- Famed for his precocious achievements behind the plate five decades ago, the 70-year-old former leader of the Big Red Machine is now devoting himself to molding children—his own.
This story appears in the July 2, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 87 percent off the cover price and two FREE gifts. Click here for more details.
The scene is so familiar that it borders on cliché. Two brothers, ages 12 and eight, sit in the backseat of a white SUV, headed to school, this one in South Florida. Their father is at the wheel. He was up early to make omelets and pour cereal, but at 6:40 he had to resort to bribery to roust the little guy—"he's the sleeper"—by promising to make a Dunkin' Donuts stop before drop-off.
They've barely pulled out of the driveway when they start arguing over the SiriusXM offerings. The kids want Top 40. The father wants Brooks & Dunn or Toby Keith or ... basically anything that isn't Top 40 or hip-hop. But the kids outnumber him.
So with the same grimace he flashed pitchers when they shook off his signs, the greatest catcher in history turns the dial and the three males in the SUV start singing along to 21 Pilots and Imagine Dragons. Dad messes up the words, as he often does.
Johnny Bench is 70. He doesn't look 70; his physique, tanned by the Florida sun, hasn't swollen significantly from his playing weight of 221 pounds, with muscles still discernible. He says he doesn't feel 70.
And Lord knows, he isn't living the life of a 70-year-old. A single dad to Justin, a sixth-grader, and Josh, a third-grader, he rises at 5:30 to do laundry and lay out his kids' clothes. He spends nights checking homework ("both are on the honor roll," he brags) and uses his iCalendar less to keep track of tee times than to schedule after-school activities and pediatrician appointments.
The backstory is complex but, Bench says, ultimately quite simple. Johnny and his fourth wife, Lauren Baiocchi, who's 45, had been living in Palm Springs with their two sons. Johnny wasn't loving the California desert; he had the urge to return to South Florida, where he lived from 2014 to '17, and it was closer to Lauren's parents, who live there. So the family scouted homes in Palm Beach Gardens. But when it came time to move, Lauren decided she wasn't going. And Johnny wasn't staying. Lauren and Johnny divorced. And while the matter wends its way through family court, Johnny has primary custody of the boys.
Almost 30 years after his Hall of Fame induction, Bench did not envision this life, solo parent trying to get his kids to expand their tastes beyond chicken fingers, limiting screen time and coordinating sleepovers. He looks around on parents' nights and the generation gap is clear. Says Bench, "Not too many of my boys' friends' parents are saying, 'Hey, I remember watching you play.'"
If life at 70 is different than the way he'd imagined, Bench points out that it is irrelevant. "What matters is now," he says. "I want those boys to be well-raised and well-behaved and well-educated. It's a commitment, but I've made that commitment to them. Happy to have."
As if on cue, he receives a text. "That's right," he says, his voice dropping an octave. "Josh asked me last night if Nick could sleep over..."
Back to his original train of thought: "When people say, 'You have two wonderful boys and you're a great father...'" Bench's voice trails off, and as he restarts, it catches. "I don't have a ring for that, but I'll tell you: If I can be considered a Hall of Fame dad, then, well, that's more important than anything else I may have achieved."
As the tears form in the corners of his eyes, Bench quotes a country song—as he often does. "Ever heard 'Mr. Mom' by the band Lonestar?" he asks. Bench grabs his phone, toggles through iTunes and there in the middle of an Italian restaurant sings along in a pleasant, rumbling voice:
Well, Pampers melt in a Maytag dryer
Crayons go up one drawer higher
Rewind Barney for the fifteenth time
Breakfast at six, naps at nine
There's bubblegum in the baby's hair
Sweet potatoes in my lazy chair
Been crazy all day long
And it's only Monday, Mr. Mom
Understatement: Johnny Bench’s childhood bore little resemblance to Justin's and Josh's. He grew up in Binger, Okla., where the population, then and now, has hung around 600. His father, Ted, worked for a propane company, rising early and driving an oil truck, and his mom, Katy, kept order for their four kids.
