Johnny Lee Bench was born in 1947, on the sixth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, in Oklahoma City, OK. As a youngster, growing up in Binger, OK, Johnny's dream was to become a major league baseball player. The youngest of three boys, Johnny had been playing baseball since he could walk. His father Ted had been a good athlete who played baseball during his stint in the military, and like his future Hall of Fame son, was a catcher.
In the mid-1950s, Ted Bench organized a Pee-Wee Baseball team in Binger. His youngest son tried out for the team as soon as he was eligible and was promptly signed on. His father, who knew a thing or two about catching, quickly realized that his youngest son was a natural behind the plate. Ted Bench believed that the most direct route his son could take in fulfilling his dream to play pro ball was to continue to hone his skills as a catcher. Young Johnny took that advice -- sort of. While he continued to play behind the plate, he also tried his hand at pitching. And so marked the beginning of one of the most successful careers in baseball history -- a career that would bring about the fulfillment of Ted Williams's prophecy.
In Binger, there was little else for young boys to do but play baseball and, by the time Johnny was enrolled in high school, he had made quite a name for himself on the little town's ball fields. During his high school career, Johnny excelled in both baseball and basketball. He also made statewide news as an American Legion pitcher, when he hurled a no-hitter at the age of 16.
As Johnny's skills improved, so did his love of the game. More than ever he wanted to be a part of the game, just like his childhood hero and fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle. He desperately wanted to follow in the Mick's footsteps and play in the big leagues. That dream almost abruptly ended during his senior year, when a bus carrying the Binger baseball team went off the road and flipped several times. Bench was not seriously hurt, but two of his teammates were killed.
As the community of Binger slowly recovered from that tragedy, Johnny was finishing out his senior year. He was still pitching and catching on the field and also catching the attention of major league scouts. Before he graduated, both the Baltimore Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds had approached him, with the Cincinnati scout especially impressed.
While Johnny had been both a competent hitter and pitcher during his high school career, his true promise was not to be found on the mound, but behind the plate. He pitched in his final high school game, which could have easily derailed his hopes of going pro. That game had been attended by various major league scouts, and while some felt that Johnny displayed a fair talent and a strong arm, they didn't feel that he was showing them anything really special. Most of the scouts packed up and left the game early, which proved to be a mistake.
In the late innings of the game, he was pulled off the mound and inserted behind the plate. The scout from the Reds, who happened to have been one of the scouts who stayed around, realized that he was witnessing a true find. He immediately filed his report and the Cincinnati Reds made Johnny Bench their second selection in the 1965 draft.
After two seasons in the minor leagues, Bench was called up to play with the big boys in 1968. It was during the following year's spring training that he met Ted Williams and collected the prophetic autograph.
During the Reds' 1970 season, the 22-year old Bench led the National League with 45 homers and 148 RBIs to win his first MVP Award while leading his team to the pennant.
Two years later, in the 1972 playoffs, the Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates battled to a deciding fifth game. Playing in Cincinnati and trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Bench homered to tie the score and the Reds went on to win the game and their second pennant with Bench behind the plate.
The following season, the Reds squared off against the New York Mets in the NL Playoffs. In the opening game, Tom Seaver was on the mound for the Mets as the two teams were locked in a 1 to 1 tie going into the bottom of the ninth. Bench broke the tie by blasting a home run off the future Hall of Famer as the Reds won 2-1. Although the Mets went on to win the series in five games, Bench had chalked up three extra-base hits during the series.
Many sports fans consider the 1975 World Series as one of the greatest of the Fall Classics. In Game Two, in the bottom of the ninth inning, with his team trailing the Red Sox 2-1, Bench doubled off Bill Lee and scored the tying run. The Reds went on to win the game 3-2, and ultimately the Series. Even though Bench batted just .207 in the Series, three of his six hits were for extra bases, and he drove in four runs.
The 1976 post-season truly belonged to Johnny Bench. In the playoffs against the Philadelphia Phillies, he batted .333 in the three-game sweep. In the final game, with the Phillies leading by one run, Bench homered off Ron Reed to tie the score and set up another Reds World Series appearance. In that Series, Bench performed as well as any batter in history, collecting eight hits in the four-game sweep of the New York Yankees. He batted .533 and hit two homers with six RBIs. In Game Four, he hit a three-run blast in the top of the ninth to clinch the game and the Series.
In all, Bench played in ten post-season Series -- four World Series and six NLCS Series. He hit at least one homer in every Series but one. In 45 post-season games, he drove in 20 runs.
Bench's playoff and World Series appearances are legendary in Cincinnati. He played in four World Series and twice walked away with championship rings. During the 1970s, the Reds reached post-season play six times and finished in 2nd place in three of the other four seasons.
