Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Latest Posts

The Lakers Weren’t Ready for the Moment. Devin Booker Was.

Booker, the Phoenix Suns’ All-Star guard, is already showing the poise and determination of a playoff regular in his first postseason.The roots of everything...

2 Million Runs: Baseball on the Verge of Mile

For 145 years, players have stepped, slid, walked, tumbled and jumped on white rubber slabs all over the continent. It is the act of...

A Wrenching Knicks Loss, but an Electric Night at the Garden

N.B.A. playoff basketball returned to Manhattan as a cultural event with a loud, spirited crowd and a new archenemy, the Hawks’ Trae Young.For 47...

Blue Jays (and Their Fan Cutouts) Play Their Last Game in Florida

The Blue Jays are still barred from playing in Canada, but as they decamp from Florida, their fans — in plastic cutout form —...

Johnny Bench Misses His Hall of Fame Friends

Bench knew, played with or played against all of the 10 Hall of Famers who died in the past year. “You sit there and you are numb, and you remember and remember and remember,” he said.

Johnny Bench remembers them well.

They were his peers, his idols, his friends.

And now they are gone, 10 greats from the Baseball Hall of Fame, lost in a terrible stretch of just over a year — more death for the game’s hallowed hall than at any similar span in its 85-year history.

Ten greats, who now exist only in memories: at bat, in the field and in the dugout.

During a year of widespread misery, and in a world still struggling against a virus that has killed millions, how do we make sure that these players are not forgotten? There is no one better than Johnny Bench to help us commemorate their lives.

The longtime Cincinnati Reds catcher, named one of baseball’s four greatest living players at the 2015 All-Star Game, Bench isn’t just a member of the Hall of Fame’s inner sanctum. He is a baseball oracle, a conduit between the game of today and the major leagues of the 1960s and 1970s. He either knew, played with or played against all of the 10 Hall of Famers who died within the recent stretch.

“I understand the warranty runs out on all of us, and that it’s what we all have to face,” Bench, 73, said on a phone call from his Florida home last week. “But to have this many great players, this many close friends die in such a short span. …”

He paused.

The Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline died on April 6, 2020.
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

“It started with Al,” he said, his ordinarily unwavering voice bending with sadness.

Spring of 2020. That’s when Bench discovered that the Detroit Tigers great Al Kaline was struggling.

Kaline broke into the major leagues at age 18, in 1953. At 20, he was the American League batting champion. In 1968, he led his Tigers to a World Series title. Bench, like so many others in his generation, grew up in awe of Kaline’s prowess at the plate and skill in the field.

Early last year, “I called and called him, and I didn’t get an answer,” Bench said. “I called again, no answer. Then he called me back because we always talked a lot, and he said: ‘John, I was in the hospital for 10 days. I just want you to know, I love you, man.’”

Kaline died soon after, on April 6, 2020.

Months went by and the coronavirus pandemic intensified. Then, on Aug. 31, Tom Seaver died of complications from Lewy body dementia and Covid-19.

“He was probably the best man’s man you’d ever want to be around,” said Bench, who caught Seaver’s powerful pitches for Cincinnati from 1977 until 1982. “He played on many different teams, and on each one he had the respect and admiration and the love from all the players around him. I mean, he was Tom Seaver after all.”

Of course, Bench spoke of Seaver’s gusting fastball and pinpoint accuracy. And how a pitcher like that — smart, powerful, iron tough — made life easy for a catcher.

But it wasn’t Seaver’s mastery from the mound that Bench really wanted to discuss. It was the bond they shared. Their long discussions. Their tongue-in-cheek banter. After his baseball career ended in 1986, Seaver retired to California and became a winemaker. Bench remembered trying to get a case from Seaver’s winery at a discount. But Seaver at first told him no.

“I said: ‘Tom, I’m your catcher! What if I buy two cases?’ He said, ‘No, no, no.’ So I said, ‘Tom, if I hadn’t put down the right signals, you wouldn’t even be in the Hall of Fame!’ Oh, we had a great time with that. That’s the way we laughed. We just shared so much fun.”

What about Joe? I asked.

That would be Joe Morgan, the do-it-all second baseman who also played with Bench in Cincinnati and was a foundational part of the so-called Big Red Machine that won World Series titles in 1975 and 1976.

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

“Oh, Joe,” he said, repeating the name, mulling my question. “I could talk about him for a week.”

He mentioned Morgan’s last, struggling days.

“I get a call from Joe’s lawyer, and he says, ‘Johnny, I don’t think Joe’s going to last through the night.’ And I mean, you hear that and you’re stunned. You sit there and you are numb, and you remember and remember and remember.”

