It doesn’t get any better than this 1973 Topps card of Johnny Bench. We see Bench in full action, near the end of a full-bore sprint toward the opposing dugout, as he attempts to finish off a two-handed basket catch of a foul ball. Due to the timing of the photo, we don’t know for sure if Bench makes the catch, crashes into the Giants’ dugout, or somehow does both.
Two years ago, we put this card to the test in a “Baseball Card Mystery,” but we couldn’t determine for sure if Bench made the catch or dropped the foul pop near the Giants’ dugout. Given Bench’s athleticism, I would guess that he made the catch while remaining on his feet, frustrating the unknown Giants batter with his gifts of nimble agility and soft hands.
That’s not exactly the most daring supposition; without much doubt, Bench is the best defensive catcher I’ve ever seen, better than Jerry Grote or Jim Sundberg or Jose Molina. I know that THT colleague Steve Treder has already cast his vote for Ivan Rodriguez, based on his superior quickness and mobility, and there’s nothing wrong with that choice, but I’ll take Bench for his advantage in throwing and his ability in calling a game.
What made Bench such a standout? Any discussion of Bench’s defensive prowess has to begin with the size of his hands. Bench was actually nicknamed “Hands,” largely because they seemed to be as big as lion’s paws. Remarkably, Bench could hold seven baseballs in his right hand, a neat trick that was once captured by Sports Illustrated. His hands weren’t just clumsy oven mitts either; they were soft enough to dig balls out of the dirt and save his pitchers from unnecessary wild pitches.
Thanks to the size of his hands, Bench adopted a one-handed catching style. With no one on base, he held out only his mitt hand as a target for his pitcher, while keeping his bare hand behind his back so as to avoid the risk of foul tips. His success with the one-hand style, aided by the use of a hinged mitt, helped influence a baseball myth. For many years, Bench was falsely credited with being the first major league catcher to use the one-handed approach. The pioneer was actually the Cubs’ Randy Hundley (who visited Cooperstown last summer for the induction of the late Ron Santo), but Bench followed soon after. Both Bench and Hundley were exceptional using the one-handed method.
Bench’s throwing arm was just as impressive as his hands. He pumped throws to second base with machine-like power, displaying the kind of arm strength that has been approached by only one man since (Pudge Rodriguez). Bench’s arm was tested frequently during the 1970s, when the strategy of the stolen base enjoyed a renaissance, but Bench stood up to the challenge.
Although Bench weighed over 200 pounds, he was amazingly agile. He moved smoothly in blocking pitches, handled pop-ups with speed and grace, and deftly snatched bunted balls in front of home plate. He could also block off home plate from baserunners who dared to challenge him.
In completing the picture of defensive perfection, Bench handled pitchers exceptionally well. Unlike Rodriguez, there were few criticisms that he signaled for more fastballs to improve his chances against basestealers. Bench called a solidly good game, even though the Reds lacked dominating pitchers for most of his years in Cincinnati.
As an amateur, Bench played a lot of third base, but the Reds saw him as a catcher. Good decision. Taken in the second round of the 1965 amateur draft, Bench made his way quickly through Cincinnati’s farm system. He didn’t hit for particularly high averages in the minor leagues, but his power hitting and his receiving skills wowed the majority of scouts. The Reds gave him a late-season look in 1967, but he looked overmatched at the age of 19. An OPS of .462 in 93 plate appearances had some within the Reds’ hierarchy wondering if Bench needed some minor league seasoning in 1968.
Bench received mixed signals during the winter. On the one hand, the Reds traded one of their veteran catchers just before the start of spring training. On the other hand, they kept another veteran around for the spring. “I was going to be the starting catcher…They traded Johnny Edwards,” Bench told the Kentucky Enquirer, “and then we got just about two weeks before spring training, and it was, ‘Well, he’s going to have to earn the job.’ Fair enough. Don Pavletich and I alternated days. Pav had great strength. I mean, he threw out everybody, then hit, did everything he could.”
