MIAMI - New York Yankee fans were steamed and Thurman Munson was steamed, but Sparky Anderson spoke the truth.
"Don't get me wrong, Thurman is a terrific catcher," Anderson said before his Cincinnati Reds met the Yankees in the 1976 World Series. "But don't embarrass him by comparing him to Johnny Bench. " Bench went on to justify his manager's bold statement by hitting .533 with two homers and six runs batted in to spark a four-game sweep by the Big Red Machine, then in its full glory.
Bench may well have been the best catcher in history.
Offensively and defensively, he was without peer during a 17-year, Hall of Fame career.
He hit 389 home runs, the most ever by a catcher, and his 1,376 RBI were second only to Yogi Berra's 1,430. He was named Most Valuable Player in 1970, when he led the National League with 45 home runs and 148 RBI, and again in 1972, when he again led the NL with 40 homers and 125 RBI. The only other catcher ever to hit 40 homers was Roy Campanella (41 in 1953).
Bench's hands were so huge he could grip eight baseballs in one of them, and he had a bazooka for an arm. He pioneered the use of the hinged glove, which enabled him to catch one-handed and keep his "meat" hand behind his back to protect it against foul tips.
Some purists were offended by this unorthodoxy, but it certainly didn't hurt Bench's defense. He won 10 Gold Gloves, easily the record for the position. Next is Jim Sundberg with six.
Now a CBS radio broadcaster and a businessman, Bench took time out to talk to The Miami Herald's Bob Rubin about playing the game's most demanding position.
Q. What does it take mentally and physically to be a catcher?
A. The physical requirement is enduring pain. The mental requirement is enduring pain. Put it all together and there's a lot of pain. A lot of kids can't handle it. They take their first foul tip, it hurts and they switch positions.
You have to tell yourself, 'It doesn't hurt, it doesn't hurt,' because no one else cares when it does. Tell me the last guy who, after the inning was over, said, 'Gee, I wonder if the catcher's all right after taking that foul tip off the shoulder. . . or toe.
. . or cup? ' Q. So why did you become a catcher?
A. My father was a catcher, and he sort of inspired me. He always said it was the quickest way to the big leagues.
Q. Isn't there some pleasure to go with the pain?
A. Sure. Your ability to control a game, to get the best possible out of a pitcher for however many innings you can on a day he doesn't have his best stuff is very satisfying. There are some wonderful, wonderful days when you're in perfect sync with your pitcher, when everything comes together and you think, 'It's there, it's there. ' Actually, there are four ways a catcher can have a good day. He can call a good game, throw runners out, block home plate and get some base hits. An outfielder can stand around and say, 'I'm 0-for-4, what the hell am I going to do now? ' Unfortunately, a lot of catchers are being deprived of one great satisfaction because of geniuses in the dugout who think they can call a better game. Former pitchers and now managers with lifetime records of 60-147 now think they know how to call pitches.
Q. Who runs the show, the pitcher or catcher, or is it a collaboration?
A. Depends on a pitcher's experience. You do not want a young pitcher thinking out there. I remember we had a rookie named Frank Pastore who shook me off the first two times we worked together. I went out to the mound and said, 'Frank, you do not shake me off.
You're a rookie, you've not been here, and I don't want you ever to shake me off. You will throw exactly what I call. ' Veterans are different. Gary Nolan had the rocking chair head - it didn't matter what sign you put down, he'd shake it off. He'd come back to it, but he just needed to shake it off the first time.
When Tom Seaver came over, it took me about 10 pitches to realize we were in perfect sync. He was the consummate professional.
I remember there were runners on second and third with one out or something in the first game Tom pitched for us. I went out to the mound and he was expecting something profound, but I just said, 'Should I throw the ball back to you hard or easy? ' He started to answer, but by then I was already walking back. He started screaming, 'Get back behind the plate, you. . . ! ' Q. Doesn't a catcher have to be something of a psychologist in dealing with pitchers?
A. Absolutely. You've got 10 pitchers and probably three or four different type personalities among them.
There's the kind you constantly have to make aware of the situation - 'If the ball's hit back to you, you throw to second. .
. ' That was Pedro Borbon. Another type, well, you just have to plant your spikes up his rear end. He's like the Missouri mule. You have to slap him upside the head to get his attention.
On the other hand, there's the guy whose confidence you have to build and maintain. You have to make him believe he's the best there is. Clay Carroll had great stuff but no confidence whatsoever. Once you inspired him, he became outstanding.
You keep putting the fingers down, putting the fingers down, and once they've had success they develop confidence in you to call the game. But once in awhile you get a guy out there who remains sure he knows more than you. You're wasting your time trying to convince him otherwise, so you say, 'OK, just throw it and I'll catch it. ' Q. Talk about the eternal cat-and-mouse game with the hitter.