By Jim Longworth
Johnny Bench's hands have served him well. At age 6, he used them to pick cotton so that he could earn enough money to buy a pair of jeans. As a catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, he used his hands to snag every baseball thrown to him, and throw out just about every runner who ever tried to steal on him. It's no surprise that Johnny acquired the nickname "Hands", a well deserved moniker that was memorialized in a now famous photo in which he is holding seven baseballs in one hand at the same time. But since retiring from baseball in 1983, Bench's hard-working, competitive hands have morphed into helping hands, especially when lending support to those in need.
On February 18, Bench will speak at a members-only dinner for the Guilford Merchants Association. Last week, in advance of his upcoming trip to Greensboro, I spoke with Johnny by phone about a wide variety of topics. We talked for over a half hour, and not once did he mention his 389 lifetime home runs, or being named to 14 All-Star teams, or his induction into the Hall of Fame, or his being named Best Catcher of all time. Instead the boy from Binger Oklahoma talked mainly about his passion for education, and how he and his Foundation help kids who want to go to college. He also spoke of how he and his son Bobby formed a company to help schools and businesses develop multi use apps. Along the way we also talked about diversity, politics, and his "Vowels of Success".
JL: Tell me about the Johnny Bench Scholarship Fund, how it got started, and who it helps.
JB: I graduated high school at 17 and signed with the Reds. I had wanted to go to college because I thought a college education was important, but I didn't know I would be drafted and my career turn out the way it did. So when I retired I wanted to give kids an opportunity to go to college, and that's when we started the Scholarship Fund. We started out with $25,000 which went to help Cincinnati kids who wanted to go to Cincinnati colleges. From there I started hosting golf tournaments to raise money for the Scholarship Fund. I also won $250,000 on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and that went directly into the Scholarship Fund too. Several years ago we expanded the program to include kids from my hometown of Binger who wanted to go to college. All of the kids must maintain a certain grade point average in order for their scholarship to be renewed. Today we average about 84 to 94 scholarship kids each year.
JL: Back when you played ball, it was more common for kids to be drafted straight out of high school. But despite your young age, guys like you, Al Kaline and others had a natural work ethic. Is that something that can be taught?
JB: It's all about who raised you. Back in 1966 someone asked me what motivates me, and I said, "the fear of failure." Not failing here, but it's fear of failing all those people back home who read the paper every day. I also had great mentors to assist me and guide me in a lot of ways.
JL: Well not only did you not fail, you and your teammates on the Reds were highly successful, winning back to back World Championships in '75 and '76. You also had the most culturally diverse starting line-up in baseball. Did that give you an edge?
JB: I was sitting on a plane with Ted Marchibroda, who was coach of the Baltimore Colts at the time, and he said, "Why are you guys so successful?" And I said, "Because we have Black leadership, White leadership, and Latin leadership, and we don't know what color we are." For example, if the Latin players had a problem, they could go to Tony (Perez). Today you hear about clubs having a team leader. To me, leaders are people who are on time. Leaders are on the field when it's time to be on the field. They apply themselves. They run their laps the same as anybody else. They don't ask for special treatment. Those are leaders.
JL: Speaking of leadership, you and your son Bobby run one of the leading app companies. Tell me about it.
JB: Our company is N.E.A.D., which stands for "No Ego App Development." We develop apps for cities, schools, and businesses that are accessible to anyone from their smart phone. Let's take a school, for example. We can help them set up an app where they can use push notifications to report cyber bullying, or update parents if there's a lock-down. They can also put in all the schedules of their events and update everybody on cancellations.
JL: Let's talk about your book, "Catch Every Ball: How to Handle Life's Pitches". In it, you reveal your "Vowels of Success", which are Adhere, Employability, Inner Conceit, Opportunity, and Use. What do you want people to take away from your book?
JB: I want them to have their own vowels. I want them to assess what their life is and develop their own vowels. So when I'm speaking to groups I ask them, "What is your A? What is your E? For example, Arnold Palmer's "A" is Attitude. Bobby Knight's is Assholes, as in "Keep the Assholes away. (laughs)"
JL: It's an election year, so I have to ask why you never ran for office. I mean, you're Johnny Bench, one of the most popular athletes of all time.
JB: When I retired, I worked for a bank, and the President of the Bank called me in and said, "John, I'd like to see you run for Congress." And I said, "Can you hear those skeletons in my closet right now? (laughs) I mean, they're knocking down the door! Besides that, I don't know all the different facets of politics that you need to know."
Bench might have rejected the idea of serving in Washington, but that hasn't stopped him from serving people all over the nation. In addition to starting the Scholarship Fund, Johnny has also raised over $2 million dollars to help abused women and kids, he entertained the troops in Desert Storm, has been an advocate for Wounded Warriors, and he headlines the Children's Charity Classic in Lexington to benefit USA Cares. Not surprisingly when he lands in Greensboro next week, he'll take time out to help his good friend and GMA Chairman Tom Berry to promote a local charity.
Great catchers are always busy, they stay involved in every play, and never rest until the job is done. That's why my "A" is dedicated to Johnny Bench and his helping hands. My "A" is Admiration.
(for more information about Johnny Bench, visit www.johnnybench.com To learn about NEAD, visit www.mycivicapps.com or call (513) 620-1880 )
Jim Longworth is a columnist for YESWeekly.com, and author of the "TV Creators" series of books. He also serves as judge for the primetime EMMYs, and hosts a weekly TV show for Sinclair stations.
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