished a close third in the N.L. West.  It was the following season that  Cincinnati's Big Red Machine began to dominate the senior circuit.   

The Reds captured the National League West title in 1970, winning 102 games, with  Bench leading the way.  Although he received a great deal of support on offense from teammate Tony Perez, who hit 40 home runs, knocked in 129 runs, and batted .317, Bench's powerful bat and gold glove clearly made him the league's Most Valuable Player.  Appearing in 158 of Cincinnati's 162 games (139 of them behind the plate), Bench batted .293 for the second consecutive season, scored 97 runs, and led the National League with 45 home runs and 148 runs batted in.  He also finished second in total bases and third in slugging percentage.  The Reds lost the World Series to Baltimore in five games, but Bench subsequently became the youngest man to be named the National League's Most Valuable Player.       

Bench suffered through a subpar 1971 campaign, and Cincinnati finished fourth in the N.L. West.  However, Bench and the Reds both responded with outstanding 1972 seasons.  Cincinnati captured the division title for the second time in three years, and Bench earned his second Most Valuable Player Award for leading the league with 40 home runs and 125 runs batted in.  He also hit perhaps the most memorable home run of his career against Pittsburgh's ace reliever Dave Giusti in the playoffs.

Cincinnati trailed the decisive fifth game against the Pirates by a score of 3-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning.  Leading off the inning, the righthanded-hitting Bench drove an ouside pitch from Giusti over the rightfield wall, tying the contest at 3-3 and giving his team the momentum it needed to win the game later in the inning on a wild pitch, 4-3.

The Reds lost the 1972 World Series to the Oakland A's in seven games, and they were upset by the underdog New York Mets in the 1973 NLCS after capturing their third N.L. West title in four seasons.  Bench had another solid year in 1973, hitting 25 home runs and driving in 104 runs.  He was even better in each of the next two seasons, though, placing fourth in the league MVP voting in both 1974 and 1975.  In the first of those years, he hit 33 home runs, knocked in a league-leading 129 runs, scored 108 others, and batted .280.  By surpassing the century mark in both RBIs and runs scored in the same season, Bench became only the fourth catcher in major league history to do so.  He then helped lead the Reds to the first of two consecutive world championships in 1975 by hitting 28 home runs, driving in 110 runs, and batting .283.

Injuries greatly reduced Bench's offensive productivity during the second of Cincinnati's consecutive world championship seasons.  However, the Reds were so dominant in 1976 that they won 102 games despite receiving only 16 home runs and 74 runs batted in from their star catcher over the course of the campaign.  Bench returned to top form during the postseason, though, excelling against both the Phillies in the NLCS and the Yankees in the World Series.  After batting .333 against Philadelphia in the playoffs, he captured World Series MVP honors by hitting .533, with two home runs and six runs batted in during Cincinnati's four-game sweep of New York in the Fall Classic.  Reds manager Sparky Anderson subsequently ruffled a few feathers at the post-World Series press conference.  Asked by a journalist to compare Yankee catcher Thurman Munson (who batted .529 during the Series) to Bench, Anderson replied, "You don't compare anyone to Johnny Bench.  You don't want to embarrass anybody."

Bench had his last big year for Cincinnati in 1977, hitting 31 home runs, driving in 109 runs, and batting .275.  His playing time reduced in subsequent seasons due to injury, Bench failed to produce numbers that even approached his 1977 figures in his six remaining seasons.  He never again hit more than 24 home runs or knocked in more than 80 runs.  However, he batted over .300 for the only time in his career in 1981, when he hit .309 in just 52 games for the Reds.  Splitting time between catcher, first base, and third base, he continued to play through 1983, when he decided to announce his retirement.  Bench finished with 389 home runs, 1,376 runs batted in, and a .267 batting average.  He surpassed 30 homers four times, 100 runs batted in six times, and 100 runs scored once, and he batted over .280 on five separate occasions.  In addition to winning 10 Gold Gloves, he appeared in a total of 14 All-Star Games, and he placed in the top 10 in the league MVP voting on five separate occasions.  Bench helped lead the Reds to six division titles, four pennants, and two world championships in his 16 full years with the team.  Not only considered to be one of the greatest hitting catchers in baseball history, Bench is also viewed by many as the greatest defensive receiver ever to play the game.

 

 

 

 

 

By Bob_Cohen

 
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Tagged:
1970 NLCS, 1970 World Series, 1972 NLCS, 1972 World Series, 1973 NLCS, 1975 World Series, 1976 World Series, 1979 NLCS, All Star, Babe Ruth Award, Baseball History, Big Red Machine, Catcher, Cincinnati Reds, Gold Glove, Hall of Fame, Johnny Bench, Little General, MVP, NL MVP 1970, NL MVP 1972

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