Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Debut of the Bench


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ANSWER to the Trivia question in the previous column:  Six players performed in the big leagues during the 1960s who were named Robinson. 

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Who was the player who pinch-hit for Johnny Bench in Bench's debut game in the major leagues?

Umpire Doug Harvey didn't know what to expect on August 28, 1967, but he made history. He was behind the plate when future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench made his major league debut. For nine innings Harvey got to watch what the baseball world would learn over the next 17 seasons; Johnny Bench was one of the greatest catchers of all time.

Bench would call what was probably a pretty good game for a nervous rookie and he caught three pitchers of varying degree. It wasn't Gerry Arrigo's day certainly facing the Philadelphia Phillies that Monday evening at Crosley Field. A typical August night before 9500 fans the Phils would beat the Reds behind Dick Ellsworth. For Bench's part, whether it was Arrigo or the rookie, can't be known. The young catcher handled 31 year old Don Nottebart and 34 year old Ted Abernathy very well.

Arrigo went five-plus innings giving up 3 ER and walking six. Not a great line score. Philadelphia sluggers Bill White, Johnny Callison and Gene Oliver did most of the damage As for the other two relievers, 2 1/3 perfect innings. Bench was settled in by then.

At the plate, it was not a good start. Batting seventh in his first game, Bench was hit-less in three at bats. His first appearance he popped out, then Ellsworth became the first pitcher to strike out the HOFer, and Turn Farrell did the same a few innings later. A fourth AB brought about a pinch-hitter who also got out.

While the first game in his career was a 3-2 loss, the next night he called a 1-0 shutout for Gary Nolan and two other pitchers. He went hit-less again in three AB, again a popfly and a pair of K's. It wasn't until the following game where he made his hitting mark. Again calling a win, 2-1 for Milt Pappas, he had a sacrifice fly for his first RBI off Chris Short. It was followed by another strikeout and then in the bottom of the seventh he rolled through a ground ball single to left off the left-handed Short.

 Bench continued to struggle at the plate batting less than .150 until September 20th when he cracked his first home run. On a three hit day, his first, the Braves Jim Britton gave up the gopher ball. There would be 388 more in his career although 1967 was probably his worst season, batting .163 in 26 games and striking out 25-percent of the time. But there was no doubt about his defense. Catching almost every game after coming on, the club went 16-14 with five shutouts.

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