How My Dad Came To Worship Johnny Bench
No two ways around it: I am getting old, with creaky joints and plenty of gray hair atop my head.
But when I go to a baseball game, I can feel myself spin backwards in time. I am suddenly 10 years old again. Sitting with my Dad, scorecard on my knee, scribbling down the ancient runes that tell me who scored what and when, who struck out and who took a walk, who did the seemingly impossible – taking a round bat and hitting a round ball, thrown at high velocity and tricky movement, and depositing it over the outfield wall.
Nearly everything I know about the game of baseball I learned from my Dad, Gene Wilkinson.
How to grip a baseball by two or four seams and throw it with accuracy; how to stand at the plate and shift my weight from back to front to be able to smack a line drive up the middle; how to position myself to catch a deep fly ball – always, always, with two hands.
And I came to love the game as much as he did.
This, friends, is the story of the last Cincinnati Reds game I went to with my Dad before he passed away. It was 35 years ago this week (although it doesn't seem possible it could be that long ago) on Sept. 17, 1983 – Johnny Bench Night at Riverfront Stadium, where a sold-out crowd of 53,790 came to honor the career of one of the greatest Reds of all time.
And the night when I felt closer to my Dad than I ever had before.
Baseball can do that. Baseball is pure magic.
Dad was born in 1924, grew up in the 1930s and, by 1943, was an all-state fullback for Stivers High School in Dayton, Ohio – ready to go off to play for the Ohio State Buckeyes, had not Uncle Sam picked him off first, put him in an Army uniform and sent him off to the South Pacific.
But he always loved baseball, always loved his Cincinnati Reds. He played the game; he talked baseball with his own father; he sat by the radio nearly every night listening to the Reds play-by-play.
Every Reds fan has his or her own team, one with a special connection to childhood.
For my Dad, it was the team of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the team that lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in 1939 but came back the next year to become World Champions, winning the seven-game series over the Detroit Tigers.
My Dad's favorite Red was the hot-hitting but slow-of-foot catcher Ernie Lombardi, named the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1939.
His best friend (for life, as it turned out) was Howard Runck, better known as "Bud." Yes, I am Howard Wilkinson because of Bud Runck.
Bud's favorite Red was first baseman Frank McCormick, an eight-time All Star who led the league in base hits from 1938 through 1940.
Bud and Gene had many a loud and angry argument over the question of Lombardi vs. McCormick, some ending in vows never to speak to one another again.
These battles would occasionally end in the two of them rolling around on the ground, tossing punches.
Both passed on many years ago, but I can imagine them in some better place, sitting on a cloud and continuing the argument until a Higher Power had to step in and pull them apart.
Dad's crusade for Lombardi carried into my youth. I can remember him lying on his couch in the family room, scratching out letters to the Veterans Committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, imploring them to allow Ernie into the Hall of Fame.
He got his wish – Lombardi was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986. It was too late for Dad to celebrate the triumph; he passed away in 1984.
So, I made the journey to Cooperstown that summer to represent him at the induction ceremony.
In 1968, a young catcher from Binger, Okla., burst on to the scene and ran away with the Rookie of the Year honors that year.
His name was Johnny Bench, and he would wear only one uniform during this 16-year career – that of the Cincinnati Reds.
Of course, he went on to have the greatest career of any catcher who ever played Major League Baseball. His defensive skills were beyond compare. His bat was electric. Immediately on eligibility, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He appeared in 14 All Star games, won 10 Gold Gloves for defensive excellence, and was the National League Most Valuable Player twice.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone who had even a teaspoon of baseball knowledge who would argue that Bench was not the greatest catcher of all time.
Except Eugene Walter Wilkinson.
My Dad stuck to his guns and continued beating the drum for Ernie Lombardi as the greatest backstop ever.
We used to get into these long and pointless arguments over the subject – always started by him.
This was one of his favorites:
Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Ernie at Crosley Field, behind the plate and in the crouch, throw a ball and hit the centerfield wall? I swear I did! The centerfield wall! From the crouch!
And I would say something to the effect of, "Gee, that's great, Dad, although I'm not sure that hitting the centerfield wall with a ball thrown from home plate is going to come up very often in a baseball game."
It's the principle of the thing!, he'd holler.
This went on and on for years.
Then came Sept. 17, 1983. Johnny Bench Night.
I was working at the Enquirer at the time, and I got a couple of the newspaper's season tickets and invited my Dad to come down from Dayton.
Of course he said yes – he was not in the habit of turning down ball games.
We had great seats. Green seats along the first base line.
Bench, whose body was pretty banged up from catching all of those years, had been playing mostly third and first base that year. But, on Johnny Bench Night, manager Russ Nixon put Bench back behind the plate – one more time for the fans.
We didn't have to wait long for the magic to occur.
It was the third inning. Mike Madden of the Houston Astros was on the mound. Bench was at the plate. He swung from his heels and smashed one over the outfield wall – the 389th and final home run of his incredible career.
The crowd went berserk. The noise was deafening; it was like standing next to an airport runway as a 747 was taking off. Nearly everyone in the ballpark was on his or her feet, jumping up and down. Even my Dad, and he was not the kind of guy who jumped up and down a lot.
To this day, I have no idea how I heard him over the din, but when he leaned over and said something to me, I could hear him clear as a bell, as if the ballpark had suddenly gone silent.
He said seven words, words I will never forget.
You were right, Dad said, Bench is the greatest.
And there, in the middle of 53,790 souls screaming out in delight, I reached over and hugged him.
I may have been right; but he taught me everything I know.