Bench’s excellence wraps up Reds’ second straight title

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

At 28 years old, Johnny Bench was coming off the most challenging regular season of his career when the 1976 World Series began.

Four games later, Bench was a hero, his Cincinnati Reds were champions – and a Cooperstown legacy was all but written.

On Oct. 21, 1976, Bench was named the World Series Most Valuable Player after hitting .533 with two home runs and six RBI in the Reds’ four-game sweep over the Yankees. He became just the second catcher to win the World Series MVP, cementing the honor with two homers and five RBI in Game 4.

Batting out of the No. 7 spot in the powerful Reds lineup, Bench had two hits in every game, threw out one of the two runners who tried to steal on him and also recorded a pickoff at second base.

“The man is so talented I’ve never seen one man play his position the way he plays it,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson told United Press International following Game 4. “I always said he would have more bearing on this game than Babe Ruth and I still say it.

“You have to look at Johnny Bench every day to understand what I’m talking about.”

Bench hit just .234 with 16 homers and 74 RBI in 1976 – batting a variety of injuries – but the Big Red Machine still powered its way to 102 wins and its fifth National League West title in seven seasons. In that time, Bench had produced two NL Most Valuable Player seasons (1970 and 1972) while leading the league in homers twice and RBI three times. From 1972-75, Bench averaged 32 homers, 117 RBI and 280 total bases per season.

And once the 1976 postseason began, his regular season struggles that season were forgotten.

Bench hit .333 in the Reds’ three-game sweep of the Phillies in the National League Championship Series, then shined under baseball’s brightest lights in the Fall Classic.

In the final game of the World Series, Bench’s two-run home run down the left field line at Yankee Stadium turned a 1-1 tie into a 3-1 Reds lead in the fourth inning. Then in the ninth – with the Reds clinging to a 3-2 lead – Bench hit a three-run home run to left, scoring Tony Pérez and Dan Driessen and effectively clinching the Reds’ second straight championship.

Following the game, Anderson drew the ire of Yankees catcher Thurman Munson – who hit .529 in the World Series – when he responded to a question about Munson by saying: “Don’t ever embarrass a man by comparing him to Johnny Bench.”

Anderson quickly qualified his remark, saying: “I’m sorry Thurman Munson took what I said the wrong way.”

But many who watched Bench’s performance in the World Series – and throughout his career – felt Anderson had been right on the money.

“You’re always going to be among greater or lesser people than yourself,” Bench told columnist Jim Murray following the game. “But you conduct yourself the same way.”

Bench was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1989 following a 17-year career that produced 389 home runs, 14 All-Star Game selections and 10 Gold Glove Awards.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series