Cincinnati's Big Red Machine still resonates with baseball fans. Johnny Bench calls it 'amazing.'
Johnny Bench does speaking engagements all over the country nowadays in places like Denver and Norfolk, Virginia, and Los Angeles. No matter where he is, though, there is always one constant.
Someone will approach him wanting to talk about The Big Red Machine.
“And they will name the lineup,” Bench marveled. “They know the lineup.”
It’s been four decades since Bench was part of a Cincinnati Reds team that was so dominant for so long that it became known as The Big Red Machine. It’s been almost five decades since that bunch won back-to-back World Series titles.
And still, baseball fans everywhere are enamored with The Big Red Machine.
“Without a doubt,” Bench said in an interview with The Oklahoman. “It’s just amazing.”
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Next month, Bench will be inducted along with former OU quarterback Sam Bradford into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame at the First Americans Museum. Bench, who is Choctaw, is proud of his indigenous heritage as well as his Oklahoma roots. He talks fondly not only of his hometown of Binger but also of other Oklahomans past and present who’ve played baseball in the big leagues.
Mickey Mantle. Mike Moore. J.T. Realmuto.
But Bench’s most enduring association is with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.
His biography in the Baseball Hall of Fame ― Bench was inducted in 1989 ― calls him the leader of the machine, and that’s hard to argue. As the Reds’ catcher for 17 seasons, he was twice the National League MVP, 10 times a Gold Glover and 14 times an All-Star.
Longtime baseball executive Frank Cashen once said, “The way I see it, the first thing you want in a catcher is the ability to handle the pitchers. Then you want defensive skill and of course, the good arm. Last of all, if he can hit with power, well, then you’ve got a Johnny Bench.”
But Bench, who spent all 17 of his big-league seasons with the Reds, knows there are several reasons The Big Red Machine claimed four National League pennants, won two World Series and hummed along throughout the 1970s.
For starters, Sparky Anderson was the manager.
Bench was entering his fourth season when the Reds hired Anderson in 1970, and Bench has a clear recollection of one of his first interactions with Anderson, then a rookie manager, during spring training. He had a crooked finger that he pointed at Bench.
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“John, let me ask you a question,” Bench remembers Anderson saying. “What if we took hitting over there, pitching over there, fielding over there?”
How the Reds divided up during practice might not have been a huge deal, but how that interaction made Bench feel was significant.
“I felt like a professional for the first time,” Bench said. “I felt like I had a brain, you know? Before, management was up here … ”
Bench raised a hand high.
“Players were down here,” he said.
He moved the hand low.
“But (Anderson) wanted to know what I was thinking,” Bench said.
Wanted to know what lots of the players were thinking. Bench remembers Anderson calling him and others into the manager’s office to ask their opinions. Should the Reds make a trade for a certain player? Should they sign a particular guy as a free agent?
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“Sparky was our commander and the one that was admired and loved and respected,” Bench said. “He treated us as professionals.”
And that attitude permeated the clubhouse.
Even though the Reds had some of the greatest individual players in the history of baseball ― Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, Cesar Geronimo, Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster in addition to Bench ― Bench said there were no divisions. No jealousies. No grudges.
“Everybody had an ego, but none of them conflicted with playing the game,” Bench said.
He gives a lot of credit to the character of the men who he played alongside.
“When we looked at each other, we all had the greatest respect for each other because we all admired each other’s talent,” Bench said. “When you do that, if you admire somebody without jealousy … we had the ability to control the clubhouse.
“Nobody would allow anybody to get bigger than their own pants.”
The results were transcendent; from 1970-79, Cincinnati averaged 95 wins a season, and in winning back-to-back titles in 1975 and 1976, the Reds became the first National League club to do so since the 1920s.
Fans would show up early just to watch the Reds getting ready before games. Bench sometimes noticed the pregame audience went beyond fans.
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“The other team would come out and watch you take batting practice or watch you take infield,” he said.
Cincinnati’s success resonated then, but Bench believes The Big Red Machine is beloved all these years later not just because of the wins. It’s also because of the way the Reds played. Hard-charging but respectful. Tenacious but gracious.
So when people approach Bench and want to talk about those Cincinnati teams, they aren’t always Reds fans. Some are Dodgers fans. Or Phillies fans. Or Yankees fans. But their message is the same.
“We really respected you,” they will tell Bench.
That makes him proud.
“I’m honored,” he said, “by the fact that they can still dredge up those wonderful memories.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame Induction
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 28
Where: Hall of the People, First Americans Museum
Who: Baseball legend Johnny Bench and football great Sam Bradford will be inducted.
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This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Cincinnati Big Red Machine, Johnny Bench beloved after nearly 50 years