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Sports Heroes Who Served: Star Baseball Catcher Johnny Bench Was a Soldier

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Johnny Bench played his entire Major League Baseball career, 1967 through 1983, with the Cincinnati Reds, primarily as a catcher. He was the leader of the Reds team known as the Big Red Machine, which dominated the National League in the mid-1970s. The Big Red Machine won six division titles, four National League pennants and two World Series championships.

A baseball player poses for a photograph with empty bleachers behind him.
Johnny Bench
Major League Baseball player Johnny Bench poses for a photo in an empty stadium in 1977.
Photo By: Courtesy of Johnny Bench
VIRIN: 771225-O-D0439-001

A 14-time All-Star and a two-time NL most valuable player, Bench excelled on offense as well as defense — twice leading the NL in home runs and three times in runs batted in. At the time of his retirement in 1983, he held MLB's record for most home runs hit by a catcher. He's also the only catcher in history to lead the league in home runs.

On defense, Bench was a 10-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner with a strong, accurate throwing arm. He caught 100 or more games for 13 consecutive seasons.

A man holds a small statue that's mounted on a wooden base.
Statue Replica
Major League Baseball player Johnny Bench holds a replica of his statue, which is in the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Photo By: Courtesy of Johnny Bench
VIRIN: 201225-O-D0439-001

In 1986, Bench was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989. ESPN called him the greatest catcher in baseball history.

In 1999, Bench ranked number 16 on The Sporting News magazine's list of the 100 greatest baseball players. He was the highest-ranking catcher on that list, as well. Bench was also elected to the MLB All-Century Team as the top vote-receiving catcher. As part of the golden anniversary of the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, Bench was selected to the All-Time Rawlings Gold Glove Team.

Two men wearing baseball caps stand next to each other; one appears to speak into a microphone.
Christmas Show
Major League Baseball player Johnny Bench, left, and actor Bob Hope appear at a USO Christmas show in Lai Khe, South Vietnam, in 1969.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Dave Roger
VIRIN: 691225-O-D0439-001

Bench enlisted in 1966 in the Army Reserve for six years, receiving basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and combat support training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He became a field wireman with the 478th Engineer Battalion and was based at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, which is across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. This unit included several of his teammates, including Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan and Darrel Chaney. 

His other duty stations included: Fort Drum, New York; Camp A.P. Hill, Virginia; and, Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Bench was with Bob Hope's USO tour, visiting the troops three times during the Vietnam War, once during Operation Desert Storm and many other locations.

A man speaks into a microphone that's mounted on a lectern.
Good Guy Award
Former Major League Baseball player Johnny Bench receives the American Legion's Good Guy Award during the American Legion National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2016.
Photo By: Courtesy photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion
VIRIN: 160602-O-D0439-001

Bench also participated in numerous charitable causes, including:

  • Raising money for the nonprofit Hope For the Warriors, which provides programs on transition, health and wellness for service members and veterans 
  • Serving as the 2014 national spokesperson for the National Guard Youth Challenge Program
  • Serving as the past national chairman of the American Cancer Society's Athletes vs. Cancer campaign
  • Hosting the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital's Catch the Cure program
  • Raising money for the American Lung Association
  • Raising money for the nonprofit USA Cares, which supports veterans
  • Starting the Johnny Bench Scholarship.

More Sports Heroes Who Served
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Sports Heroes Graphic
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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903

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