In 1980, Bench set a MLB record by catching 100 or more games in his 13th season and, three years later, retired with more home runs as a catcher than any other man in history, a record since surpassed by Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza.
Johnny Bench was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in January of 1989, was named the greatest catcher in Major League Baseball history by The Sporting News in 1998 and, in 2000, he was selected to catch on baseball's All-Century Team. He left baseball having been named to 14 All-Star Teams, winning ten straight Golden Glove Awards and two MVP Awards. Johnny Bench is, without question, considered by many to be the greatest overall catcher in history because of his combination of offensive and defensive skills.
Since retiring from baseball in 1983, Johnny has divided his time between Celebrity Tour Golf Tournaments, personal appearances and fundraising for various charitable causes. He is a compelling and entertaining speaker and has inspired and motivated hundreds of audiences from Boys & Girls Clubs to corporate executives from Panasonic, Compaq, Motorola, Wal-Mart, Verizon, Nokia, Delta, Procter & Gamble, John Hancock and Arthur J. Gallagher to name just a few. Johnny has also taken part in many memorabilia shows and has served as the spokesman for the Cincinnati based Fifth Third Bank and national retailer, S&K Menswear.
Johnny Bench is far more than a sports legend, he is a role model who uses his celebrity and high-energy personality to inspire people to do what he has done -- make their dreams come true. Using a blend of sincerity, credibility and wit, Johnny is able to move easily from the world of sports and entertainment to civic involvement to business. He is a symbol of winning through hard work, as outlined in his presentation featuring the Vowels of Success, which highlights easy to remember motivational tips such as attitude, effort, individual, opportunity, and utilizing one's own special talents and abilities.
Johnny Bench has used his celebrity status to aid such worthy causes as the Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Kidney Foundation, Franciscan Sisters of Poor Health System, the American Lung Association, and the Catch the Cure program of the Childrens Hospital of Cincinnati. He also supports the Cincinnati Symphony, and the Museum of Science and Industry in addition to the Johnny Bench Scholarship Fund, which provides funds for students to attend college in the Cincinnati area.
Johnny has also become a well-known figure in the world of entertainment and broadcasting. He has logged thousands of hours in appearances on television networks such as ESPN and Fox Sports in addition to participating in events such as touring with Bob Hope's Christmas Shows and visiting troops in the Far East during Desert Storm. He has also sung with the Cincinnati Pops, authored books, and was the host of the Emmy-Award-winning instructional show, The Baseball Bunch. Johnny's broadcasting background includes nine years with CBS Radio doing the National Game of the Week, the All-Star Game, the League Championship Series and the World Series, as well as play-by-play on Cincinnati Reds television.
When one considers the importance of Johnny Bench's role in Major League Baseball, it is easy to understand that there has been, and always will be, great interest in his cards. The only recognized Johnny Bench rookie card is the 1968 Topps #247, which along with the Nolan Ryan rookie offering, is one of the two key cards in the set.
Many collectors are surprised to learn that the Bench rookie card is not that difficult to find in high grades. That said, collectors should be aware of the fact that the Bench card does suffer from a few inherent problems.
Before purchasing the Topps #247 you should carefully inspect the card's background. Because of its patterned design, corner and edge wear can be easily masked. The back of the card is also something that should be carefully perused before making a purchase. The reverse is a yellow-orange color that is very susceptible to chipping and wear.
Another important factor in finding a high-grade example of the #247 involves overall eye-appeal. The '68 Topps set is well known to vary in quality. A true high-end card will have a deep color. Dull colors are highly prevalent in this production and there are also print defects known to be lurking in the backgrounds of the two photos of Bench and Reds pitcher Ron Tompkins.
When it comes to Johnny's autograph, the good news is that this great catcher has also been a fairly prolific signer. There are a variety of signed products available in the marketplace bearing a variety of interesting inscriptions. His autograph is also considered to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing autographs of the modern era.
Game-used equipment, relating to Mr. Bench, is highly sought-after. On game-used bats, examples that exhibit heavy game use will often be found with a solid layer of pine tar running from the base of the handle towards the center label. Johnny was an avid user of pine tar and well-used gamers exhibit this distinct pattern of tar placement.
Game-used jerseys range in price quite a bit, with early flannels fetching a premium. Interestingly enough, while knits are generally considered much easier to locate in comparison to flannels, Bench knit jerseys are one of the tougher jerseys to find from his generation. For Bench collectors, game-used gloves may be the ultimate Bench rarity with only a few authentic gamers known to exist in private hands.
In the end, Johnny Bench set the standard that all catchers are inevitably compared to, both past and present. The cannon arm, the powerful bat, the brilliant glove and his leadership made Johnny -- The BENCHmark!