When I was growing up, an annual highlight was heading to Crosley Field to see the Cincinnati Reds. As the summer of 1967 breezed by with the start of school imminent, we were running out of time to get to a game. My dad responded to the pressure of me and my mother by selecting Tuesday, Aug. 29 with the Philadelphia Phillies at 8:05 p.m.
I was pumped but with a mild bit of disappointment. I’d invested four seasons of Tuesday nights in the TV series “The Fugitive” and that evening would feature the final episode at 10 p.m. on ABC. Since VCRs were about 10 years away, I’d have to wait until that finale was shown again. So be it.
The Reds had a first place team for the early portion of 1967 until injuries took their toll. By late August it was time to audition prospects and plan for the future as manager Dave Bristol and general manager Bob Howsam completed their first full seasons. We’d heard about the great catcher at the top farm team in Buffalo who was touted as the team’s catcher of the future. Despite the presence of three solid veteran catchers on the roster, it was not only time to bring up 19-year-old Johnny Bench but also to make him the regular backstop. His debut came the night before our visit.
The game we saw among an audience of 8,667 was absolutely classic, beginning with the pitching matchup between Phillies great Jim Bunning and heralded Reds rookie fireballer Gary Nolan. Bunning, from northern Kentucky, was 35 and bound for the Hall of Fame along with the national House and Senate. He’d thrown a perfect game two seasons earlier on Fathers Day, appropriate for the father of seven. His battery mate was Clay Dalrymple, just four years younger and a great defensive receiver. Nolan and Bench were both 19.
Bunning threw a two-hit complete game with eight strikeouts and no walks but lost 1-0. The lone run came in the seventh frame when Vada Pinson doubled, a Pete Rose grounder to the right side got him to third, and Lee May plated Pinson with a sacrifice fly. Nolan scattered six singles with three strikeouts and two walks over seven innings before Billy McCool and submariner Ted Abernathy finished up.
I hoped to see Bench’s first major league hit. Maybe I’d be really lucky and it would be a homer, but he went 0-3 with two strikeouts and a popup to shortstop. His first hit and RBI would come a night later, and the initial round tripper took three weeks.
Being a youth catcher back in Sidney, I watched him closely, especially the throws to second base before each inning. Bench delivered straight over the top with crispness and precision. It was easy to predict greatness in this phase of his game. The visitors did swipe one base but went 0-7 with runners in scoring position on this perfect night for baseball.
Bench was injured late in the 1967 season just as he was about to cross the rookie threshold. If not for that he couldn’t have become National League Rookie of the Year in 1968. He retired after the 1983 season and was elected to the Hall of Fame five years later. No doubt he’s the greatest catcher of all-time with 10 consecutive Gold Gloves along with 2,048 hits, 389 homers, 1,376 RBIs, 14 All-Star games and two MVP awards, all with the Reds.
Including two World Series crowns, the Reds were definitely “the team of the 1970’s” and their catcher was a cornerstone of that success. Johnny Bench’s greatest season came in 1970 when the 22 year old hit .293 with 45 homers and 148 RBIs while catching 139 games and appearing in 158 of the 162 contests. The other outings were divided between all three outfield positions, first base, third base and pinch hitting.
Almost 52 years later, Aug. 29, 1967, remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever attended. And I did get to see “The Fugitive” finale about a year later.
Next week: A 530 foot homer that was caught.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. Dave Ross joined the local sports media in 1975. His columns have won statewide recognition the past three years by the Associated Press.