The 2016 American Legion James V. Day Good Guy Award winner has one regret – “I didn’t go to college,” he said. Instead, Johnny Lee Bench, a high school valedictorian, decided to play baseball. It worked out.
Considered by many baseball historians to be the greatest catcher to ever play the game, Bench was a key member of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, a Reds team that steamrolled its way through the regular season and league playoffs before winning world championships in 1975 and 1976.
Presented with his latest award by The American Legion Past Department Commander’s Club during a luncheon held at the 98th National Convention in Cincinnati, the hall of famer and two-time National League Most Valuable Player lamented, “It only took The American Legion 98 years to find me.”
He spoke with John Raughter, media manager for the national commander, prior to the luncheon.
John Raughter: Since you spent your prime years playing baseball, many people are unaware of your military experience.
Johnny Bench: My dad actually served two hitches in the war – World War II. He was in North Africa and Italy. I enlisted in ‘66 in the Army Reserve for six years. Did my basic training at Fort Knox and my combat support training at Fort Dix. I was a field wireman and made several summer camps – Watertown, N.Y. , Camp A.P. Hill and Fort Sill, Okla.
Q: And you were playing at that time? Did you have trouble getting time off from your team?
A: I was. The team didn’t have a choice, really. And then I did my weekends, they made me a cook, so that I could come over. And I would get over there at 4:30 in the morning, and I would prepare the meals and as soon as lunch was served at 11:30, they released me so I could actually get to the ballpark and play games that afternoon.
I was an E-4 when I got out. I graduated first in my class in combat support training. I enjoyed the military. I did my basic training, I got out right in the middle of spring training after they started. So I was in good shape, probably the best shape of my career. I was still in the minor leagues. I came up in `67.
Bernie Carbo (MLB player) and I were together. I think he was the number one draft choice in ‘65. We did what you had to do. That was the obligation, and you fulfilled your obligation as a good American.
Q: Did your reserve unit ever play intramural baseball?
A: No, we didn't have any of that.
Q: What type of influence has America Legion Baseball had on your career?
A: It was huge. We had organized baseball in Binger, Okla. My dad started that team, but when I got to be 14, in order to move up, we certainly didn’t have the size of the city in order to support an American Legion team, so I had to go to Anadarko (Okla.). That team in Anadarko actually had a couple of kids sign in the major leagues so there was a lot of attention due to the quality of players that were on that particular team, and it was sort of a hotbed for players in those days.
Q: There seem to be more bat flips and slow running of the bases among MLB players today than when you played. Do you see a difference?
A: TV and radio will create that. You know that will be on SportsCenter, when you see outfielders make pretty standard catches but they sort of time it just right to dive. I mean, our perception changes so much.
Baseball today, with the 24/7 sports channels, the talk shows, you drive from Indianapolis to Cincinnati and you turn on the sports talk for an hour and half or two hours. So you get to the park and you already have a perception about a player or about the team or about a pitcher, before you ever get there. Sports is the only area that you can vent. You can’t yell at your spouse, you can’t yell at your employer, you can’t yell at your employees. But you buy a ticket to a game, and you can say anything you want. You can yell anything you want. You can call a player anything you want. And then of course, you’re supposed to get a thousand dollar's worth of autographs too because it’s not what you mean, it’s what you’re worth.
You know in our day, you pull a hamstring and you mix up cream as hot as you could take it, you rub it on your hamstring, put on an ace bandage and you played. A couple of days later, the hamstring was well. We have a perception that sports is great. These are the greatest athletes. They’re certainly high priced but there are only 725 people in the world qualified to play in the major leagues. So it’s kind of a unique situation to be in. I’m still a big fan. I follow it. I check the box scores.
Q: Who was the greatest player that you’ve ever seen?
A: It would probably be Joe Morgan. Certainly Pete (Rose)… And I played with him, that’s the great thing about it. I had the privilege of being there. The thing that you have to say is that Willie Mays was just absolutely off the charts and then when you break it down, if you take away Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs, he still had 3,000 hits and 2,200 RBIs. The one player I always feared at the plate was Willie McCovey. I didn’t have a pitcher that I felt who could get him out. Joe could win a game in more ways than anyone – get a walk, steal a base, gold glove at second base, hit a home run if you need it. I was privileged to play with him and Pete. And of course, Tony (Perez) was sort of the one common thing we always say was the most influential player on the team.
