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On The Bricks

May 8, 2020

It’s baseball season and those who love watching the game are missing it with the COVID19 quarantine. So, here’s my way to help you get through this if you’re missing baseball. Oklahoma baseball.

Johnny Lee Bench, born Dec. 7, 1947 is a former professional baseball catcher who played in the Major Leagues for the Cincinnati Reds from 1967 to 1983 and is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Bench is a 14 – time All – Star selection and a two – time National League Most Valuable Player. He was a key member of the Big Red Machine that won six division titles, four National League pennants, and two consecutive World Series championships. Known for his prowess on both offense and defense, ESPN has called him the greatest catcher in baseball history.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Bench is one – eighth Choctaw; he played baseball and basketball and was class valedictorian at Binger – Oney High School in Binger. His father told him that the fastest route to becoming a major leaguer was as a catcher.

As a 17 – year – old, Bench was selected 36th overall by the Cincinnati Reds in the second round of the 1965 amateur draft, playing for the minor – league Buffalo Bisons in the 1966 and 1967 seasons before being called up to the Reds in August 1967. He hit only .163, but impressed many people with his defense and strong throwing arm.

During a 1968 spring training game, Bench was catching right – hander Jim Maloney, an eight – year veteran. Maloney was once a hard thrower, but injuries had dramatically reduced the speed of his fastball. Maloney nevertheless insisted on repeatedly “shaking off” his younger catcher by throwing fastballs instead of the breaking balls that Bench called. When an exasperated Bench bluntly told Maloney, “Your fastball’s not popping,” Maloney replied with an epithet. To prove to Maloney that his fastball was no longer effective, Bench called for a fastball, and after Maloney released the ball, Bench dropped his catcher’s mitt and caught the fastball barehanded. Bench was the Reds’ catcher on Apr. 30, 1969, when Maloney pitched a no hitter against the Houston Astros.

In 1968, in the 20 – year – old Bench’s first full season he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award, batting .275 with 15 home runs and 82 RBIs. This marked the first time that the award had been won by a catcher. He also won the 1968 National League Gold Glove Award for catchers, which was the first time that the award had been won by a rookie. He made 102 assists in 1968, which marked the first time in 23 years that a catcher had more than 100 assists in a season.

During the 1960s, Bench served in the Army Reserve as a member of the 478th Engineer Battalion, based across the Ohio River from Cincinnati at Fort Thomas, Ken. This unit included several of his teammates, among them Pete Rose. In the winter of 1970 – 1971 he was part of Bob Hope‘s USO Tour of Vietnam.

For the last three seasons of his career, Bench moved out from behind the plate, catching only 13 games, while primarily becoming a corner infielder (first or third base). The Cincinnati Reds proclaimed Sept. 17, 1983, “Johnny Bench Night” at Riverfront Stadium, in which he hit his 389th and final home run, a line drive to left in the third inning before a record crowd. He retired at the end of the season at age 35.

Bench was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. He was elected in his first year of eligibility, and appeared on 96% of the ballots, the third – highest percentage at that time. Three years earlier, Bench had been inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1986 and his uniform No. 5 was retired by the team. In 1989, he became the first individual baseball player to appear on a Wheaties box.

His post – baseball career has included television, radio, baseball commentating, and much more.

And for those who are missing the ballfields and watching the game, some great baseball movies you might want to watch are A League of their Own (Tom Hanks), Field of Dreams (Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones), Bull Durham (Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon), Sandlot (James Earl Jones), The Natural (Robert Redford, Kim Basinger), and Moneyball (Brad Pitt).

Trivia: An umpire at the first professional baseball game was given a six – cent fine for using profanity.

See you on the bricks and at the ball field soon!

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