Johnny Bench is considered the best catcher in baseball history by most people.
While players like Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, and even Josh Gibson make compelling cases, no one has matched Bench’s performance, influence, and impact on the game of baseball over the years.
A lifetime Cincinnati Red, Bench remains an icon of the Big Red Machine, the Red team that dominated the National League and captured back-to-back World Series championships in the 1970s.
Combining excellent defense behind the plate with potent offensive production, Bench redefined what it meant to be a Major League catcher.
You would be hard-pressed to find a catcher in today’s game, let alone any player, who does not consider Bench an influence on their play.
Johnny Bench getting ready to be awesome pic.twitter.com/to0WNHdWhe
— BaseballHistoryNut (@nut_history) July 3, 2022
A two-time NL MVP and a 10-time Gold Glove Award winner, Bench’s career is one of the most fascinating and impactful in the history of the game.
Johnny Lee Bench was born on December 7, 1947, to parents Ted and Katy Bench in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The third child of four, Bench spent the majority of his childhood in the town of Binger, Oklahoma.
From a young age, he was interested in the game of baseball, as his father had played semi-professional ball at one time.
Bench spent his childhood like many young boys in the area during this time, playing sports outside with friends, working odd jobs for some extra money, and getting into trouble.
His main goal in life as a young boy was to be a professional baseball player, and he took baseball more seriously than anything else.
Supported by his father, the young Bench practiced baseball daily and played on local Little League teams until he reached high school age, where he quickly became a standout catcher and hitter for the Binger Bobcats.
Reflecting on his dedication to sports as a kid, Bench said:
“When I wasn’t playing I was watching games, just eating and living and breathing sports.”
Bench was a natural athlete, excelling in both baseball and basketball and impressing teammates with his natural strength.
Working tough manual jobs throughout his early life had given him an athletic physique that others his age did not possess.
From a young age, Bench had been mowing lawns, hauling heavy bags of peanuts on a farm, and was an avid hunter.
He was inspired by fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle, who he grew up watching and emulating.
He soon switched from being a hard-throwing pitcher to a catcher as his father told him that was the fastest way to the big leagues.
In a tragic accident, a bus carrying Binger High School’s baseball team had a brake malfunction and rolled down a hill into a ravine, killing two of Bench’s teammates and knocking him unconscious.
The event humbled Bench and teach him to never take life for granted, a lesson he has carried with him throughout his entire career in baseball and life in general.
When he was 17 years old, the young phenom had to decide between attending college on a baseball scholarship, a basketball scholarship, or signing with the Cincinnati Reds, who drafted him in the second round of the 1965 amateur draft.
He chose the Reds.
After signing with the Reds, Bench made numerous stops throughout their farm system.
First, he played in Florida, then the Carolina League.
Despite breaking his thumb and being injured in a car accident due to a drunk driver, Bench entered the 1967 season playing for the Buffalo Bisons in tip-top shape.
It was in this year that Bench won Minor League Player of the Year after hitting 23 home runs and driving in 68 runs with stellar defense behind the plate.
The Reds were impressed by the 19-year-old’s performance and called him up to the big league team on August 28.
He struggled in limited at-bats but impressed many with his defense and game-calling abilities, earning him a spot on the 1968 Major League roster.
Bench’s career is filled with stories and legends, but one incident in particular during spring training in 1968 is perhaps the most famous.
Catching the veteran Jim Maloney, Bench kept calling for breaking balls due to Maloney’s fastball being subpar at the time.
Maloney continued to shake Bench off, wanting to throw his fastball.
At some point, the young catcher went to the mound and told Maloney his fastball wasn’t “popping.”
The veteran pitcher told Bench off, and he returned to his spot behind the plate.
On the next pitch, a fastball, Bench dropped his catcher’s mitt and caught the ball bare-handed, proving his point.
Bench also began to develop his own catching style during this period, opting to wear a batting helmet backward behind his catcher’s mask and caught pitches one-handed, freeing up his right arm to throw out stealing runners.
In his autobiography, Bench noted:
“I also creased the catcher’s glove diagonally instead of using it like a saucer. That way I could catch more with one hand. My hands are big enough to control the catcher’s glove, so the technique was natural for me.”
The 1968 regular season proved to be no less exciting.
Beginning the season as the Reds’ starting catcher, Bench slugged 15 home runs and batted .275 as a rookie.
