Considered by some the greatest catcher of all time, Bench got a “can’t miss” tag when Peninsula of the Carolina League retired his uniform after he hammered 22 homers in 98 games as an 18-year-old in 1966. He spent the first four months of the 1967 season at Buffalo, then took over the Cincinnati catching job in August 1967. In spring training of 1968, Ted Williams autographed a baseball “To Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer for sure.” Bench met expectations quickly by catching a rookie-record 154 games that season, setting a record for catchers with 40 doubles, and becoming the first catcher to win National League Rookie of the Year honors. He went on to become the National League’s dominant catcher for nearly a decade and a half. Bench batted either fourth or fifth for the Big Red Machine team that dominated the National League in the 1970s and won six division titles, four pennants, and two World Series. From 1970 to 1977, Cincinnati players won six of eight MVP awards; Bench won two of them. The first came in 1970 following his league-leading 45 home runs and 148 RBI, all-time records for catchers. After holding out and slumping somewhat in 1971, Bench rebounded in 1972 to win his second MVP award. That year, he had the hottest streak of his career, hitting seven homers in five straight games from May 30 through June 3, and he finished with 40 homers and 125 RBI, leading the league in both categories for the second time. He homered three times on July 26, 1970, en route to setting a record of 36 homers by July 31, and twice more had three-homer games, on May 9, 1973 and May 29, 1980. He won his third RBI crown in 1974, driving in 129 runs and leading the NL with 314 total bases.
Of partial Native American descent, Bench was named to the All-Star team in 13 consecutive seasons, and he faced fellow Native American catcher Bill Freehan in five of them. He batted .370 in All-Star competition, hitting homers in the 1969, 1971, and 1973 games and narrowly missing a second homer in 1969. His selection as an All-Star was based as much on his defensive abilities as his offensive skills. He won ten straight Gold Glove Awards and set a NL record by catching at least 100 games in each of his first 13 seasons. He established career records for putouts and chances. Blessed with exceptionally large hands, he was one of the first catchers after the Cubs’ Randy Hundley to use a hinged mitt and a one-handed catching style. His throwing arm was unrivaled by catchers of his era.
Bench suffered his worst year as a regular in 1976 when he hit .234 with 16 homers, and some thought he was finished at the age of 29. But competing head-to-head in the World Series against Thurman Munson, the American League’s best catcher, brought him alive. He outhit Munson .533 to .529 and won the Series MVP award. Bench recorded his last super season in 1977, hitting .275 with 31 home runs and 109 RBI.
Worn out by catching, Bench repeatedly requested a shift to another position, but the Reds lacked a suitable replacement, and were reluctant to accommodate him. They finally moved him to first base in 1981. On May 28, Bench fractured his ankle, with his batting average at .343. He missed two months and finished the season at .309, his only year over .293. Bench played primarily third base the next two seasons, but went back behind the plate for his last game at the end of 1983. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and was inducted in 1989. (MC/CR)