Johnny Lee Bench had a remarkable baseball career that can be measured by the opening line on his Hall of Fame plaque, "Johnny Bench redefined standards by which catchers are measured during his seventeen seasons with 'Big Red Machine'." Bench, born on December 7, 1947, in Oklahoma City, grew up in Binger, Oklahoma. He excelled in athletics, achieving All-State honors in basketball and baseball for Binger High School. Idolizing another Oklahoma baseball legend, Mickey Mantle, Bench would later receive the same admiration from a new generation of Oklahoma baseball fans.
In 1965 the Cincinnati Reds drafted Bench, and at spring training Ted Williams autographed his baseball, "to a hall-of-famer for sure." In 1968, proving Williams prophetic, Bench became the first catcher to win the National League (NL) Rookie of the Year award. Playing his entire career with the Cincinnati Reds, he batted .267 and belted 389 home runs. The Reds, dubbed the "Big Red Machine" in the 1970s, won two World Series, four National League pennants, and six divisional titles. He made the NL All-Star team fourteen times, led the league in runs batted in three times, and received the Most Valuable Player award twice; in 1970 he was the youngest player ever to receive that award.
He also had exceptional defensive skills. He won ten straight gold gloves and was one of the best at throwing out base stealers. He became the first catcher to wear a protective helmet in the field, and he caught with one hand behind his back to protect it from foul tips. In the 1976 world series he hit .533, had two home runs, drove in six runs, and threw out the only attempted base-stealer to win the series MVP. In 1989, the first year he was eligible, the Baseball Writers Association of America voted Johnny Bench into the Baseball Hall of Fame. After baseball he started a broadcast career, among other projects.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Johnny Bench and William Brashler, Catch You Later: The Autobiography of Johnny Bench (New York: Harper and Row, 1979). Bob Burke, Kenny Franks, and Royce Parr, Glory Days of Summer, The History of Baseball in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1999).
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