With 45% of the vote at the time of writing, Bench fell short of a majority, but given the talent of the candidates, that’s not a surprise. Josh Gibson came runner-up (27%), ahead of Yogi Berra (18%).
Johnny Bench was a fixture on the Cincinnati Reds, playing his entire professional career with them, from being drafted by the Reds in the second-round of the 1965 draft, through his retirement at the end of the 1983 season. Seven catchers were picked before Bench: none of them came anywhere close to matching his production (Ray Fosse, hit at home by Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game, had the best career, at 12.8 bWAR). Despite being aged just 17 at the time, It didn’t take long for Bench to make the majors, being called up in August 1967. The following spring training, Ted Williams signed a baseball for the rookie, “To Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer for sure.” Whether joking or not, Williams was right.
Bench made an instant impression in his first full season, appearing in 154 games and batting .275 with 15 HR. He not only won Rookie of the Year - the first catcher to do so - he also won the Gold Glove at the position, the first rookie there. Bench made the first of his 14 All-Star rosters, and at the time was the third-youngest player to do so [the following year, he became the youngest to homer in the ASG, a record he still holds] Two years later in 1970, Bench had one of the greatest season ever by a catcher, hitting .293 with 45 homers. It set a record for HR by a catcher which stood for more than fifty years, under Salvador Perez hit 48 for the Royals last season. Bench’s 148 RBI that year is still the all-time mark.
Unsurprisingly, Bench took home Most Valuable Player honors, with 22 of 24 first-place votes. However, the Reds lost the World Series in five games to the Orioles. Two more years later, history would repeat, as Bench won the 1972 National League MVP again. This time, he got 11 first-place votes after hitting .270 with a league-leading 40 home-runs, as Cincinnati won the NL West by 101⁄2 games. But again, they couldn’t pull it off in the post-season, though took Oakland to seven games in the World Series. After the season, Bench had lung surgery, and that may have sapped his power, just when the catcher was entering his prime. Though his most impressive feat may have been his ability to hold SEVEN baseballs in one hand:
For those of you who don't know what this is referencing: pic.twitter.com/NGZBDEerFl— Baseball's Greatest Player Playoff⚾ (@s_playoff) May 17, 2021
But he still continued to be immensely productive. Over the seven seasons from 1969 through 1975, Bench put up a total of 45.5 bWAR, behind only Joe Morgan in the majors. The last of those years saw the Reds finally put it all together, Bench getting his first ring in a 1975 World Series some still rate as the greatest ever. Though Johnny struggled with a shoulder issue the following year, he came through when the Reds needed him most. In the 1976 World Series against the Yankees, Bench was named MVP, going 8-for-15 with two home-runs and six RBI. Cincinnati swept New York, out-scoring them 22-8. No National League team since then has won back-to-back titles.
There would be five more All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove, and three further mentions in the MVP results for Bench, as he continued to be a valuable player the rest of the decade. In the seventies, he averaged 144 games a year, remarkable for a catcher, hit more home-runs (290) than all but Willie Stargell and Reggie Jackson, drove in more runs than anybody (1013), and was worth 5.9 bWAR per season. Hell, he even averaged six SB a year. Inevitably, time caught up to Bench in the eighties, with playing time declining. But even in his final season of 1983, he still appeared 110 times, albeit mostly at corner infield spots. On September 17, proclaimed “Johnny Bench Night” by the Reds, he hit his 389th and final home run.
His number was quickly retired by the Reds, and there is now a statue of Bench at Great American Ball Park, unveiled in 2011. It was absolutely no surprise when he became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1989, being named on 96% of the ballots cast. That year, he also became the first individual baseball player to appear on a Wheaties’ box. His reputation has not diminished in the years since his retirement. Bench was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team as the top vote-receiving catcher, and according to SABR, “he remains the gold standard for baseball catchers of any era.”
Below is a 2000 documentary on Bench, originally screened as part of ESPN’s Sport Century series, which is definitely a recommended watch.
Next up: first-base, where the candidates could perhaps include Lou Gehrig, Cap Anson, Jimmie Foxx and Jeff Bagwell. But not Albert Pujols. :)