The claim that Johnny Bench is the greatest catcher ever is as solid as the grip the Cincinnati Reds legend employed to hold as many as seven baseballs in his right hand.
Roy Campanella won three Most Valuable Player Awards to Bench’s two. But Campanella declined precipitously after his final award-winning season, batting .219 in 1956 compared to .318 in 1955. Bench slugged .858 in 1981, two years before his retirement.
Mike Piazza hit more homers as a catcher (396 to Bench’s 327) but never merited a Gold Glove Award for defensive excellence. Bench won 10. Ivan Rodriguez earned 13 Gold Gloves but exceeded 30 homers and 100 RBIs in the same season just once. Bench did it four times. Carlton Fisk lasted longer (24 seasons to Bench’s 17) but finished as high as third in MVP Award balloting once. Bench scored landslide victories in his MVP years, receiving a 97 percent share of the voting in 1970 and 78 percent in ’72.
Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey deservedly reached the Hall of Fame but never competed against African-American or Latin American ballplayers. The reverse was heartbreakingly true for Josh Gibson, a Negro Leagues immortal who never had a chance to prove himself in the Majors.
Only Yogi Berra stands apart from other catchers as distinctly as Bench does. Berra won a staggering 10 World Series rings and, like Campanella, captured three MVP Awards. But Berra never led the American League in any offensive category. Bench paced the NL with 45 homers and 148 RBIs in 1970 and 40 homers and 125 RBIs in ‘72. This vaulted him into the category of the period’s elite sluggers, a group that included Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell and Hank Aaron.
Moreover, Bench revolutionized catching. He used a hinged glove and caught pitches one-handed, furthering his ability to handle pitches and transfer the ball to his throwing hand. Longtime Cubs catcher Randy Hundley introduced these stratagems, but Bench’s defensive prowess spawned copycats most.
Here’s a list of Bench’s top 10 career moments:
1. Stepping stone to a pennant
Oct. 11, 1972
As this list will demonstrate, Bench had a flair for the dramatic. In this case, the reigning World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates carried a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NL Championship Series. The winners would advance to the World Series; the losers would start their vacation. Bench showed the Reds’ resolve by driving a leadoff opposite-field homer to right off Pirates relief ace Dave Giusti. That sparked a rally which generated another run and gave the Reds a 4-3 victory.
2. Series showstopper
Oct. 16-21, 1976
The Big Red Machine functioned most forcefully in the World Series, when Cincinnati swept the Yankees in four games. The man who fueled the Machine most was Bench, who collected two hits in each game while batting .533 (8-for-15) to win World Series MVP honors. Bench was especially devastating in Game 4, homering twice and driving in five runs.
3. Best vs. the best
Oct. 6, 1973
This was a classic confrontation: Mets right-hander Tom Seaver, widely considered the game’s finest pitcher, facing Bench, one of the era’s most formidable hitters. The score was tied at 1, with one out in the ninth inning of the opener of the NLCS. Seaver was at his best, having yielded five hits while walking none and striking out 13. But Bench lined a 1-0 pitch over the left-field barrier for the game-winning run.
4. Sustaining another rally
Oct. 12, 1976
Nothing fazed the Big Red Machine, including the 6-4 deficit they faced in the bottom of the ninth inning against Philadelphia in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series. After George Foster belted a leadoff homer off Ron Reed, Bench -- who batted .333 for the series -- also went deep to tie the score. Maintaining pressure on Phillies relievers Gene Garber and Tom Underwood, the Reds secured a 7-6 triumph and an NLCS sweep that sent them to the World Series.
5. Always leave them wanting more
Sept. 17, 1983
Following a hot start to his farewell season, Bench slumped steadily until his batting average sank to the .250s in late June. He played the infield corners almost exclusively, starting only three games as a catcher. But that third start was magnificent. It was Johnny Bench Night, prompting a regular-season record audience of 53,790 to fill Riverfront Stadium in a final tribute to No. 5. Bench lined a third-inning two-run homer off Houston’s Mike Madden for his 389th and final round-tripper, sending a roar from the crowd that could be heard up and down the Ohio River.
6. Hat trick interrupts rise to stardom
July 26, 1970
Steve Carlton had emerged as an above-average pitcher by this juncture of his career but was two years away from his phenomenal 27-win season with Philadelphia. Bench preyed upon the vulnerable lefty to record his first career three-homer game in a 12-5 shellacking of St. Louis at Riverfront Stadium. Bench connected off Carlton for a three-run homer in the first inning, a two-run poke in the second inning and another homer in the fifth en route to a seven-RBI afternoon.
7. Encore, encore, encore
May 9, 1973
Bench maintained his spell over Carlton by bashing three more homers off the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner at Philadelphia. Bench smacked a two-run homer in the first inning and a three-run job in the fifth. Then came Bench’s most essential drive of the night: another two-run homer in the seventh that erased a 6-5 deficit. The Reds ultimately won, 9-7, due largely to the seven RBIs from Bench. His 12 lifetime homers off Carlton match his highest career total against any pitcher. Bench also hit 12 off Don Sutton.
8. Benchmark performances
Bench quickly established himself as the standard against which all catchers subsequently would be measured. He became the first catcher to win the Rookie of the Year Award. He also won his first of 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards, a record streak for catchers that Texas’ Ivan Rodriguez matched (1992-2001). In a remark that was short on grammar but long in significance, Sparky Anderson, manager of the Big Red Machine ballclubs, is known to have said, “Don’t never embarrass nobody by comparing them to Johnny Bench."
9. Slugger among sluggers
July 13, 1971
The National League’s star-studded lineup for the All-Star Game at Detroit included Bench, who hit sixth. Ahead of him in the batting order were four future Hall of Famers: Willie Mays, Aaron, Stargell and McCovey. But it was Bench who made the first meaningful contact off AL starter Vida Blue as he drilled a second-inning home run to right-center field.
10. Kids, don’t try this at home
Bench was unquestionably the leader of Cincinnati’s pitching staff. In one game against the Dodgers, Bench was catching Gerry Arrigo, a prototypical soft-tossing left-hander who was capable of throwing adequate fastballs but sometimes didn’t put enough effort into them. Bench wanted Arrigo to throw his fastball harder so it would set up his slower stuff more effectively. But Arrigo remained content with lobbing his fastball toward Bench, who tired of his batterymate’s stubbornness. Bench called for another fastball that floated outside. So he caught it barehanded and fired the ball back to Arrigo. Message received. Arrigo began throwing his fastball with greater authority.
Chris Haft has covered the Major Leagues since 1991 and has worked for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @goodforball.