In today's expansion-diluted market it is often possible to regard the major league catcher as a sort of convenience, somebody to stop the ball from hitting the umpire when the batter misses it and to get the ball back to the mound. Dazzling young pitchers seem to pop up with astonishing regularity, and there is even a recent case or two of a good young hitter. They are the equivalent of Hollywood starlets, and only time will tell how substantial they are. But a truly brilliant young catcher? Less than a dozen have come along in the 100 years professional baseball has been played, less than a dozen, to carry the moving-picture analogy farther, who burst upon the scene as accomplished as young Spencer Tracys. Well, the Cincinnati Reds have a young Spencer Tracy. His name is Johnny Bench and already he is being called the best all-round catcher in the game today.
For his age, 21, Bench is the best of all time. Last year, by the end of his rookie season with Cincinnati, he was batting cleanup on the top hitting team in the majors. He was the 1968 Rookie of the Year following his selection as 1967 Minor League Player of the Year. And he is the man whose Carolina League uniform will never be worn again, because it has been retired.
To appreciate Johnny Bench fully, one must first watch him throw. Jimmy Durante is more than merely a superb nose, and Bench is more than merely a great arm, but he is unimaginable without it. It is about the size of a good healthy leg, and it works like a recoilless rifle. It even awes pitchers. George Culver, who threw well enough for the Reds himself last year to win 11 games, one a no-hitter, says, "I wish I had his arm." Or his hand, even. It is big enough, according to Bench's own assertion, to hold seven balls at once—and to grip one ball way out on the end of his fingers so that he gets a lot of whip. Sandy Koufax did not have such a meaty hand, but he had those long fingers. Dizzy and Paul Dean used to pull on young Paul's fingers when he was growing up, but as good as that boy's genes were his fingers would not stretch enough.
The other day in Miami, against the Orioles, Bench struck out twice and went 0 for 3, lowering his spring batting average to .400. Uncharacteristically, he even misjudged a windblown pop-up, and let it fall in for a three-foot single. But he looked magnificent even while losing the ball.
Dave McNally, Pete Richert and the other Baltimore pitchers who were not needed that day were sitting in the stands behind the plate. They watched Bench go through the age-old ritual of "throw-in' it down." "Comin' down," the catcher cries as he gathers in the last of the pitcher's warmup tosses and pegs the ball to the second baseman, who casually flips it to the shortstop, as if they all come in that way—stinging.
For Bench it is not a ceremonial occasion. It is another good chance to hum one. It is a time for what is known in throwing circles as "serious heat." "When you finish your warmups and relax, you'd better watch out," says Culver. "He's liable to hit you right between the eyes."
For a catcher to rise up amid his grotesque impedimenta, as Bench does, cock his arm like a flash and shoot the ball out with enough velocity to beat a runner to second without either attaining appreciable loft or tailing off at the end is one of the wonders of cultivated nature. The only comparable thing would be a bear that really danced well.
But it is not just that Bench throws hard. There are a lot of kids in the minors who can do that. Major league catchers—Bill Freehan of Detroit, for example—usually throw with less steam but with more accuracy, and they get the ball away quicker. Bench throws with the fire of a wild young gunner and yet the finesse and dispatch of a Freehan.
During the game in Miami, the Baltimore players, several of whom had played against Bench in Puerto Rico in the winter of 1967, were shouting, "Oh, we're going to steal three or four today." They did not even try. In the fourth inning Brooks Robinson, as good an example of a big-league ballplayer as there is, strayed slightly away from first base. Zap, a bolt from the Red. Bench's throw arrived on the wrong side of the base but the ball got there so abruptly that Lee May had plenty of time to apply it to Robinson, scrambling back.
"I don't get picked off very often," Robinson said in the dressing room afterward. "I have never seen a better arm. I'd say he and Gus Triandos have about the best arms I've ever seen. And he throws better than Gus."