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Johnny Bench - Matures As Player

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Bench and the entire team suffered from a slump in 1971, dropping to fourth place in their only losing season of the 1970s. Like all professional athletes, baseball players have to deal with injuries, particularly muscle pulls, strains, and tears from quick sprints, awkward slides, collisions, and getting hit by the ball. Catchers get often get nicked by foul tips and block pitches and throws with their bodies. Bench spent most of the 1971 season playing injured. While his defense was sound, his offense was dismal. Frustrated, he analyzed his batting stance, tried new techniques, changed helmets, and changed grips. Nothing helped. The team heard jokes about the Big Red Machine turning into an Edsel, and the formerly confident Bench searched his soul. He remembered in Catch You Later, "Going from MVP to MDP [Most Disappointing Player] was a crucial period for me, the closest thing to anything like an identity crisis kids my age had in college or thereabouts." Yet he suffered through this drought and doubt period

The following year, Bench recovered his hitting power with a vengeance. He led the National League in home runs with forty and runs batted in with 125, earning another league Most Valuable Player award. Ironically, during the last months of the 1972 season, a routine physical turned up a spot on Bench's lung. He kept his condition a secret until the end of the season. He even hit a crucial home run to tie the pivotal game of the league championship series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which was then won on a run scored from a wild pitch. After the Reds lost the World Series 4 to 3 to Oakland, Bench had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed from his lung. "I was a new man," Bench recalled in Catch You Later. "The weight of that September diagnosis had been removed. I had a lot of years left."

Awards and Accomplishments

1967 Named Minor League Player of the Year by Sporting News
1968 Named Rookie of the Year by Sporting News and Baseball Writers' Association of America
1968-77 Earned ten Gold Glove awards
1968-80 Named to All-Star team fourteen times
1970 Named National League Most Valuable Player and Major League Player of the Year
1972 Named National League Most Valuable Player
1975-76 Cincinnati Reds World Series Champions
1976 World Series Most Valuable Player
1983 Cincinnati Reds establish Johnny Bench Scholarship Fund
1989 Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame
1996 His No. 5 jersey is retired by the Cincinnati Reds
1998 Named greatest catcher ever by Sporting News
1999 Selected by fans to the All-Century team

Catch You Later

Strength alone is no real indicator of anything. You must have the reflexes, the agility, the coordination to go along with it. The Reds were once tested on reflex action and I scored the highest on every exercise. That and the size of my hands have helped me a lot. My strength came, I think, from some of the work I did back in Oklahoma. I still remember throwing 100-pound sacks of peanuts onto the trucks until I was ready to drop….

But there have been a lot of strong catchers who have also been bad ones. It takes a lot more than beef. One thing that never fails to make a catcher look bad is the fact that he has to deal with pitchers. That takes a lot more than big hands and a mask. Pitchers are a breed unto themselves.

A catcher has to learn how to get the best out of a pitcher, to let him be himself, go to his strengths, and yet still be effective….

Source: Johnny Bench (with William Brashler). Catch You Later: The Autobiography of Johnny Bench, Harper, 1979, p. 124.

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