Monday, April 16, 2012

Johnny Bench - All-American Hero

If you were a boy who grew up in the 1970s or early 1980s and you even occasionally saw a baseball game, you knew that insofar as catchers were concerned, Johnny Bench was The Man. Bench epitomized all that was good about baseball. He had a great name. He played for one of the most beloved sports franchises to ever take the field (Cincinnati Reds) and he was one of the best - if not the very best - catchers in the game.

Making Bench even more of a god to young boys of the era was the fact that he was a decent guy. He was known to sign a lot of autographs, was appreciative of fans (especially youngsters) and despite his stardom, remained a regular guy. The fact that he was a power hitter, a RBI machine and perennial all-star certainly didn't hurt.

1969 Topps Johnny Bench
1969 Topps Johnny Bench

I played catcher in Little League largely because I wanted to be Johnny Bench. I remember donning my catcher's gear and checking myself out in a mirror at home (yeah, I know...). I remember thinking that I couldn't possibly look cooler. Making things even better for me was that I played for the Indians (I don't remember our sponsor) and we wore red shirts, hats and socks with white pants. Even though I played for the Indians and not my beloved Reds, I was still wearing red. Once I had the catcher's gear on, all you could see was that I looked strikingly similar to Johnny Bench. Really.

As a side note, I learned a few really important life lessons while playing catcher:

1. It is possible to sit too close to the batter. You'll know you're too close when you get clocked upside the head with a bat and your coach and parents are suddenly on the field trying to revive you.

2. Sometimes, you can be sneaky S.O.B. and snatch the ball from right over the plate just ahead of the batter's swing. Remember, we're talking Little Leagurers here, not George Brett. Of course, you also can get your catcher's mitt knocked nearly to first base.

3. Most importantly, though, you'll learn that if you elect not to wear a cup while playing catcher that the sound the ball makes when it hits your crotch is quite similar to the sound it makes when it hits your catcher's mitt. The sensation is somewhat different, however. This is a mistake you're likely to make just once.

Now, back to Bench...

A few details about the specific card pictured here: This is #95 of a set of 664 cards released in 1969. Regardless of the All-Star Rookie trophy shown on the front of the card, this really isn't Bench's rookie card.

This one is:
1968 Topps Johnny Bench
1968 Topps Johnny Bench Rookie
The 1969 Johnny Bench card is one of several cards in which Johnny was pictured sitting posed in the classic catcher's position including the 1970 and 1975 Topps cards. The back of the 1969 Topps card boasts that Bench's first big league home run was hit September 27, 1967. I just recently purchased a copy of the 69 Bench card and it is one of my all-time faves.

A few details about Johnny Bench: Bench was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989 and The Sporting News named him the 16th greatest player to ever play the game. He is a two-time league MVP, 14-time all-star, 10-time Golden Glove winner, and was the MVP of the 1976 World Series. His #5 was retired by the Reds organization in 1984.

Since retiring, Bench has remained very active in charity, proving that he's just as a good a man off the field as he was on it. He is 64.