COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Unlike most superstars, Johnny Bench wore a mask to work every day.
The Hall of Fame catcher wore that mask to protect his face from foul tips, curveballs in the dirt or even an errant bat. Most of Bench’s 17 years in the big leagues were spent revolutionizing the catcher position in a Cincinnati Reds uniform.
But on Aug. 22, 1979 – 33 years ago this week – Bench officially became the face of the Reds when he broke the franchise record with his 325th home run to eclipse Hall of Famer Frank Robinson’s previous mark.
The Cincinnati backstop went on to blast 389 career home runs, which remains a franchise record. The 14-time All-Star selection won two MVPs – the second of which he won at 24 years old – and led the Big Red Machine to back-to-back World Series titles.
While Bench is emblazoned throughout the Reds’ record books, his greatness permeated throughout the rest of the National League.
“He’s the best all-around catcher in the 17 years that I’ve played, and he’ll certainly be remembered as the best,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver.
Bench set his fair share of records in addition to the home run mark he set with Cincinnati.
At an early age, Bench was already racking up the accolades. Bench became the first catcher in MLB history to take home Rookie of the Year honors in 1968. He set the single season home run mark for a catcher when he hit 45 long balls in his 1970 NL MVP season. The Oklahoma native also held the all-time record for home runs by a catcher until Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk broke it in 1990.
In addition to setting a new standard for catchers at the plate, Bench also set a new one behind it. Bench won Gold Glove Awards in each of his first 10 seasons and led the majors in caught stealing percentage three different times.
“Every time Bench throws, everybody else in baseball drools,” said former front office executive Harry Dalton.
Bench’s all-around game garnered the respect of his catching counterparts.
“He’s just been a guy that no one can describe with words except to say that he’s a legend a definitely destined to be in the Hall of Fame,” said fellow future Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter during Bench’s playing days.
When Bench was in Spring Training in 1968, then a 20-year-old rookie, Hall of Fame outfielder Ted Williams autographed a baseball for him. Despite the fact that Bench had played just 26 big league games, Williams had a lofty prediction for the young catcher. On the autographed ball, Williams wrote, ‘To Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer for sure.’
Needless to say, Williams’ prediction came true. Bench was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1989. Sparky Anderson, who managed Bench from 1970-78, also made a prediction about Bench.
“We’re never going to see another one like him in our lifetime,” Anderson said. “I’ll tell you we would be the most fortunate people in the world if we ever seen another one like him in our lifetime.”
Connor O’Gara was the 2012 public relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development