Cast in greatness Bench to be honored with statue at The Brick

Bob Hersom Published: July 26, 2001

JOHNNY Lee Bench was born in Oklahoma City six years, to the day, after Pearl Harbor.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Maybe that history began writing itself when Johnny was a second grader in his hometown of Binger. He told classmates he was going to be a big league ballplayer, and they laughed. He would laugh last and longest.

Maybe that history began a few years later, while Johnny and his dad, Ted, watched a ballgame on their new-fangled television. Johnny pointed at his idol, Mickey Mantle, on the black-and-white screen and asked, "You can be from Oklahoma and play in the major leagues?" You betcha, his dad said.

And you know what Johnny Bench was doing in January 1989, when he was informed of his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame? He was sitting in Mickey Mantle's restaurant in midtown New York, under a photo of The Mick himself.

A few months later, when Bench was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, his plaque began: "Redefined standards by which catchers are measured..."

He remains today the Benchmark by which all catchers are measured. He is the only catcher in history to lead the major leagues in home runs or RBIs.

Oklahoma City has honored its most famous native son catcher many times. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. A 16-by-32-foot Johnny Bench banner - the first of a proposed Bricktown Wall of Fame - has hung from the Bricktown ballpark parking garage for 22 months.

And Friday, Bench will be in Oklahoma City for his latest honor: the unveiling of a Johnny Bench statue at the home plate entrance of Southwestern Bell Bricktown Ballpark. The 5 p.m. ceremony is open to the public.

Bench the boy

He was the third of four children raised by Ted and Katy Bench. The Benches lived in Lindsay and Aaron Springs before settling in the Caddo County town of Binger when Johnny was three.

Where is Binger?

"It's a half-mile back of Resume Speed," Bench has joked.

Binger's population?

"Six hundred," he said, "at the height of the tourist season."

As a youngster in Binger, 50 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, Bench picked cotton for two cents a pound, delivered the Anadarko Evening News and belonged to 4-H. And of course, he played ball.

In 1955, Ted started the Binger Bobcats baseball team and coached his three sons. The Bench brothers,

216ths Choctaw Indian, played little league ball in Fort Cobb.

In the eighth and ninth grades, Johnny grew nearly nine inches in 18 months. When he was 14, he was a starting pitcher, first baseman and third baseman on the Anadarko American Legion team. The other starters were 17.

When Johnny was 16, he pitched a no-hitter for those 17-year-olds. A year later he led Binger to a 1964 state baseball title. A year after that, he was the leading scorer (23.1) on Binger's state Class B basketball runner-up. He was all-state in both sports.

At his father's urging, Bench switched from pitching to catching. Ted told his son to practice throwing 254 feet - twice the distance from home to second - from a catcher's crouch.

Johnny turned down baseball and basketball offers from Oklahoma State and Oklahoma City University.

"If you would have just followed my advice," Abe Lemons once told Bench, "you could be a high school coach in Gotebo."

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