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."
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 Sporting News 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.
The pitcher, in baseball, is the young officer who pushes the buttons and gets the credit. But the catcher, not as noticeable behind the plate, is the top sergeant who puts everything together. He is the focus of what is happening—and he is particularly the focus if he is Johnny Bench. A catcher, for instance, has to chasten the base runners. Lou Brock of St. Louis, who led both leagues in stolen bases last year, says of Bench: "He keeps you alive out there." A catcher has to learn the hitters' weaknesses and exploit them by calling for the right combination of pitches. Reds Reliever Clay Carroll says, "Last year he knew all the hitters already. I tell him, 'Just give me the signs and I'll throw them,' because I know he'll mix them up real good." A catcher also must:
•Provide a good target. Culver: "He's wide. When a catcher's big like that he looks a lot closer."
•Be nimble. Carroll: "He moves around back there like a little rat."
•Divide his loyalties in the conflict that, by and large, polarizes pitchers and hitters. Reds Righthander Tony Cloninger: "He's a good hitter, but he doesn't talk about that all the time. In between innings he'll talk about your pitching."
•Read the pitcher's mind. The Reds' Jim Maloney: "Every time I'd think, 'Gee, I hope he'll call a curve,' boom, he'd drop down two fingers for the curve."
•Overrule the pitcher's mind. Reds Coach Hal Smith: "Arrigo has a good fastball but likes to throw his curve. You've got to make him throw the fastball. Johnny's good at that kind of thing."
•Take charge. Carroll: "He's out there hollering let's go, let's hustle, and he tells you where to throw to. He hollers out, too. He doesn't just say 'first.' "
•Last, but just as important, a catcher is the troll who guards the plate—if necessary, balletically. In a game against the Cubs last June, Bench took a high throw from the outfield and swept his glove across the sliding runner's spikes with the grace of a somewhat encumbered Nureyev. "I still don't believe it," says Leo Durocher. "I've never seen that play executed so precisely."
In Binger after last season 5,000 enthusiasts showed up for Johnny Bench Day. Bench, who had been valedictorian of his high school class three years before, rewarded them with more than the customary words of the modest hero returned. And he spent the rest of the off season making two or three appearances a week for the Reds' speaker's bureau. He told the civic clubs of the tri-state area (Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana) that Binger was "two and a half miles beyond Resume Speed," and that the way to deal with Brock when he broke for second was to "throw to third and head him off."
"Johnny will come up to you for the first time and it's like you've known him forever," says Culver. The tri-state civic clubs could not get enough of him. "He'd be a real asset to any organization," says a Reds official.
Bench, who is not exactly a retiring violet, had something of the same idea, and thus it was with a certain amount of shock at contract time that he found the Reds unwilling to meet his asking price for '69. So he held out and got his $25,000.
As it happens, there has never been a $100,000 catcher. "Yeah, well, there hasn't been until now," says Bench. "There's going to be one. If McCarver doesn't make it first. I'd like to make more than $100,000.
"I have some mutual funds and some stocks started. It would cost me more to have a financial adviser now than the finances I have. But a good year this year and I'll have an agent. I want to be comfortable when I get out. I'd like to have some time off to rest and to do what I want. Like Ted Williams."
According to Culver, Bench is sometimes called Corkhead—because of the size of his head. "He hates it," says Culver, "but a guy like that, you don't want to think of an ordinary name like Cork.
"Most guys you read so much about, you see them a couple of times and eh...but John always lives up to it. He's a little too cocky sometimes. He got a little pumped up last year. But with all that publicity, there would have been something wrong with him if he hadn't."
One day last year a girl brought Bench a scrapbook of his clippings that she had compiled and wanted him to autograph. Before signing it he could not resist the temptation to go through it. One by one a dozen or so Reds came up behind him and started reading it over his shoulder. When, at length, he looked up and saw the crowd that had assembled, he turned a good seven-eighths Redman. It was one of the few times anybody can remember seeing him embarrassed.
"Someday I'd like to sing," Bench said last week. "I'd have to take a lot of lessons. But I'd like to know in my mind that I could sing and other people would enjoy me. As to what kind of singing, I'd just have to see. I don't think I could be a psychedelic singer or anything like that.
"Now, I like to go to discoth√®ques. I do the Funky Broadway, the Tighten Up, the Four-Corner and the Horse. In Tampa the dancing hasn't caught up to Cincinnati's. In Oklahoma they~ just have teen hops. I avoid those, I guess.
"I don't think I could go anywhere without music. In the car or at home. It's hard for me to sit down and read a book. I don't know what I've got in my blood, but it keeps me running right now." He lives in The Forum, a Cincinnati apartment complex for young singles, and he has plenty of social life, but by all accounts he does not dissipate.
So, granted that he takes care of himself and granted that catching was a good passport into the big time—don't catchers wear out awfully fast? "Well," he says, "you find the old catchers still around, because they can catch the ball. But it's true that a catcher's plentiful years are short. I don't figure to be around playing for 20 years. I don't want to be."
But he is going to be around long enough for everybody to forget the Funky Broadway. Whatever the dance is 10 to 15 years from now, ballplayers probably will be doing it to Johnny Bench's tune.