This just covers Bench's arm. Overall, he is a full-sized, full-featured, high-cheekboned Oklahoma boy, one-eighth Choctaw Indian on his father's side. Six feet one, 195 pounds and built a little like a long-legged Yogi Berra, he gets so high up on his toes when he crouches that on each foot only one front spike and a corner of another is in the dirt.
Last year Bench played in 154 games, a record for a rookie catcher. In a pitcher's season he hit .275, with 40 doubles (third in the league) and 15 home runs, and had 82 runs batted in. At the end of the year he was voted the Golden Glove as the best defensive catcher in the league (the first rookie to win it) and made the player-selected
national all-star team. Gabby Hartnett, Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane, Roger Bresnahan, Bill Dickey, Ernie Lombardi, Ray Schalk or Yogi Berra never played that many games in a season, and only Berra and Schalk ever came very close. Those immortals were, respectively, 23, 28, 22, 22, 22, 24, 22 and 23 before they had become nearly as established or had anywhere near as good a year as Bench had at 20. And he is already—unlike Tim McCarver, Freehan, Joe Torre, Jerry Grote, Randy Hundley or any other of the first-rate catchers of today—being equated with the best old ones in their prime.
True, Bench also led the league last year in passed balls with 18 (he has a habit of snatching at outside pitches). And although he is a good, determined pull hitter who is learning to go to the opposite field as well and baseball men are predicting he will hit 30 home runs a year, he may never be as good a hitter as Dickey or the others at their best. Nobody may. But the important things are that he is the heir to a great tradition and his future stretches out in front of him the way the diamond does when he hunkers down.
That is the way Johnny Bench and his father Ted planned it, back home in Binger, Okla., which is 600 people and two blocks of downtown. ("We're the peanut capital of the world in that area," says Johnny.) "I never thought it would come so fast," he says now, "but my father said catching was the quickest way to the big leagues, because that's what they needed. And I've been planning on being in the majors since the first grade."
Ted was a semipro catcher who might have had a professional career if it had not been for World War II. He sold natural gas in Binger, and now he and Mrs. Bench live in a house bachelor John bought for them near Cincinnati. John pitched and played first and third on Binger's nine-man state championship baseball squad and a neighboring town's American Legion team and was an honorable-mention high-school All-America guard in basketball. "But I was always known as a catcher," he says.
It was as a catcher that he was drafted in 1965 by the Reds, whose scouts had seen him go 1 for 8 in two Legion games but liked the way he threw and moved around. He signed for probably not much more than $10,000 and went straightaway to Tampa of the Florida State League, where he began immediately to belie his surname. He was Tampa's regular catcher that year, and in 1966 he was Peninsula's. It was that Class A team that retired his uniform after he set a club home run record. The widely circulated story that he was given a parade to the airport by Peninsula fans that August, when Buffalo called him up, is a little overblown, he says. It was just that there was going to be a Johnny Bench Night and it rained. A few carloads of fans came anyway and drove him to his plane.
Then, in his first game at Buffalo, Bench broke his thumb. So he had to wait until '67 to be named Player of the Year in the minors—on the basis of just 98 games. He was leading the International League in RBIs that year and had hit 23 home runs when Cincinnati called him up from Buffalo in August.
"Don't get the idea he's a savior," Reds Manager Dave Bristol told reporters. "He's just a kid." But Bench became the Reds' No. 1 catcher at 19, remaining in the lineup until he cut his hand badly in late September.
"If he hits .220," said Bristol the next spring, "he'll still be a big asset." Bench, meanwhile, was predicting that he would hit 15 homers, drive in 80 runs and bat around .270. And he said he was going to be Rookie of the Year, because no catcher ever had been before. (The laceration in '67 preserved his freshman status by shelving him just before he exceeded 90 at bats.)
John Pavletich started the season, but he got hurt in the fifth game, and the field was clear for Bench to fulfill his prophecies. Although he did not start hitting his weight until May, Bristol stuck with him. In August he hit over .300 and in September he hit five home runs. He started out batting seventh, then moved to sixth, fifth and finally fourth. He was also doing exceptionally well receiving. Berra saw him catch at 17 in Tampa and said, "He can do it all now." At 20 he was doing it all better.