Q: What made the Big Red Machine so successful?
A: First of all, we had a lot of talent. And the whole idea… we had the best individuals at each position. There is no “I” in team, but there really is all “I"s. It’s the best individuals. It’s like your organization. If you go out and get somebody who can’t perform and now you got to do their stuff and there’s a big hole in your line-up and what you’re trying to achieve. I need to get this organized and that organized, but if you put it in the hands of somebody where they already know their job, they do it.
We had an organization where Sparky (manager Sparky Anderson) was a great leader; the best. And he would actually ask us what we thought of a player if we traded for him. We would say no or yes. And he followed it; individually if someone failed, or didn’t get a hit when it was the right time, the other guy picked him up. To this day people from all over this country will say, "I’m a Dodgers fan, I’m a Phillies fan but, boy, we respected you guys." And they can still name the Big Red Machine line-up.
Q: Your team swept the Yankees in the 1976 World Series. Did you have a lot to do with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner signing Reggie Jackson in the following offseason?
A: Sure. He saw how good we were. And unfortunately, that was sort of the end of us. (Don) Gullett left for free agency and it sort of changed all the dynamics because the Reds were never going to be able to put out that kind of money. How would you like to pay Pete, Joe, Tony and myself? Then you have to pay George (Foster). Then you have to pay Kenny (Griffey Sr.).
What would you say to him if you had to negotiate with them now? Hello partner! The old Mantle deal.
Q: How many hall of famers were on that team?
A: Joe, Tony and of course, Pete is a victim of himself.
Q: Why did you recently visit Camp Lejeune?
A: I co-hosted an event with Doug Flynn (former MLB player) – Hope for the Warriors. We’ve been doing this for seven or eight years. I also do USA Cares down in Louisville (Ky.). Last year we raised a little over $500 thousand. Almost all of that goes to mortgages, to groceries, to gas to supplement the needs of the families. We know that 22 veterans commit suicide every day; 19 are Vietnam veterans. I’m sort of the honorary chairman of Save a Soldier, kind of like an AA meeting where they meet up and talk to each other about their lives. So far, I think there’s only been one that hasn’t made it. My dad came back (from war) and his dreams were dashed. He wanted to be a catcher in the major leagues and so, he wanted one of his sons to be a catcher.
Q: You also visited Vietnam with Bob Hope.
A: And I went to Desert Storm in 1990. I went to Vietnam with trepidation with how I would be received. I was healthy and in the major leagues. It was phenomenal. They just welcomed me with open arms and of course, Bob, for what he does for the morale of the troops and everything else. We were in and out of Vietnam three times. We went to West Point, Anchorage…we went around the world.
Q: What was Bob Hope like?
A: Well, my son’s name is Bobby…so Bob Hope and Bobby Knight, actually. He still called me weeks after, we’d talk once a week and he would have a joke. He wanted you to be good. He’d have lines, but he wanted a better line for you so that it played. And all he had to do is that one little look and that was it. You look at the old Bob Hope films and still just laugh and think about what a great American (he was) and all the smiles, happiness and laughter that he gave.
Q: Why did you start the Johnny Bench Scholarship?
A: I didn’t go to college; I didn’t get to go to college. I had some scholastic scholarships, I was valedictorian, I had athletic scholarships in baseball and basketball. My dream was to play baseball, so when I was drafted I signed and part of my bonus was a thousand dollars a semester so I could have eight semesters of college. Of course I wish it were like that now. Then they wanted me to go to winter ball in the instructional league. Over time, they finally gave me the money. But I didn’t get to go to college. I think it was important; I think education was the most important thing. So that was the one thing when I retired that I wanted to start was a scholarship fund. And we have 84 kids on scholarship now.
Q: Did you ever think you would be getting The American Legion Good Guy Award?
A: Well, it only took 98 years for you guys to find me! But, wow, that’s really nice. Obviously, I played American Legion Baseball; I follow what they do. What your organization tries to achieve, in keeping the word out there and keeping the support of our service people. Two million people out there and 98 years of doing it. I just hope that you get the respect that you deserve.
For more information about the Johnny Bench Scholarship Fund, please visit www.johnnybench.com