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Johnny Bench: Nothing gets past the greatest catcher of all time

Did you know that you wanted to be a baseball player at an early age?
Yes, I was three years old. My dad loved baseball. I had two older brothers, and we played in the backyard all day. One day, I’m watching TV and the announcer says “Now batting, the next superstar, the switch-hitting outfielder from Oklahoma, Mickey Mantle.” And I looked at my dad and said. “You can be from Oklahoma and be in the Major Leagues?” And he said, “Yeah!” So that’s what I want to be. And dad thought catching was the quickest way to the Major Leagues, so I became a catcher.

How small is Binger, Oklahoma?
It’s a small town of just over 600 people. Football was big in Oklahoma, but we didn’t have it. Someone had been killed playing football; they broke their neck and died playing football, so they cancelled football. We didn’t have baseball either, until my dad started the little league team. We drove around in the back of the pickup in Levi’s and t-shirts. A lot of times, we would have to knock on doors to try to find another player to get nine guys. We weren’t very good. We would lose and Dad would say, “That’s all right, let’s go get a cheeseburger. We will win tomorrow.“

Your dad was also a very good player.
Yeah, but he served two hitches in the Army, so by the he came out, he was 26 and that was too old. At that age, the Majors wouldn’t give you a look, so he played semi-pro around Oklahoma. He loved to talk about facing Satchel Paige and some of those guys. I’d go watch him play on Sunday’s. He could hit, and he loved to catch. Catchers are like that. Once you have the gear on, it just becomes euphoric enough that it’s all you care about.  Once you’ve caught and then you play another position after that, it’s like, “Boy, this is boring!”

It sounds like you had a great childhood.
Definitely! We’d play Tin Can or Home Run Derby, and when it was time for the harvest season, I would work in the peanut fields.  During the summer, I chopped and pulled cotton, chopped peanuts, mowed lawns. I had a paper route. When I was 15, I drove my dad’s gas truck. It was just a simple life, but baseball was still my dream.

Did you feel having all those jobs were helpful to you?
They gave me a lot of strength. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when you pull cotton, you have to lift your cotton sack to weigh it and put it in the trailer. When we would combine peanuts, after you combine them, you have to load the sacks. So I was 12 years old, lifting 80-100 pound bags. I’d have to put them on top of my head and set them into the truck. We never lifted weights back then. I had labor muscles.

You excelled in baseball and basketball in high school, but is it true you almost died there?
I will never forget it. It was on April 1. We played at a school about 20 miles from home and we were on our way back. We had a kid who was a great shortstop, and we always let him out at the top of the hill. But he was sick that day, so we started going down the hill. The coach was driving and he yelled out, “We don’t have any breaks!” And I yelled out, “April Fools!” I looked up, and there was no reaction. I drove the gas truck for my dad and he always said that if you’re going to be in an accident, get on the floorboards. I grabbed my friend David across from me and yanked him down on the floor and jumped on top of him. We couldn’t negotiate the turn, so we hit the guardrail, flipped over three times, and landed on our wheels. My feet ended up hanging out the back window. We lost two boys who died in the crash. It was really tough to deal with. It hardened me and made me realize how fragile we all are. Maybe I’m a fatalist, but you had to move on. That’s what it is in baseball and catching; you’ve got to start over the next day. What did I do yesterday? Well, I better do it again today.

You had great success in the Major Leagues very quickly—Rookie of the Year, MVP at age 22. Were you surprised at how quickly success came?
I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that. I always played against my older brothers; they were 5 or 6 years older. Then when I was 14, I was playing against American Legion players.  So I was really facing elevated competition, and I never really felt overmatched. I never really failed at any level and always believed in myself. I could catch and throw. It was a labor of love to go to the ballpark. My rookie year, I caught 154 of 162 games, so I endured the pain and anything else. It made me tough. It made me resilient.

After the MVP year, you started branching out to acting and singing. Was that always part of your plan?
I was always a good public speaker. In 1970, I traveled around the world with Bob Hope in 1970 on the USO Tour.  I won the Rookie of the Year and MVP, so now I’m a bachelor. They’re comparing me with Namath; we’re the two swinging bachelors. I was never afraid to sing. I knew the words, so people thought I could sing, though I really couldn’t. I was good enough on my feet that I was salable. I could do things. I’m meeting more people in the industry, so when they’re thinking about who they should get, they would say, “Let’s go get Johnny.” A lot of it is marketing. If you can walk and chew gum, they feel like they can use you.