Johnny—never John—was one of those sports omnivores who excelled at everything. But Ted had been a semi-pro baseball player, and as Johnny was growing up, Mickey Mantle was proving that Oklahoma boys could become luminous stars on the diamond. So baseball took precedence in the Bench home. By elementary school, Johnny was listing his future profession as "major leaguer" and practicing his autograph. He chose catching because—an early bit of analytics—his father thought it was the position that offered the greatest probability for making the majors.
In Binger his ambition engendered giggles and suggestions that the Bench boy manage his expectations. But Johnny never required the validation of others. At 17, in 1965, he was a second-round draft pick of the Reds. While playing for Class A Tampa that year, he caught the attention of no less than Yogi Berra. "He can do it all—now," Berra said.
In Bench's first game with Triple A Buffalo, in 1966, he broke his right thumb. During his recovery he sat in the stands at Crosley Field above the Reds' bullpen and yelled down, "If any of you guys are catchers, you'd better remember me. I'm gonna take your job."
Which he did. In 1968, Bench played his first full season and was named National League Rookie of the Year. That offseason, Sports Illustrated ran a feature on "The Big Zinger from Binger."
In 1970, Bench continued his ascent, hitting 45 home runs and driving in 148 runs. Yet when he won the NL MVP award that fall, it was as much for his defense as for his offense. Bench's right arm was worthy of U.N. weapons inspecting; he took as much pride in throwing out base runners as he did in launching balls over fences. He led the major leagues in caught-stealing percentage in 1969 and '72. "Man, did he know how to call a game," says Tom Seaver, a teammate from 1977 to '82. And before it was an occupational requirement, Bench had perfected the dark art of framing pitches.
By 1972 the Big Red Machine was humming. Bench was NL MVP again, hitting 40 home runs and knocking in 125 runs. In the bottom of the ninth inning of the definitive Game 5 of the NLCS, with the Reds trailing the Pirates by a run, Bench came to bat. "As I went to the plate," he later recalled, "I heard my mom hollering my name: 'Hit me a home run.' I thought, I wish it were that easy!" He did it anyway, tying the game. The Reds scored another run to win the game and the pennant before falling to the A's in seven games in the World Series.
Though barely in his 20s, Bench comported himself like a veteran. During just his second season in the majors, he reckoned that the arm of his pitcher, Gerry Arrigo, was tiring. So Bench called for a curveball. Six years older than Bench, Arrigo declined. When Arrigo reared back and threw a fastball, Bench caught the pitch barehanded. Point made. As Bench once recalled to Sports Illustrated, "I didn't want to show him up, but...." For a 1972 Time magazine story headlined "Baseball's Best Catcher," Cincinnati pitcher Jim Maloney, eight years Bench's senior, said, "He'll come out to the mound and chew me out as if I were a two-year-old. And I like it."
Though he came from rural Oklahoma—"two miles beyond RESUME SPEED," he likes to say—Bench projected an air of sophistication. A bon vivant, he knew the best restaurants in every NL city. He subscribed to Time and made it a point to know the landed gentry of Cincinnati. He began producing and hosting a daily morning show on local television, interviewing Bob Hope and Gerald Ford, among others. He hired his team's young radio announcer as his sidekick. "I gave Al Michaels his first job in television," he says.
Confident and self-possessed, Bench was a wallflower compared with the team's shaggy-haired outfielder. For a time Bench and Pete Rose were cast as contrasts: the graceful, polished, socially ambitious catcher versus the gritty, dirt-on-the-uniform, what-you-see-is-what-you-get grinder. While that was an oversimplification, an unmistakable chill passed between them. "Bench and Rose were never bosom buddies, not even close," says Michaels. "There was a healthy rivalry. Who was the alpha dog? But this was never to the detriment of the team." (Bench points out: He and Rose were civil enough to share several business ventures, including a car dealership and a bowling alley.)
The Reds of the '70s were an extraordinarily close unit; many of the players lived in the same apartment complex. The team's core—Bench, Rose, infielders Joe Morgan and Tony Pérez—could scarcely have been more different in background, playing style and personality. It didn't matter. Bench recalls that Ted Marchibroda, the NFL coach, once asked him what made the Reds so successful. "We're called the Reds, which is funny because we don't see color," Bench explained. "We have black leadership, white leadership, Spanish leadership. None of it makes a difference. You could go to a bar after a game and take a team picture because we all hung out together."