Bench’s defensive performance was even more impressive.
His .991 fielding percentage and 102 assists proved he would be a defensive force for years to come.
Bench was awarded for his performance by becoming the first catcher in Major League history to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
— Old-Time Baseball Photos (@OTBaseballPhoto) April 10, 2017
In the 1969 season, Bench caught Jim Maloney’s no-hitter against the Houston Astros and improved in every offensive category.
He slugged 26 home runs, racked up 90 RBI, and nearly hit .300 in a time when catchers were not typically great offensive players.
After just two full years in the big leagues, the young Bench was solidifying himself as one of baseball’s best catchers.
The 1970 season was a pivotal one for both Bench and the Reds.
In perhaps his best season, Bench won the N.L. MVP and led the league in home runs with 45.
He hit .293 and drove in a whopping 148 runs.
The Reds rode Bench’s production to 102 wins and an N.L. West Division title.
The Reds dominated the powerhouse Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS on their way to their first N.L. championship since 1961.
Despite losing to the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the World Series that year, the infamous “Big Red Machine” was born and Bench was spearheading the charge along with teammates Pete Rose and Tony Perez.
Despite a spectacular 1970 campaign, the Reds faltered in 1971.
They won just 79 games and finished fourth in the tough N.L. West.
Bench also cooled down considerably but still had a respectable season, hitting 27 home runs and continuing his dominance at the catcher position.
Looking to get back to the World Series, the Reds traded Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Denis Menke to the Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and pitcher Jack Billingham in one of the most consequential trades in Major League Baseball history.
The addition of Morgan and Geronimo improved the Reds’ defense up the middle while Billingham and Armbrister added additional depth to an already-solid club.
Morgan became a superstar in his own right and joined Bench in spearheading an elite Cincinnati team that again made the World Series.
The 1972 Reds won 95 games on their way to another N.L. West title while Bench won his second MVP in three years.
Bench hit 40 home runs with 125 RBI and hit a clutch game-tying home run in the 9th inning of Game Five of the NLCS, beating the Pirates once again.
The Reds won the N.L. title once again but fell to the Oakland Athletics in the World Series in a tense seven-game matchup.
While the Reds lost the World Series, the foundation for their eventual dominance in baseball had been set.
The Reds were greatly improved from their 1970 season with the addition of Morgan and Geronimo, and they had the best catcher in all of baseball in Bench.
In 1974, Bench caught 160 games and hit 33 home runs, leading the league in RBI with 129.
How good was Johnny Bench's 1974 season?
Led NL in RBI and Total Bases
.313/.408/.585 w/ runners on
.326/.392/.689 in Hi-Leverage PA
20 of 33 HR came when tied or Reds behind
6 HR 24 RBI .293/.392/.538 in September as CIN chased LA for NL West crown
Gold Glove Catcher pic.twitter.com/uo4i8yawxO
— Retro Baseball (@baseball_retro) June 23, 2022
The Reds’ 98 wins were not enough to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, and the season ended with Bench and the Reds watching the postseason at home.
By the time the 1975 season began, Bench had cemented himself as the best catcher in the game, combining his elite defense and game-calling with immense power and hitting ability, especially for a catcher.
The Reds went into the season sporting one of the best lineups in the history of baseball with Bench as the centerpiece.
With Bench in the middle of the potent Reds lineup in 1975, the team became a nearly unstoppable force in the National League.
Bench hit 28 home runs behind players like Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, who were on base more often than not.
The team won a staggering 108 games on their way to another showdown with the Pirates in the NLCS.
Once again defeating the Pirates en route to the World Series, the Reds faced off against the 95-win Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox were looking to win their first World Series since 1918 while the Reds were determined to overcome their World Series defeats in 1970 and 1972.
In one of the most iconic World Series of all time, the Reds won a thrilling victory in Game Seven after Carlton Fisk’s infamous walk-off home run in Game Six.
Bench hit just .207 with one home run in the Series but took home his first championship ring.
The 1976 season was more of the same for Cincinnati as they rammed through the National League with ease, finishing the season with 102 wins and another National League championship after defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS.
Bench was not a major part of the success, however, as he dealt with shoulder injuries the entire season and had one of the least productive seasons of his storied career.
While his defense remained outstanding, Bench played in just 135 games, his lowest total since he became the Reds’ starting catcher in the late 1960s.