Did you feel like this growing public image was who you really were?
Oh yeah. It was me. I knew who I was. I was a playboy. I was single. I traveled a lot. I dated Miss America. I dated Miss USA. I played golf with the stars. I went to Frank Sinatra’s house for New Year’s Eve. I’m talking to Bob Hope every week. It was a natural thing. I wasn’t out carousing. I was a good citizen. A lot of it was that you didn’t want to embarrass your parents, or your organization or yourself.  We’re all a creation of some form in what we’ve dealt with.

Do you still enjoy the public spotlight?
It hasn’t stopped. I would love to do a reality show.

What would it be about?
It would be about an old man raising two young kids, because I have them. I have a seven year old and a ten year old. And I have a wonderful wife, Lauren. I’ve been married four times, but this time I got it right. I met her at a golf tournament. Her dad is an incredible golfer. She’s made me a better person. In the morning, while she goes running, I watch Phineas and Ferb with the boys and take them to school. Not a day goes by that isn’t full of laughs with them. It’s kept me so young. I doubt I would get a show based on that. I think I would have to rob a bank or get caught in a drug sting to have one of those things to get the notoriety. People want to see us shooting at the neighbors or taking the air out of their tires.” (Laughs)

It must be rewarding to be able to be home with the kids as opposed to being on the road as a player.
It is. I have an older son, Bobby, who is 28. He graduated from Boston University. He’s a great kid. I was divorced from his mother when he was 5. That’s the hardest thing as an athlete or a public figure—having enough time to be a good father. You’re sharing parenting. You’re out working to pay for all the stuff. Everyone always thinks you’re out doing this or that, but you’re really committed to raising them to the best of your ability.

I suppose that hasn’t changed at all.
When I talk to the kids in the Major Leagues, I tell them you really have to watch who you are. Even back in 1966 in the minor leagues, I talked about the fear of failing. And it wasn’t about me failing. It was about failing all of those people back home that believed in me. They had the newspaper out every day. They were rooting so hard for me. But in the Majors, there are always people wanting to find fault.

How so?
You go into a bar and have one drink, and some guy doesn’t like you, or his girlfriend likes you and so now he doesn’t like you. As soon as you’re out the door, he’s on the phone to call the police and say you’re driving drunk. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not, because you get written up. Even though you’re so far below the influence, it’s still public. Now wherever the next game is, those people are screaming at you, “You alcoholic! You drunk! You womanizer!” Whatever it is. We see it in society more and more. That’s why the younger guys are really guarded. Privacy is really vital. You’re playing in 14 foreign parks—even more now with interleague play. Those people are screaming at you every time you don’t sign an autograph. They think they have the right to an autograph because they bought a ticket. Then if they don’t get it, they insult you and call you names and it’s a confrontation. Guys are getting so protective. When people ask me “What’s wrong with the game of baseball?” I say. “Nothing. You’re just listening to the negative things. These kids are still talented.”

Do current players seek your mentorship?
No, they know everything. (Laughs) Honestly, I’ve been to some ballparks where players may ask a thing or two, or some coaches. We’re hired to go to Spring Training with the Reds, but they almost never ask us anything. I will offer opinions, though. I text a lot of guys. But to be in San Francisco and Miami and have those guys ask questions, that’s pretty cool. I still work with some of our minor league catchers, and we still have the Johnny Bench Award that goes to the best college catcher, so I’ve got a good relationship with guys like Buster Posey who have won the award.

Did you have mentors coming up in the big leagues?
I had Hal Smith as a coach, and I had Pete Rose and Tony Perez, and these guys would be like, “This guy is going to throw you this.” Catching-wise, I didn’t. I started wearing a helmet behind home plate. I revolutionized one-handed catching, but that was because I broke my thumb twice!  I said to myself, “This isn’t working! I’m not going to play every day. I ‘m not going to make any money! I’ve got to get this thumb out of the way!” So I became a one-handed catcher.

That must have gone over well with the old-time players.
The first year, I had 15 passed balls. The second year, I had none.  Joe Garagiola said I was going to ruin catching. But I had no flexibility. I never touched my toes in my life.  That’s why you have to learn how to catch every ball your own way. You’re not going to always be able to do it the same way everyone else does it, so you have to find your own way. I backhanded balls, because I couldn’t move fast enough to block it.

You must have played through a lot of injuries.
I’m glad I played hurt. As a player, you can’t find an excuse. I had 17 broken bones. I had six broken bones in each foot from foul balls, and I missed two games during that whole time. You get foul tips off the hands, off the shoulders. I played as hard as I could, and when I left the ballpark I left the game. Some people think you’re supposed to be thinking about it 24/7, if you do, it will just drive you crazy.

