Play Was Work for Johnny Bench

UPDATED: May 13, 2024
PUBLISHED: October 9, 2012

Catcher Johnny Bench’s hyper-developed sense of responsibility—woven into his character since childhood—propelled him to excellence as a team leader and into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It also earned him his ultimate goal: respect.

He shared an anecdote with SUCCESS to illustrate the type of respect he means: “I was waiting to change planes recently in Chicago, and this guy came up to me and just said, ‘Thank you.’… Everyone always tells me, ‘I was a Dodger fan or a Cub fan, but, boy, did I respect you guys.’ They would start naming off the Reds starting lineup. That’s what the Big Red Machine [the nickname for the vaunted 1970s Cincinnati teams] gave to people at a time in their lives when it was special. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to be respected because that was a sign I had done those things I believe in.”

“Those things” include universally applied workplace expectations—starting with showing up. Then giving your best effort. Inspiring others to go all-out because of the example you set. Remaining aware that you don’t know everything… and having a willingness to learn.

Two mentors honed those traits in Bench: his father, Ted, and the late Reds manager Sparky Anderson.

Boyhood in Oklahoma

Growing up in Binger, Okla., Bench learned his work ethic from his father.

“Hard work was a way of life,” Bench, 64, says of his early years. “My dad owned a propane company in Oklahoma. He got up at 4 a.m. to get the gas delivered, and he still had time to fish and play home-run derby with us [Johnny and his two older brothers and younger sister]. When it was time to work, he was the disciplinarian. Everybody just worked. I pulled cotton at 6 years old and worked on the peanut farm and paper route. People relied on me to be there.

“The worst thing someone could say was that Johnny didn’t do his work.”

That realization carried over to his baseball career and made him a strong leader, one who never settled for mediocrity. Every good leader has a fear of failure, Bench says, but the great ones use it as motivation to succeed. And while many think of sports leaders as those who give locker-room or mid-game pep talks, Bench maintains that the secret to being a leader is as much about listening as it is performance.

“I’m not sure that a leader is more than a person who’s always on time, doesn’t have to ask for special concessions [because others will follow their leader’s example], and willing to ask for information and intelligence. Some CEOs are too stupid to ask questions. They think they have all the answers. The great ones find people who are equally smart or smarter than they are.”

They also are a presence that reflects confidence. Bench, who broke into the majors in 1967 as a 19-year-old on a team full of legends such as Pete Rose and Tony Perez, asserted himself as his way of fitting in. He adds that his brashness was an emotional outlet for dealing with what he felt was the weight of the entire state of Oklahoma on his shoulders.

“It was not me failing that I was scared of. It was failing those people back home who believe in you,” says Bench, who now lives in Florida and California. “They only delivered the newspaper once a week where I lived in Oklahoma, and those people lived and died with the box score of my games. My biggest moment was winning the World Series because everyone in my town was able to feel he was a world champion.”

Working from the foundation laid by Bench’s father in that small town (its population today is about 700), Anderson developed the catcher into an astute, seasoned competitor he relied on. “It became a respect that Sparky and I had,” Bench recalls. “I made as many pitching changes as he did! I would look over, and he would call the bullpen for a new pitcher. He was brilliant; he didn’t need my help. But he was willing to ask for it, and I didn’t mind giving it to him.

“We talked a lot about game situations, and there was no questioning on his part”—meaning that Anderson trusted the catcher implicitly as his on-field surrogate. “What you need is that kind of relationship with your boss, and they need it with their employees.”

Doing His Homework

Preparation fueled that trust, and Bench took pride in being the most prepared player on the field. Just as businesspeople check out their competitors, Bench scouted the Reds’ opponents. During the early 1970s, teams didn’t have video technology, so Bench watched the other team take batting practice, studied tendencies of the infielders and outfielders, and was ready for every game situation the opposition could throw at him. After developing this intelligence, Bench shared it with the entire organization.

“My No. 1 job as a catcher was to call a good game [so we’d win],” Bench says. “I remember [veteran pitcher] Jim Maloney, after a game was asked how was it having a rookie catcher. He said, ‘Well, he chewed me out.’ I had to get their best performance and commitment on every pitch. It was something I demanded of myself, so why should I expect anything different from them? If I’m giving my all, I wanted the best from my people as well.”

Anderson, who prized that full-throttle approach, was once asked to compare Bench to other great players. Anderson’s response: “You don’t compare anyone to Johnny Bench. You don’t want to embarrass anybody.”

But Bench felt his game suffered after age 25, when doctors had to remove a benign growth from one of his lungs. “I never felt like I was ‘Johnny Bench’ after that surgery. As a hitter, you have about a half a second to decide what type of pitch you are seeing, whether it’s a ball or strike and whether you should swing. When they cut you open, no matter what surgery, the motor skills start to diminish and it’s just never the same. I never felt the same” after the surgery.

Bench played on, however, retiring after the 1983 season. During his 17-year career, he won two World Series rings. In 1968, he was Rookie of the Year. Bench was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1970 and 1972. He was voted to the All-Star team 14 times. Cincinnati retired his No. 5 jersey, so no other Reds player will wear the number. And ESPN has described him as “the greatest catcher who ever lived.”

Although Bench earned his successes on the national stage, he believes the principles of achievement apply to every career—a message he delivers in motivational talks today.

“Success is moving up and finding something in your life that you love. Be good at it and honest about it. You will reap the financial rewards that come with hard work…. Feel good about yourself and don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. You can’t leave your happiness in the hands of others. You can’t wait for them to clap.”


Bench Marks for Achievement

Johnny Bench offers these Vowels of Success for improving your life and making the most of your opportunities:

A: the ATTITUDE you have every day. Adopt a can-do approach to your job.

E: your effort for EXCELLENCE. You must put all of your energy into it.

I: being the best INDIVIDUAL and accepting your responsibilities. Deliver on your responsibilities as an individual and then work with others to make a great team.

O: taking advantage of the OPPORTUNITIES that come your way. Act on them.

U: USING the knowledge and information available to you from technology and your peers. Seek more knowledge and then apply it wisely.


Bench focuses on the “I” in his speeches. The phrase “There’s no ‘I’ in team” is used often when talking about successful teams and companies, but he takes issue with that. “The ‘I’ part of it that says there’s no ‘I’ in team? That’s a lie. You have to have the best individuals to be successful. I want a bunch of ‘I’s on my team. They don’t just pick an All-Star team randomly.

“If you start a car dealership and you have a good car, and you get the best of everything else—the best general manager, the best mechanic and so on—then people say you are brilliant. The smart leader lets them do their jobs. At the same time, you should always be asking them for their opinion and how they want to do it. In business, I’m always asking for others’ opinions.”

In business as in baseball, you must “always give your best performance with honesty and character. If you give them service [at that level], they’ll say, ‘Let’s use Johnny again.’ ”