Monday, December 5, 2011

#60 Johnny Bench



Card:  This is Johnny Bench's 16th and final regular issue Topps card.  His rookie card was back in 1968.

Pic:  Bench's forearm muscles really stand out as he takes a cut.  It seems sacrilegious to list Bench as a third baseman but during the '82 season but that's where he played almost all of his games. 

Player:  Johnny Bench was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2nd round of the 1965 draft.  At age 19 he had already hit 23 homers in 98 games at AAA Buffalo when he was called up to the Reds in August of '67.  He hit only .163 in 26 games but made an immediate impression with his strong arm.  Bench took hold of the Reds starting catcher's job in '68, batting .275 in the year of the pitcher, and hit 15 home runs.  He became the first catcher in 23 years with over 100 assists (102) and won the Rookie of the Year Award, a Gold Glove, and made his first All-Star team. 

Bench followed up his rookie campaign with a great season in '69, batting .293 with 26 long balls and 90 RBI.  He came into his own in 1970 busting out with 45 dingers and 148 RBI while posting a .293/.345/.587 line.  The Reds dynasty was taking shape, and although Bench hit home runs in both the NLCS and World Series, the Big Red Machine lost to the Orioles in the fall classic.  Bench's terrific season won him the MVP award, receiving 22 of 24 first place votes.  Bench slumped in '71 (.238) as did the Reds finishing in fourth place.  Bench rebounded with a fantastic season belting 40 homers with 125 RBI in '72.  He walked 100 times and had an OPS+ of 166.  Bench and the Reds eliminated the Pirates in five games as he hit .333 with a three of his six hits going for extra bases.  The Oakland A's won the World Series in seven games despite Bench reaching base 11 times including another home run.  For his regular season efforts Bench won his second MVP award.
Bench's production dipped in '73 but he still hit 25 bombs with 104 RBI.  The Reds however won the NL West and Bench homered in his fifth consecutive postseason series but the Reds lost to the underdog Mets.  To keep Bench in the lineup as much as possible, manager Sparky Anderson used Bench at third base for 36 games in 1974.  This allowed him to play in a career high 160 games.  Although his defense at the hot corner wasn't the greatest, his offense was stellar batting .280 with 33 homers and 129 RBI. 

The Big Red Machine fired on all cylinders in '75 as Bench and company captured the hotly contested World Series against the Red Sox.  After only one hit in the NLCS, Bench came through with a home run and two doubles against Boston.  During the regular season he hit .283, launched 28 homers, drove in 110 runs, and had a slugging percentage over .500 for the fourth time in his career. 
Bench struggled through his worst regular season in 1976 batting only .234 with 16 home runs.  He came through in the postseason, winning Worlds Series MVP honors as the Reds swept through the Phillies and Yankees.  Bench's postseason numbers: 12-27, 3 HR, 7 RBI, .926 SLG.  During a post-game new conference a writer asked manager Sparky Anderson to compare Yankee catcher Thurman Munson to Bench.  Sparky replied "You don't compare anyone to Johnny Bench. You don't want to embarrass anybody".

In '77 and '78 Bench hit .275 and .260 with 31 and 23 homers but the Reds missed the playoffs both years.  He had another solid year in '79 batting .276 with 22 dingers as the Reds won the NL West.  The Reds were swept by the Pirates but not before Bench swatted his 10th career postseason homer.  This would be Bench's last year with over 500 plate appearances. 

1980 marked Bench's last season as a starting backstop as the wear and tear of catching an average of 133 games a year from '68-'79 started to take its toll.  He played in 114 games, batting .250 with 24 homers.  The strike shortened '81 season saw Bench start the year behind the plate but mounting injuries caused a switch to first base by May and and cost him part of the season .  He batted .302 playing in only 52 games. 

The last two years of Bench's career he played primarily at thirdbase.  While his arm was plenty strong for third base, he had no range, and he was prone to errors (.917 and .933 fld%).  He hit a total of 25 long balls over the last two years batting .258 and .255.   
Bench retired with an impressive list of career stats including 389 home runs and 1,376 RBI.


Flipside: These are nearly Bench's complete stats.  He played in 110 games in '83 but Topps chose to put retiring veterans Bench, Gaylord Perry, and Carl Yastrzemski on a highlight card in the '84 set rather than sending them off with their own individual card. 

Oddball:  If you were a baseball fan growing up during the early 80's you likely remember the Baseball Bunch hosted by none other than our post topic.  Here is a clip of the closing credits / theme.  I loved that show.
While I was looking for Baseball Bunch video I found this clip of a young interviewer getting roasted by Bench for asking about Pete Rose and the HOF in '95. 
After you watch the clip and get done laughing, watch again and notice how big Bench's hands are. (now ladies, keep your minds on baseball here...)

History:MVPs and two World Series rings. Comparing Wins Above Replacement (WAR) Bench has 71.3 for his career compared to Pudge Fisk 67.3, Pudge Rodriguez 67.3, Gary Carter 66.3, Yogi Berra 61.9, and Mike Piazza 59.1. Not saying WAR is everything, but at worst Bench is definitely top four or five material.  I didn't write much on his defense but Bench really set the bar for all catchers that followed him.
Bench was elected to the HOF in 1989 and since retirement has kept busy with many activities.  Check this link for his website. 


Tomorrow I'll take a look at Bench's super-veteran card.

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