Position: Catcher
Team: Cincinnati Reds, 1967-1983

The ’76 Series:
Bench vs. Munson
Part of greatness involves the ability to perform in the spotlight. In 1976, when the Reds battled the Yankees in the World Series, Bench ventured into baseball’s biggest media market. He faced natural comparisons to Thurman Munson, the AL’s best catcher at that time.

Bench set the tone in Game 1. With the Reds leading 2-1 in the sixth, Mickey Rivers, the Yankees’ speedy catalyst, reached first with one out. He obviously wanted to steal second. There it was -- the strong arm vs. the fast legs. Bench threw him out, and the Yanks didn’t score. He was named MVP of the Series.

When asked to comment on Munson, Reds manager Sparky Anderson said it wasn’t fair to embarrass anyone by comparing them to Johnny Bench.

Anderson had meant no offense, but New Yorkers -- after watching Munson bat .529 in the Series -- resented the remark.

Johnny Bench was the best offensive and defensive catcher in baseball for a decade, a cornerstone of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in the 1970s. In fact, Bench, the first player from the draft to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, ranks among the greatest catchers in baseball history.

He hit with enough power to lead the NL in homers twice and in RBI three times. He monopolized the Gold Glove Award from 1968 through 1977. His arm, which would have been an asset in any era, became even more important when artificial turf was giving base runners an extra step.

Bench even handled pitchers with a flair. One day, for instance, when a pitcher insisted on throwing fastballs even though he didn't have much velocity, Bench caught one of the pitches with his bare hand, just to make the point.

Johnny Lee Bench (born in 1947) grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, admiring the play of another Okie, Mickey Mantle. Bench's father was a semi-pro catcher, and he imparted a love of the game to John. Bench, an outstanding high school athlete, was chosen by Cincinnati in the second round of the 1965 draft.

He arrived in the majors at the age of 19 and did nothing to contradict the advance notices. He popularized a one-­handed catching method that afforded greater mobility and allowed him to better utilize his right arm. He was named the NL Rookie of the Year in 1968.

Bench won Most Valuable Player Awards in 1970 and '72, leading the Reds to the playoffs in both years. In 1970, at age 22, he led the league with 45 homers and 148 RBI and became the youngest man ever to win the MVP Award. His second award came for a season in which he hit .270 with 40 homers and 125 RBI.

Bench and the Reds won consecutive World Series in 1975 and '76, and the Big Red Machine captured 210 games over those two seasons. Johnny hit in a lineup that included Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, George Foster, Tony Perez, and Dave Concepcion.

Bench's 327 homers as a catcher constituted a record when he retired after the 1983 season, and he rates near the top in many defensive categories. He hit 20 or more homers in 11 seasons, drove in more than 100 runs six times, and won 10 Gold Gloves. Bench drove in 1,013 runs in the 1970s, more than any other player, and was named to 14 All-Star Teams. It was only natural that Bench was voted into the Hall in 1989, his first year of eligibility.

After his retirement, Bench didn't leave baseball completely, instead spending some time in the broadcast booth. He offered his audience more than just the perspective of a catcher, because his game involved more facets than people know.

Johnny Bench
Johnny Bench, one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, was a member
of the Big Red Machine for 17 years. In 1970, at age 22, he became the youngest
man ever to win the Most Valuable Player Award.

For instance, despite being a power-hitting catcher, Bench was far from a plodding runner. He ran the bases well enough to twice reach double figures in steals, a gift that gave his team that much more speed. With a superb eye at the plate, he hit the 100-strikeout plateau only twice, remarkable for a power hitter. In fact, in his second MVP season, he walked more times than he struck out.

A versatile athlete, Bench could have made a serviceable major-leaguer at first, third, or even in the outfield. In six of his 17 big-league seasons, he appeared at least one time at first, third, the outfield, and behind the plate. When the long years of catching finally caught up to his body, Bench went to third. And despite all that time behind the plate, he still wound up playing more than 2,100 games in the big leagues.

Who knows what he might have done at the plate if he had played another position? Then again, most of the legend of Johnny Lee Bench stems from what he could do behind the plate.


Here are
Johnny Bench's major league totals:

BAG
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
SB
.2672,158
7,658
1,091
2,048
381
24
389
1,376
68

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