Hall of Famer Johnny Bench Talks ‘Baseball Bunch’, ‘Archer’ and Having Famous Hands [INTERVIEW]
Johnny Bench retired from the Cincinnati Reds thirty years ago and yet remains one of the most beloved and well-known members of the Reds family. In his 17-year career (all with the Reds), the Oklahoma native was a 14-time All-Star selection, a ten-time Gold Glove award winner, the National League Rookie of the Year, a two-time National League MVP and was the backstop for the ‘Big Red Machine’ team that won back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976.
Bench also used his charismatic personality off the field, dabbling in acting. He appeared in a Cincinnati stage production of Damn Yankees in 1985 and hosted the syndicated television series ‘The Baseball Bunch’ during its five-year run from 1980 through 1985 (come on, you know you watched it and loved that show). Bench further burnished his credentials as a renaissance man with two books — the 1979 autobiography Catch You Later and the 2008 book Catch Every Ball: How to Handle Life’s Pitches.
Today, Bench is 65 and living in Naples, Florida where he’s a motivational speaker, father of two young children and runs an internet eyewear company. We caught up with the Hall of Fame catcher in Rochester, N.Y. where he was getting ready to take the field in the Pepsi MAX Field of Dreams legends game.
Were you excited to participate in the Pepsi MAX Field of Dreams game?
Are you kidding me? I was voted in, are you serious? This is a feather in my cap, I don’t care what you do. People still remember and still put you at the top of the list. I’ve been out of the game 30 years and it’s nice to be remembered. There’s a lot of people like I said in an interview that grandparents are showing their grandkids what they used to watch and even parents that can remember that so you know for them it’s nostalgia. It’s kind of what we all do. If I could go back and watch the Yankees play like I did when I was 7 or 8 years old it would be the same thing. You don’t expect a whole lot but the memories are flooding back all the time. And it’s great to be with the guys. It’s just a brotherhood. It’s just a respect for each other, we’ve been having so much fun kidding and doing. It’s what baseball really is all about. Because we can’t do it anymore. That’s the reason we’re here is that we’re people of dreams now, so I guess that’s why it’s all possible.
What major league players today do you most enjoy watching?
Joey Votto’s in Cincinnati and [Brandon] Phillips and of course I love to watch [Mike] Trout I love to watch [Bryce] Harper, I love to watch [Manny] Machado down in Baltimore. I love the Tampa Bay Rays, [Evan] Longoria, it’s a long list. I love to watch [Carlos] Gonzalez hit and [Troy] Tulowitzki in Colorado. Buster Posey’s one of my guys who is a past Johnny Bench Award winner as college catcher of the year so we’ve got about 10 of those award winners in the major leagues. I’m a big fan. I still watch. We seem to focus sometimes on the negatives of the game when we really have some of these great young players. And they excite me. I’ve got my iPad, I get MLB and I watch the games and I go through all the box scores and it’s still a part of our life. I’ve got a seven year old that’s in little league and I’m the coach and pitching to him and I’ve got a three and a half year old that’s starting to hit so life is good, I’ll stay young for a long time.
How often do people want to talk to you about the Baseball Bunch?
More than you can imagine quite honestly. It was shown in the early 80’s so you’ve got to be at least 40 years old — not that you look 40 I’m sure your grandparents told you about it — it is amazing. I just wish we’d had a better time slot and that we could bring it back and have people see it. I don’t think that will happen but gosh it was a great learning experience.
You had some great players and future Hall of Famers appear on the show during that five year run. How much of a badge of honor was it to appear on the show?
It was easy to get the guys. Television wasn’t as prominent as it is now — they didn’t have MLB Network or ESPN. When you’ve got Ted Williams, Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith doing your show it was a long list and these guys were fabulous. And they taught you things about the game of baseball. I pulled out a couple of my old tapes and I’m watching them with my kids and it’s pretty entertaining for me again.
You have two young children and you’ve written a couple of books. Any thoughts on writing a book about fatherhood?
Well actually we’re talking about Dinosaur Dads which is the great title. The title may have been taken at some point. The second time around when you have more time and you wake up with them and take them to school and pick them up from school and swim in the pool it’s so fulfilling. How can you be a better parent? Just pay attention and spend time with the kids. And I don’t think a lot of people now with their work can do that. I guess it’s a precious little thing I have now is time to do that.
‘Archer’, a hilarious show on F/X, has a character named Lana who is a spy. She has very large hands and they refer to them as “Johnny Benchian Fingers.”
[Laughing] I’ll have to tape that now. Usually I’m reading the kids to sleep by that time. We’re reading books.
How do you feel about being used as the standard of large hands on a show that’s very popular with younger viewers?
It happened a long time ago with Brewster’s Millions and then Bill Cosby had this show [“Himself”] where he said he was a doctor delivering babies and he’s catching and squatting down there like Johnny Bench. It’s good to be remembered. People remember more than ever the seven baseballs that I could hold in my hand — I can’t reenact it. It’s good to be known for something. I’d rather be known as a catcher but sometimes you’ve gotta be a freak.