That spring, Bench received a dose of confidence when the Reds prepared to play the Washington Senators in a Grapefruit League game. Prior to the game, Bench approached Senators skipper Ted Williams, who gave him a baseball with the following inscription: “To Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer for sure.” Williams never made a better prediction.
To the surprise of Williams, Pavletich opened the season as Cincinnati’s No. 1 catcher, but an early-season leg injury forced him to the sidelines and opened the door for Bench. He did not squander the opportunity. Showing remarkable endurance by appearing in 154 of the next 158 games, Bench hit .275 with 15 home runs, excelled defensively to the point that he won the Gold Glove, and claimed the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
The so-called sophomore jinx would have no impact on Bench. Improving his OPS from .743 to .840, Bench also lifted his batting average by 18 points while increasing his power. For the second straight year, he made the All-Star team and won a Gold Glove, while emerging as a second-tier candidate in the MVP race. He finished 13th in the voting, cementing his place as the National League’s elite catcher.
Yet, all of Bench’s accomplishments paled in comparison to what he would do in 1970. In putting up a season for the ages, Bench hit a career-high 293, led the league with 45 home runs and 148 RBIs, and achieved an OPS of .932, an astounding figure for a catcher. Bench won the MVP with ease, as he led the Reds to a Western Division title on the way to an appearance in the 1970 World Series against the powerhouse Orioles.
Not only did Bench become arguably the game’s top performer, but he emerged as a national celebrity. That winter, Bench made an appearance on an episode of Mission Impossible. Listed as the “captain of the guards” in an episode that aired originally on February 6, 1971, Bench earned some screen time with the show’s stars, Peter Graves and Lesley Ann Warren. A rather famous still photograph from the episode shows Bench receiving some unwanted attention from characters James Phelps and Dana Lambert, portrayed by Graves and Warren, respectively.
The appearance would provide a springboard to a career in Hollywood, a natural transition for Bench given his charisma, his outgoing nature, and his ease in front of a microphone. Bench later made a cameo appearance on The Partridge Family before eventually becoming the fulltime host of the Saturday children’s show, The Baseball Bunch, in the 1980s.
With a budding career in television, Bench seemed to have it all. But the ever-present fame may have taken its toll, as Bench endured a difficult 1971. He won another Gold Glove, but all of his offensive numbers fell off badly. Some skeptics wondered whether Bench’s incredible workload, which saw him receive only a handful of days off during each season, had taken a toll on the young All-Star.
Understanding that Bench needed more rest, Reds manager Sparky Anderson promised to curb Bench’s workload in 1972. After catching 141 games in 1971, Bench appeared in 129 games behind the plate in 1972. The strategy worked, as he again reached the 40-home run plateau, drove in 125 runs, and put up an OPS of .920. He also changed his hitting style, becoming much more patient at the plate. In drawing an even 100 walks, which doubled his total from the previous season, Bench pushed his on-base percentage to a career best .379.
Bench played so well that summer that he became the subject of a cover story in Time Magazine, a rare occurrence for a ballplayer. The article lavished praise on Bench from a number of sources, including Cubs manager Leo Durocher. “Bench is the greatest catcher since Gabby Hartnett,” Durocher told Time in referencing the catching legend of the 1930s. The words of Montreal Expos manager Gene Mauch seconded the motion. “If I had my pick of any player in the league,” said Mauch, “Johnny Bench would be my first choice.”
For the second time in three seasons, Bench took home the National League MVP Award. The Reds once again captured the National League West and the pennant, before succumbing to the A’s in a combative seven-game World Series.
Unfortunately, the 1972 World Series brought Bench a moment of embarrassment. It came in Game Three at the Oakland Coliseum. With runners on second and third in the eighth inning, Bench faced Oakland relief ace Rollie Fingers. When Fingers ran the count to three-and-two, manager Dick Williams paid him a visit on the mound. Williams pointed to Bench and the on-deck circle, and then aimed his finger toward first base, as if to indicate to Fingers and catcher Gene Tenace that he wanted to intentionally walk Bench.