Nor was the team destabilized by the social stresses of the late '60s and '70s. While some teams were questioning and challenging convention—the A's presented themselves as a mustachioed band of rebels—Cincinnati players offered little push back to team strictures banning facial hair, decreeing that the white-and-red uniforms show only a certain amount of stocking and demanding that players "show proper posture" in the dugout. The team's manager from 1970 through '78, Sparky Anderson, was a revered figure whose decisions went largely unquestioned by his minions. "We respected him, but he respected us, to the point that he would ask for our input," says Bench. "Your reaction: My God, he thinks I have a brain. He made you feel like a professional."
Bench jokes that he dates himself when discussing his salary. He made $11,000 his rookie season and $85,000 his first MVP season, less than today's MVPs make per game. For another signifier of how times have changed, he talks about the basketball team he and his teammates—including Rose—formed during the offseason. They'd barnstorm Ohio, playing games mostly for charity. According to Rose, the team went 47–4, losing only to the alumni teams of the 1961 and '62 NCAA champion University of Cincinnati squads. Eventually Reds management forced the team to dissolve after centerfielder Bobby Tolan ruptured his Achilles tendon in one game. "Imagine that today," says Bench, laughing. "Not too many front offices would go for that, huh?"
In 1975, Cincinnati returned to the World Series and won, beating the Red Sox in seven. A year later the Reds swept the Yankees. The Big Red Machine's bill of particulars: five seasons, four division crowns, three pennants, two World Series titles. Bench is reluctant to make "best ever" pronouncements, but others will. Suffice to say that when "Sports Dynasties" is a Jeopardy! category, the mid-'70s Reds are invariably mentioned.
Bench had, by '75, cemented his status as the finest practitioner of his position. He made 14 All-Star teams, and he won 10 Gold Gloves, every year from 1968 through '77. (For the sake of comparison, Buster Posey has one.) Over his career Bench threw out 43% of the risk-tolerant base runners who chose to test his arm.
Midway through his career, his body launched an insurrection. His hips ached constantly, the legacy of a car accident Bench endured as a teenager. His knees were inflamed from infinite home plate collisions. He had back trouble, surgery to remove a lesion on his lung in 1972, and he broke his left ankle in 1981. Half a lifetime later he still recalls the rough treatment he received from unsympathetic fans. "They say, 'Don't let the boos get you down.' But do this: Walk into your office tomorrow and have two people boo you. Then, when you walk out of your office, they boo you again. The next thing you know, you're back in your office, you're not coming out."
Bench took solace in some advice he received from two men. Bobby Knight, legendary basketball coach and longtime friend, told him, "A critic is a legless man who teaches running." Bobby Richardson, the former Yankees second baseman, said, "This crowd on Earth, they soon forget the heroes of the past. They cheer like mad until you fall."
Over the final three seasons of his career, Bench caught only 13 total games. He retired in 1983, having played his entire career in Cincinnati, and did not agonize over the decision. Years later John Elway asked him, "How did you know when to retire?"
Bench had a simple answer: "When you can't be John Elway anymore." He says now, "I came to a realization that I couldn't be Johnny Bench anymore. I walked away from a $900,000 contract. I wasn't earning it." Then he laughs. "Of course, Elway won two more Super Bowls [after our conversation], then retired on his own terms."
After baseball Bench was host of the classic children's show The Baseball Bunch, which ran for six years. He was a regular on the motivational-speaking circuit and the spokesperson for a Cincinnati bank. He'd go hunting with his pal Knight and golfing with any of his innumerable celebrity friends. He lent his name to charities and scholarship drives and golf classics, raising millions. "The great thing about it," he says, "is I knew I had a life. You feel bad, some of these guys, they walk away, and they didn't save a dime."
It was often suggested that Bench had the temperament to be a good manager. But, he says, "I don't want to deal with incompetence. I played on a team that was the level of what it was. Really, it's hard for me to accept people who don't make an effort, are not professional. The great thing in my life is, I don't have to deal with them."
As for his old teammates, they remain kindred spirits. Bench sees Pérez, who lives nearby, in Miami. He goes fishing with Seaver. He runs into Rose at card shows, and they text each other on their birthdays.