He kept on.

Of all the departed players, he was closest to Morgan. “We just understood each other,” he said. “As the catcher, I had control of the game. If somebody came in to talk to the pitcher, I went out there, but so did Joe. And if I got there, and they were already talking, well, I knew Joe was telling that pitcher exactly what needed to be said. We had this thing, this little telepathy. We understood each other on the field, and in life.”

By the time Morgan died, on Oct. 11, the losses among baseball’s greats had been mounting unfathomably. Three other Hall of Famers had passed away in the preceding weeks: the stolen base king Lou Brock and the pitching ace Bob Gibson, World Series winners in 1964 and 1967 with the St. Louis Cardinals; and Whitey Ford, the crafty left-handed pitcher who helped the Yankees win six of their eight World Series from 1950 to 1962, missing the 1951 and 1952 seasons while in the Army.

How could it get any worse?

Then came December and the death of the knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro, whose best years were played as an Atlanta Brave. As 2021 began, it was Tommy Lasorda, the charismatic manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers for three decades and two World Series titles. And shortly after that, one of his dominant pitchers, Don Sutton.

Then, on Jan. 22, the beating heart of baseball: Henry Aaron.

“He was simply a man above,” Bench said. “I called him Henry, and did I ever respect him.”

Harry Harris/Associated Press

It was more than Aaron’s 755 home runs, a record that stood for 33 years. Or his 3,771 career hits, or his M.L.B.-record 2,297 runs batted in. It was his way of being.

Bench gushed about Aaron’s combination of canny smarts, hard-hat ethic, balletic talent — and the inner strength to endure death threats as he chased and then surpassed Babe Ruth’s home run record.

“All he did was just put up numbers,” Bench recalled. “It wasn’t dramatic. He didn’t hit the ball in the upper deck, you know, but he hit it out. He would take the extra base. He would take the double. He would throw runners out. He would catch every fly ball. And he did all of this just routine and matter of fact.”

What was it like to be a catcher and see Aaron, in his prime, lining up in the batter’s box?

Here Bench reminisced about Aaron readying to hit, batting helmet nestled over his outfielder’s cap. The great catcher said he could still hear the whoosh of Aaron’s bat as it whipped through the strike zone.

Bench remembered, most of all, his first, nervous game in Atlanta against Aaron in 1967. The broad-shouldered No. 44 calmly strode to the plate. When he got there, he nodded at Bench and uttered five quiet words under his breath: “Hi, John. How you doing?”

Bench laughed for a moment and repeated that line. “Hi, John. …”

“Just for him to say that to me, when I’m just a dumb rookie, I mean, wow! That will be with me forever.”

Latest Posts

The Lakers Weren’t Ready for the Moment. Devin Booker Was.

Booker, the Phoenix Suns’ All-Star guard, is already showing the poise and determination of a playoff regular in his first postseason.The roots of everything...

2 Million Runs: Baseball on the Verge of Mile

For 145 years, players have stepped, slid, walked, tumbled and jumped on white rubber slabs all over the continent. It is the act of...

A Wrenching Knicks Loss, but an Electric Night at the Garden

N.B.A. playoff basketball returned to Manhattan as a cultural event with a loud, spirited crowd and a new archenemy, the Hawks’ Trae Young.For 47...

Blue Jays (and Their Fan Cutouts) Play Their Last Game in Florida

The Blue Jays are still barred from playing in Canada, but as they decamp from Florida, their fans — in plastic cutout form —...

Don't Miss

Bob Baffert Barred From Belmont Stakes by NY Racing Officials

The Hall of Fame trainer was already under suspension at Churchill Downs, where he won his seventh Kentucky Derby before his horse failed a...

The Ocean Course, Long Absent From Golf’s Spotlight, Is Back

The masterpiece on Kiawah Island, designed by Pete and Alice Dye to be as challenging as it is breathtaking, has not been the site...

Surfing for the United States, but Representing Hawaii

U.S. Olympic surfers from Hawaii — the proud home of the sport — would prefer to compete under their own red, white and blue...

The Liberty Get Another Shot at a Fresh Start

They weren’t supposed to meet this way, the new-look Liberty and their fans in sea foam green. The chants for Sabrina Ionescu, the 2020...

For Jrue Holiday, It’s a Good Game When His Wife Says So

The pressure is on as the Bucks head to the N.B.A. playoffs, but Holiday has somebody at home who understands competition: his wife, Lauren,...

Stay in touch

To be updated with all the latest news, offers and special announcements.