Tuesday, August 31, 2010

#10 - Johnny Bench

This is the first "honor" card of the set and its subject is already the third Hall of Famer of the set, an All-Star catcher who was at the top of his game when this shot was taken. This is part of the opening trend of action shots; including the Aaron card, three of the first ten shots qualify. Johnny Bench was cranking then but entered the '73 season as a question mark since he'd just had off-season lung surgery to remove a tumor that was happily benign. But he was able to then produce a typically excellent season during which he threw out 49% of base runners who tried to steal on him (vs a league average of 36%); did a great job pulling an ailing pitching staff together; and had a fifth consecutive year of 25 or more homers while also going over the century mark for the third time in RBI's. He was a guiding force in getting Cincinnati to its third post-season in four years. A lot of people seem interested in the geography of the shots: which stadium and who else resides in the shot, etc. That is not really my bag, but given the Mets uniforms in the dugout in the back, it is definitely Shea. That may be Tom Seaver to the right. I do not know if the shot was taken during the '73 playoffs, but it would add to the drama if it was.

Johnny Bench grew up in Oklahoma, where of course Mickey Mantle was his idol. He played the big three sports - football, basketball, and baseball - and was widely recruited by schools in all three while at Binder HS. But Cincinnati made him a second round pick in the '65 draft so Johnny went that way and right off the bat that summer in A ball showed his skill behind the plate and in working with pitchers while hitting not too badly for a 17 year old. In '66 at that level he improved his offense substantially to hit .294 with 22 homers and 68 RBI's in only 98 games when he was pushed up to Triple A. But there he got hit by a foul tip, breaking his hand, and missed the rest of the season. To top that off, on his way home after the season he was in a bad car accident. He came back strong in '67 though, when he started at the higher level and put up a line of .259/23/68 again in 98 games before he was called up to Cincy at the end of August. For his work that year he won The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year.

Bench's month up top didn't produce great offense in '67 but he sure did impress people with his work behind the plate, challenging veteran pitchers on pitch selection and even realigning the infield defense. In '68 the Reds traded incumbent starting catcher Johnny Edwards to St. Louis and this Johnny was made a starter out of the gate. He didn't disappoint, winning a Gold Glove, being named an All-Star, and winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. Most impressive was his stat line which was exceptional in a year everyone else's was challenged. A founding member of the Big Red Machine, Johnny's power numbers were pretty awesome his first few seasons. He picked things up in '69 and then sandwiched two huge MVP seasons around the very discounted '71 when the team couldn't get anyone on base ahead of him. While '72 went very well, he may have experienced his pro ball nadir in the Series that year when he struck out on an intentional walk (to be fair Gene Tenace snuck his mitt back over the plate after having Johnny pitched way outside for the prior three pitches and Johnny was caught looking). His Reds would tear up the NL in '73 and then lose in a huge upset to the Mets in the playoffs.

In '74 Bench upped his offense again to a .283/33/129 line, leading the NL in RBI's for his third and final time, though Cincinnati lost the division to LA. But in '75 and '76 the Reds came back strong, winning that dramatic Series over Boston in '75 and crushing everyone in the post-season by going 7-0 in '76. That first year Johnny put up a typical line of .283/28/110 but in '76 he would have his worst season since '71 due to a bad back. But he atoned by having a monster post-season, hitting .333 against the Phillies and a sick .533 with two homers and six RBI's in the four-game sweep of the Yankees. Johnny would follow that up with his a very nice '77 during which he had a .275/31/109 line and then over the next three seasons average 23 homers and 74 RBI's as he missed time each year to knee and other injuries, though catching was still his primary position. In '81 Johnny hit .309 in an abbreviated season and that year began playing mostly at the infield corners. He stuck around through '83 and then retired. Johnny finished with a .267 average with 389 homers, 1,376 RBI's, and a .342 OBA. When he retired he set the record for most homers by a catcher. He may have been even better defensively, finishing in the top 20 all-time for putouts and double plays for catchers and in the top 70 for assists. He caught 43% of attempted base stealers against an NL-average 35%. He was an All-Star 14 times and won ten Gold Gloves. In the post-season he hit .266 with ten homers and 20 RBI's in 45 games. He made the Hall on his first shot in '89.

Bench kept an active profile while playing, making frequent television appearances. He continued that when he retired, doing sportscasting, hosting theme-based shows, and making commercials. He has been an avid golfer and is an active speaker, many times on behalf of baseball.

The back of the card has a lot of stars, which is appropriate. As mentioned above, the homer mentioned in the last star was his only RBI of that series. He would make up for that in spades in '76 in another Series against a New York team. As far as the cartoon goes, it highlights Bench's wide range of skills. I remember seeing him on a variety show when I was a kid. He was also a very good bowler, which I believe was mentioned in a cartoon on another one of his cards. Johnny has a SABR page.

For the degrees of separation, this one gets a little trickier:

1. Bench and Bobby Tolan, '70 to '73 Reds;
2. Tolan and Nate Colbert, '74 San Diego Padres;
3. Colbert and Mickey Lolich, '75 Detroit Tigers.

That ties for the longest list so far.

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