On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers played their season home opener at Ebbets Field. Jackie Robinson became the first black to play in a modern-day major league baseball game exactly 57 years ago today. Tributes to Jackie will take place in stadiums throughout the country on this, "JACKIE ROBINSON DAY" as proclaimed by Major League Baseball. For more about Jackie, please refer to my very first website article dated August 9, 2001.
Story of the Week
Ted Williams signed many autographs, but none with more foresight as one he penned in spring training in 1965. "To Johnny Bench, a sure Hall-of-Famer." As you can just imagine, that autograph was very meaningful to Bench.
Bench was named to the NL All-Star team 14 times, played in every such game from 1968 to 1975, and hit .409 with three home runs in All-Star competition. He set a major league record for home runs by a catcher with 327 (he also hit 62 playing at other positions), won two home run crowns, led the league in RBI’s three times, and was chosen league MVP twice.
While Bench is remembered most for his offense, he may have had his greatest impact behind the plate. He was the first receiver to use a protective helmet in the field, popularized catching one-handed, kept his throwing hand behind his back to protect it from foul tips, and gives credit to his father for teaching him how to throw 254 feet, twice the distance to second base, from a crouch position.
Not known for keeping his counsel, Bench once predicted flatly that he could throw out any runner alive, and brashly predicted that he would be the first catcher to be named Rookie of the Year. He did just that in 1968, caught 154 games, a rookie record, and won the first of 10 straight Gold Gloves. Bench hit 45 homers, and was chosen MVP for the first time in 1970, the year Bob Hunter, a Los Angeles sportswriter, first called the Cincinnati Reds "the Big Red Machine."
That year, 1970, the Reds ran into red-hot Brooks Robinson and the Orioles in the World Series. The second time Bench won the MVP Award, 1972, the Reds were derailed by the A’s in the Series. When the Reds squared off against the Yankees in 1976, the press played up the meeting of Bench and Thurman Munson.
Bench caught Mickey Rivers stealing in Game One, the Yankees’ only attempted theft in the Series, which certainly does speak to either the respect they had for Bench’s arm, or their lack of speed on the bases, or both. Bench got two hits in each of the first three games of the Series, and hit two homers in Game Four to lead Cincinnati to a Series sweep.
Johnny Bench made Ted Williams’ prediction come true in 1989, the first year he was eligible to enter the Hall in Cooperstown.
Last Week’s Trivia
Who is the only major leaguer known to have been fined for smoking in the dugout? Star first baseman, Keith Hernandez, while a Met in 1986. He was fined a whole $100; today that’s only cigarette money.
Trivia Question of the Week
Tennessee Titans tight end, Frank Wycheck, retired after the 2003 season. He was the fourth tight end to amass at least 500 career receptions. Name the other three. See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.