Johnny Lee Bench was born on December 7, 1947, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and raised nearby in the small town of Binger. With his father, a truck driver and one-time semiprofessional baseball player, homemaker mother, two older brothers and a younger sister, Bench formed a close-knit family. Like many boys around Binger, he picked cotton, delivered newspapers, and played sandlot baseball. Unlike the other boys, though, Bench consistently expressed his desire to play ball professionally, a revelation that earned guffaws from his classmates. Yet his father took him seriously. He coached and financially supported Binger's Little League team for several years. The Bench family liked to watch "Game of the Week" on Saturdays. Johnny listened to players give tips and dreamed about being a professional ballplayer like Oklahoma native Mickey Mantle.
Bench was a serious student, earning good grades in high school, and he played both baseball and basketball, for a time preferring basketball. He had big hands and feet, and was able to palm a basketball or hold seven baseballs in one hand. As a teen, hefting 100-pound bags of peanuts onto trucks built up his muscles without needing a weight room. Bench was known as a fastball pitcher, but he also learned the role of catcher as his father advised. "When I wasn't playing I was watching games, just eating and living and breathing sports," Bench recalled in his autobiography, Catch You Later. At age fifteen he was competing against boys several years older in American Legion baseball. In 1965 on a return trip from an out-of-town baseball game, the breaks on the Binger Bobcat team bus failed. At an intersection the bus jumped flipped over the rail and rolled down an incline toward a ravine. Bench hit floor and held on to the bottom of the seat. When the bus stopped rolling, his feet were hanging out the back door, and two teammates lay dead on the hill. This event sobered Bench and he attributed to it a reticence in making friends later in life.
Even so, the seventeen-year-old was about to see a dream come true. He was offered college scholarships to play both basketball or baseball—and he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds organization. Bench played in the minor leagues in Tampa, Florida and the following year played Class A ball in the Carolina League. At this time he started wearing his batting helmet backwards while he caught to protect his head from foul tips and back swings. Unfortunately he couldn't protect his right hand from a foul tip in Buffalo, and his season ended with a broken thumb. While recuperating in Binger, Bench was in a serious automobile accident when a drunk entered the highway on an exit ramp.
Despite being so beaten up, he was ready to play the next spring, and by August of 1967 he was called up to the Cincinnati Reds. Again, this season ended with a split thumb for Bench, who realized that even though he had a great throwing arm, it wasn't any good unless he could handle the ball well. So taking a cue from Cubs receiver Randy Hundley, Bench started hiding his right hand behind him and caught one-handed. "I also creased the catcher's glove diagonally instead of using it like a saucer. That way I could catch more with one hand. My hands are big enough to control the catcher's glove, so the technique was a natural for me," he recalled in his autobiography. By using the batting helmet and the new one-handed technique, Bench was able to spend less time thinking about his safety and more time thinking about the batter, pitcher, and base runners. Bench caught 154 games in 1968, setting a record for a rookie catcher, earning the first of his ten Gold Glove awards, and winning the Rookie of the Year honor.