Then there's Morgan, of whom Bench says, "Couldn't find a better ballplayer anywhere, ever." Morgan flirted with death several years ago, following complications from knee surgery. When he turned a corner, "First thing Joe did was send me a video of him walking around the room without a cane. I said, 'It looks like you got two canes, the way those legs are shaped.' But he's doing better now, and it makes me so happy."
Talk of Morgan's recovery has Bench taking full inventory of his life. "I'm blessed by a lot of things," he says. "Blessed with who I've had in my life, where I've got."
By the metrics of friends, experiences, net worth, Bench's life has been a full one. But, by his own admission, he's been considerably less successful in his personal life. Naturally, he has lyrics from a country music song ready for that. Two songs, in fact: Tammy Wynette's "Till I Get It Right" and "The Dance" by Garth Brooks. "So I'll just keep on fallin' in love till I get it right." Moments later he sings, "I could have missed the pain, but I'd of had to miss the dance."
Early in his career, Bench was hailed as "baseball's most-eligible bachelor," a distinction he shed before the 1975 season when he married Vickie Chesser, a toothpaste model who'd previously dated Joe Namath. Four days after they met, Bench proposed; 13 months after they married, they were divorced. ("I tried. I even hand-squeezed orange juice," she told Phil Donahue in December 1975. "I don't think either of us had any idea what marriage was really like.")
Before Christmas 1987, Bench married Laura Cwikowski, an Oklahoma City model and aerobics instructor. They had a son, Bobby Binger (named for Hope and Knight, and Bench's hometown), before divorcing in '95. They shared custody of the boy. "He was—is—a great dad," says Bobby, who works in Cincinnati as a production operator on Reds broadcasts. "Definitely firm. I remember him making me wear slacks and a button-down for my 12th birthday. But he did a lot of things you later appreciated."
Bench took his third at bat in 1997, marrying Elizabeth Benton, and his fourth marriage came in 2004, to Baiocchi, the daughter of pro golfer Hugh Baiocchi. Bench chooses his words cautiously talking about their recent breakup, in part because it involves his sons' mother and in part because there are matters still in court. One point he makes without hesitation though: Primary custody suits him fine.
"Being a dad can be challenging, sure. But even when it's not fun, it's enjoyable—if that makes sense," he says. "I don't mind the work. I mean, how can you complain about doing laundry? You throw it in, put some soap in, push the button and come back when it's done."
Bench has help, too. The two daughters of the Gary Carter—another great catcher of Bench's era—live nearby, and they've helped line up babysitters and housekeepers. Lauren's parents (who are Bench's contemporaries) live a few miles away and are happy to pinch-hit when Johnny travels. Bobby flies to Florida once a month or so, helping out with his half-brothers. "Sometimes I'm good cop, sometimes bad cop," he says. "Dad tells them to put down the XBox, and they'll say, 'In a minute.' Then I say, 'I know you started a new game. You can fool your dad, but you can't fool me!'"
Justin and Josh both play sports, but they feel little pressure being the sons of a Hall of Famer. Neither plays baseball, but Johnny would like both to be involved in the game. The boys' friends have scarcely heard of Johnny Bench. And Bench is fine if the boys prefer soccer or music or whatever.
Like any father—especially one of a certain age—Bench imparts lessons by recounting gauzy stories. He tells stories of fishing trips and cross-country flights and USO tours, and cautionary tales of celebrities he knew who went broke or never grew up. "If what you did yesterday is big to you now," he says, "then you haven't done much today."
Most of the stories don't involve baseball, but there's one, set in the late '60s: Bench was 18 and playing in Buffalo. A pair of older pitchers, Dom Zanni and Jim Duffalo, pulled him aside. They noticed that for all his natural talent, he was flailing at breaking pitches. The next afternoon they met at the park. "They threw me curveball after curveball after curveball," Bench recalls. "Two games later I hit two home runs off curveballs. The pitcher was Sam Jones, supposedly the curveball guy."
The moral of the story is obvious, but the 70-year-old single dad of preteens, smiles and takes his swing. "I tell the boys: You have to know how to deal with curveballs."