Is there a career moment that you treasure the most?
I’ve enjoyed so much‑winning the Rookie of the Year, the MVP twice, but the ultimate was when I walked into the locker room after the 1975 World Series, and there were 25 players that were World Champions. The coaches, the trainers, everyone was a World Champion. It was the greatest moment in my career. Millions of fans to this day talk about it. So seldom do you get to reach out to those people. You have people telling their grandkids about you. We still draw so much respect from fans, so many that weren’t old enough to watch us, but we left a legacy and hopefully, I left a legacy.

You were known as the greatest defensive catcher of all time. Does one story stand out?
We were playing the Cardinals, and Lou Brock had stolen 33 bases in a row. We had a pitcher name Jack Fisher. They used to call him Fat Jack Fisher. He looked like a slug, but he really got rid of the ball pretty quickly. Well, Lou takes off, and I get the ball down to second, and he doesn’t even start to slide. He just gets tagged out.  So he’s standing out at second base, looking at me. After the game, I’m back in my locker, and we used to have grocery carts that served as laundry cart—you would throw your dirty uniform in there. The cart stops at me. I look up, and Lou is pushing the cart. You never did this! You never fraternized or went into the other team’s locker room!  You never crossed the line. And Lou said, “Next time, make it look close.” It was a great rivalry. That’s what you live for.

Was it hard to leave the game? You were only 36.
I didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t Johnny Bench any more. I didn’t think I could earn the money. Trust me, there was nowhere else that I was going to make $900,000 a year.

My ulna nerve was bad. My back was bad. The team was losing more than half their games. It wasn’t any fun to go to the ballpark. As long as you’re the one making the decision, you’re fine. We made good money, but not like today. I went back and refereed basketball games in the offseason while I was with the Reds.

It’s a lot different today.
We wish we could have made the money they make today. My old teammates and I, we’re traveling around the country making appearances to make it happen. We’re still trying to work. Part of that is the Big Red Machine‑the greatest talent ever assembled on a team. But each of these guys are great guys, great citizens. We have the respect of so many people throughout the history of baseball. I got that work ethic from my father. He got up at four in the morning and worked. My responsibility is to give the best things I can to my kids. I wish as a society, we could get away from feeling entitled to things and get back to hard working people who are really proud of what they are.

What else are you working on?
A few years ago, I had my hip replaced. The second one was a brand new hip. So I was doing a lot of work on behalf of Stryker Joint Replacement, talking about the recovery process. So I was in about 30 cities just for them. I enjoy it. You’re not going to make money sitting around the house. I have an Internet eyeglass company that I started called OpDocs.com, I’m working on a new company called Surgenco that is developing medical devices. And I’m really excited about a new product we are developing that can chill your drink in a can instantly. It can chill an entire keg in about 32 seconds, so that’s going to be great.

It must have been a wonderful moment to have your dad see you get inducted into the Hall of Fame.
He had so much fun. We get to Cooperstown and I go to my room to hang up my clothes. When I come out, I run into Enos Slaughter in the hallway and he says, “Hey, I just met your dad.” Then I get out of the elevator, and Pee Wee Reese says,  “Hey I just met your dad. “ I get into the lobby, and Ted Williams says, “Hey, I just met your dad.” In the lobby, he’s got his arm around Roy Campanella.  So during the ceremony, when it was time for me to introduce my family, I said, “I would introduce my dad, but you’ve probably met him already.”

What is it like to see a statue of yourself in front of the ballpark in Cincinnati?
How can you ever imagine having a statue? That’s the ultimate. And it’s going to be there forever? Not a lot of fans are going to get to go to the HOF. But people are going to go to the game and take a picture with it.  It’s just amazing. I told them that the only way I want one is if these other guys get one (Morgan, Rose, Perez). So Joe’s statue is going up next year, and then the other two guys will get one.

It sounds like you’re busier than ever.
In some ways, more so. We still have the Johnny Bench Scholarship Fund that sends 84 kids to school in Cincinnati and Binger, OK. I’m still co-hosting two golf tournaments. One is in Ft Myers, FL in February for abused kids. I also do one with my former teammate Doug Flynn, and we’ve raised $700,000 for the Children’s Charity Classic. We also just did something for the Wounded Warriors, where we’ve raised $300,000. This year, we want to raise $500,000. I’m also doing something called Character and Courage with my friend, Bob Crotty to raise money for mentally challenged kids. I love being involved, I don’t want to stop, but maybe I have to slow down a little bit.

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