As he went through the motions of calling for the ball-four pitchout, Williams quietly told Fingers to throw a slider over the middle of the plate. Tenace then stood straight up behind the plate, signaling for the intentional walk with his right hand. As Fingers began his delivery, Tenace stepped out briefly, then retreated toward his usual position, squatting to receive the pitch. Expecting the ball four pitchout, Bench watched as Fingers threw a sharp slider that crossed the outside corner. Bench started to throw his bat away and run to first, before realizing that he had just witnessed a called third strike.
If there was any consolation to be found, the mental lapse did not prevent a 1-0 win for the Reds. Ultimately, Bench’s momentary slip had no effect on the outcome of the Series.
Over the next three regular seasons, Bench numbers remained very good, even though they were no longer otherworldly. He continued to hit with substantial power, walked in the range of 65 to 80 times a year, and led the National League with 129 RBIs in 1974. Usually batting fourth or fifth, he anchored the famed offense that was so appropriately called the “Big Red Machine.”
With Bench playing his usual huge role, the Reds won division titles in 1973 and ‘75. In the latter season, the Reds captured the first of two consecutive world championships, despite an uncharacteristically quiet postseason run from Bench.
In the spring of 1976, the 28-year-old Bench endured a divorce to his wife Vickie (they had been married for only a year) which may have at least partially explained his downturn at the plate. He slipped to a .234 batting average and only 16 home runs, his lowest output since 1968. But he more than made up for it with spectacular hitting in the 1976 postseason. He tormented Phillies pitching to the tune of a .333 batting average in the Championship Series before putting forth a superhuman effort in the World Series against the Yankees. Hitting .533 with two home runs and six RBIs, Bench almost single-handedly carried the Machine to a four-game sweep of the overmatched Yankees.
Bench’s one-man show against the Yankees capped off a scintillating World Series career. In four World Series, Bench hit five home runs and compiled a slugging percentage of over .500. When the games reached their utmost importance, Bench continued his high standard of excellence.
With two world championships now in his possession, Bench showed no signs of complacency. After posting an impressive OPS of .889 in 1977, he enjoyed three more solid seasons as the Reds’ No. 1 catcher.
In 1981, the Reds finally gave in to Bench’s request to play another position, in the hope that he might lengthen his career. Bench transitioned to first base, a move that seemed to rejuvenate his hitting, but then he fractured his ankle. The injury and the labor strike limited Bench to 52 games.
Rather than keep him at first base in 1982, the Reds made the questionable decision to try him at third base, a position he might have handled with some aplomb earlier in his career. But at the age of 34, and with his athleticism on the wane, Bench struggled to handle the demands of the hot corner. His hitting also suffered. After two below par seasons as a third baseman and part-time first baseman, Bench decided to call it quits.
The National League honored him with a farewell tour and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made him a special addition to the 1983 Midsummer Classic, marking his 13th consecutive All-Star selection. Six years later, the baseball world celebrated his overwhelming election to the Hall of Fame. His election coincided with the Hall of Fame’s 50th anniversary celebration, resulting in a huge throng attending his official Cooperstown coronation.
Bench has become a regular at Hall of Fame Weekend ever since. He spends much of his time playing the celebrated Leatherstocking Golf Course, where he has gained a reputation as one of the longest hitters among the Hall of Famers. (In his younger days, Bench frequently played the pro-am circuit.) And then on Sunday at the induction ceremony, he sometimes puts his above-average singing voice to good use with a rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”
Whenever I see Bench in Cooperstown, whether it’s at the Otesaga Hotel or making his way into the Hall of Fame and Museum, I’m reminded of his 1973 Topps card. In the way that he played so fluidly behind the plate, Bench created a poetic portrait that epitomized the art of catching.
Sometimes a baseball card catches a player, in this case the great Johnny Lee Bench, just right.