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CINCINNATI, APRIL 22, 1975
Johnny Bench first alerted the world to his baseball destiny in the second grade, when the teacher asked the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Johnny never could figure out why every other boy in the class offered what seemed to him mundane ambitions—lawyer, dentist, farmer. There was something about growing up in a small town, something comforting and confining all at once, something that Johnny Bench would spend his life celebrating and, more, running away from. Johnny announced that he intended to play baseball for a living. And every year Johnny would remind every teacher and every student in his class in Binger, Okla., that his goal had not changed.
Ted Bench started a youth baseball team—the Binger Bobcats—and he made youngest son Johnny his catcher, for a practical reason: That was the easiest route to the big leagues. There were never enough good catchers in this world. Johnny loved the position. He was good at it. He would block balls thrown in the dirt and catch pop-ups behind home plate, and when he made practice throws to second base, eyes would bulge. "That boy of yours is gonna play in the big leagues," people would say to Ted.
"Yes, he is," Ted said.
None of it was easy, of course. The Benches were just getting by—Ted had only enough money to keep the Binger Bobcats going for a couple of years. When he ran out of sponsorship funds, he drove Johnny 20 miles to Fort Cobb to play. When Ted could not drive him to Fort Cobb, Johnny and his brothers and friends played baseball games using Milnot milk cans as balls and broken bats sliced in half. And when brothers and friends were not around, Katy, Johnny's mother, would watch in wonder as her son stood out in the driveway and, for hours at a time, threw chunks of gravel in the air and hit them with a chipped baseball bat.
Ted and Johnny talked so much about his playing in the big leagues that soon it became almost commonplace, like planning a family vacation. Johnny never doubted that he would play in the majors. When he was in school—Johnny would always remember this—he got a C in penmanship. It devastated him. For one thing, Johnny Bench did not get C's in anything—he had to be a success in everything or he felt like a failure. But more, much more, he could not afford C-level penmanship. Johnny intended to sign a lot of autographs in his life.
So here's what he did: Johnny went down to Ford McKinney's Texaco station there in Binger, and he practiced signing autographs. Over and over again, Johnny would sign his name—rounding out the top of the J, making sure the h and two n's were precisely the same height and width, adding an extra swirl in his B. He signed his name again and again and then, when he had the letters just right, he started handing out his autographs to people around town. "Keep this," he said. "I'm going to be famous." He liked doing that so much that he did it again the next week. And then again. After a while, McKinney had a cigar box full of Johnny Bench signatures. Years later he would say he still had them around somewhere.
That was the Johnny Bench everyone in Binger knew, the cocky kid who signed autographs at the gas station and believed without a doubt that he would play major league baseball, and then he would be a major league star, and then he would marry the prettiest girl in the world. It had to happen that way. Cincinnati drafted Johnny in the second round in 1965 and offered him a measly six grand and some school tuition, a pretty insulting offer. But Reds scout Tony Robello knew just how to make the deal happen. He said, "John, if you make it, you will have more money than you could ever want." Johnny signed the contract. He knew that he would make it.
He played the next year for the Class A Peninsula Grays in Newport News, Va., and he was something to see. He hit long home runs—10 of them over the hit a homer here, win a free suit sign—and he showed off his gun of an arm, and he told people, "Forget Babe Ruth. Remember Johnny Bench." At the end of the year, in one of the quirkier moments in minor league history, Peninsula retired Johnny Bench's uniform number. Johnny took it all in stride. Retire his jersey? Why not? He smiled and waved to the crowd and then took his 10 free suits and went up to Triple A Buffalo. He played less than a year there and hit 23 more home runs. Then the Reds called him up to the big leagues. On Johnny's first day, he announced to the catchers on the team that he had not come to be anyone's backup; he had come to be baseball's biggest star, and they might as well know that up front. They hated him immediately.
Hated him ... but what could they say? Johnny may have been an arrogant jerk off the field, but on it he was Mozart. He didn't just play baseball better than any of them; he revolutionized baseball. Catchers through the years had caught pitches with both hands, using the right hand to secure the baseball in the glove. The Chicago Cubs' Randy Hundley, who'd made it to the big leagues a few years before Johnny, was the first major league catcher to catch one-handed. But Johnny Bench made one-handed catching an art form. He had huge hands—he could hold seven baseballs in one of them—and he would scoop pitches out of the dirt like a shortstop picking up a ground ball. He could get the ball from his glove to his throwing hand so fast, it seemed like a card trick. And when he had a bat in his hand, he hit long home runs to leftfield.