His shoulders caused his power to diminish and he hit just 16 home runs and a disappointing .234.
Despite having a season marred by injury and underperformance at the plate, Bench turned it on in the postseason and was an integral part of the Reds taking home their second World Series in a row.
He went on to go 4-for-12 in the NLCS and hit over .500 in the World Series with two home runs as the Reds swept the 97-win New York Yankees.
After the series, Reds manager Sparky Anderson commented:
“When Johnny Bench was born, I believe God came down and touched his mother on the forehead and said ‘I’m going to give you a son who will be one of the greatest baseball players ever seen.”
Bench had another fantastic season in 1977, winning his 10th Gold Glove Award and hitting over 30 home runs once again.
He was healthy again but the Reds failed to make the postseason coming off back-to-back World Series wins.
This was Bench’s last monster season as injuries and wear and tear from catching every day were beginning to catch up with the veteran backstop.
The Big Red Machine era was also coming to a close, as Pete Rose and Joe Morgan moved on to other teams after the 1977 season.
Bench remained, becoming one of the last Big Red Machine icons still around by the time the decade came to a close.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s, Bench began to play less at catcher and spent more time at third and first base as the Reds tried to preserve his potent bat and give him some rest.
While the Reds were not the team they once were, Bench remained a productive player and a beloved star in Cincinnati and the baseball world.
As the 1970s came to a close and the 1980s began, Bench’s performance began to wane, and he spent more and more time at first base and third base.
In his final two seasons, 1982 and 1983, he was the Reds’ full-time third baseman but struggled defensively and was just mediocre with the bat.
He announced his retirement from the game of baseball in 1983 after a remarkable 17-year career with the Reds.
— Custom Cards OTD ⚾️ (@custom_baseball) June 10, 2021
Upon his retirement, Bench was considered by many to be the best catcher to ever play Major League Baseball due to his dominant defense behind the plate and his elite offensive production for over a decade.
The Reds won two World Series and appeared in four during Bench’s tenure, only helping to propel Bench and his storied career into the Hall of Fame.
Life After Baseball
Johnny Bench retired from the game of baseball with an impressive 75 wins above replacement and 389 home runs, both the most for a catcher in the history of Major League Baseball.
A 14-time All-Star, Bench collected over 2,000 hits and won 10 Gold Gloves.
He was named the National League’s MVP twice.
He is still considered by most to be the best catcher in Major League history.
Bench was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1989 with 96% of the vote.
In 1986, the Reds retired Bench’s number 5 and inducted him into their team Hall of Fame.
In 2008, the Reds once again honored Bench by erecting a bronze statue of him in front of Great American Ballpark.
In his post-career, Bench has appeared in numerous commercials and marketing campaigns.
He became the first individual baseball player to appear on a box of Wheaties cereal in 1989 and became a spokesman for Krylon, a paint company.
Always involved in the game of baseball in one way or another, Bench spent much of the latter part of the 1980s broadcasting nationally televised baseball games, filling in in a number of roles as an analyst.
He worked for CBS for nine years and called games ranging from the All-Star game to the National League Championship Series and other important games throughout the season.
In addition to being elected into the Hall of Fame, Bench has received numerous accolades from various organizations.
From 2000 to 2018, the award for the best catcher in college baseball was named the Johnny Bench Award.
Along with some of baseball’s all-time great players, Bench was named to the All-Century Team as the number one catcher, ahead of legendary Yankee and pop culture icon Yogi Berra.
Bench is also involved in numerous health organizations and charities, raising awareness for organizations including the American Lung Association, the Heart Association, and the Kidney Foundation.
An avid golfer, Bench has appeared in numerous PGA tournaments as a participant in the Senior Golf Tour.
He also founded the Johnny Bench Classic, an annual golf tournament that takes place in Florida.
It is not hard to see why Johnny Bench is widely considered the greatest catcher in baseball history.
Elite defense, dominant offense, a lengthy career, and postseason success have all contributed to Bench’s legacy.
A Cincinnati icon, Bench remains revered and still sells plenty of jerseys in the city.
Bench is an excellent ambassador for the game of baseball and remains one of the most influential players to ever play the game.
The once young Oklahoman who dreamed of playing in the big leagues since he first saw Mickey Mantle play in the 1950s made his dream come true and then some.
Johnny Bench is and will remain one of the most impactful players to ever play the game.