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Tales from the Bench: Hall of Fame catcher visits Eau Claire area

In Altoona, baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Bench recalls his career, two life-changing hip replacement surgeries and a young pitcher from Eau Claire named Bob Hall

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    Major League Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench chats Tuesday in Altoona with OakLeaf Surgical Hospital staff, including Jenna Holewinski, before his presentation about his hip replacements. View a photo gallery at Leader-Telegram.com.

    Staff photo by Dan Reiland
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ALTOONA — One name came to mind after Major League Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench learned he was coming to the Eau Claire area Tuesday for a presentation on hip replacement: “Babe Hall.”

Hall, actually Bob Hall of Eau Claire, was a pitcher during an instructional league in 1966 in Florida.

“He was a great guy,” said Bench, who led the Cincinnati Reds to World Series titles in 1975 and 1976. “I couldn’t name two other guys on that team, but I remember him. His name just stuck with me.”

Bench, 68, recalled that Hall, also a Reds product, had a good fastball and curve.

“I actually googled him to see where he was and what happened to him,” Bench said, jokingly adding: “He’s probably in a witness protection program somewhere.”

Hall, unable to meet with Bench on Tuesday, said he knew early on that Bench was a special player.

“It was pretty obvious he was going to be a star,” Hall said. “I pitched to him several times. You didn’t see talent like that around Eau Claire. He could turn on a fastball so fast that it made your head swim.”

Bench played 17 seasons with the Reds during a time when players more routinely played through injuries.

“Now, it’s like, ‘Oh, I have a twinge,’ ” Bench remarked before his presentation at OakLeaf Surgical Hospital in Altoona.

“Back then you were like the rented mule; they just sent you out until it was dark or you can’t plow anymore,” he said.

Bench recalled a conversation he had with Reds manager Sparky Anderson.

“I’m 20 years old, caught 54 in a row and I’m the last one off the plane because I couldn’t straighten up. I asked Sparky if I was ever going to get a day off, and he said, ‘If we’re behind, I’m going to catch you to catch up. If we’re tied, I’m going to catch you to get ahead, and if we’re ahead, I’m going to catch you to stay ahead.’ I said, ‘I’m not getting a day off, am I?’ ”

Bench, who made $11,000 his first season, understands the special attention players get today because of the financial investment teams have in them.

“Perception has changed more than anything,” he said. “Players are still tremendous athletes, but what has changed is the amount of money and the feeling people have toward them.”

Bench, a native of Binger, Okla., which has a population less than 700, said he was blessed with great vision, an undaunted work ethic and talent that propelled him into Major League Baseball.

“It started with a dream when I was 3½ years old that I was going to play in the major leagues,” he said. “It wasn’t the traveling teams, it was working in the fields chopping cotton, chopping peanuts, pulling cotton, a paper route, mowing lawns and playing baseball where I hit every rock out of the driveway.

“I practiced throwing and developing arm strength with the realization that only 1 in every 500,000 kids who played Little League ever signs a contract, and only 7 percent of those make it to the major leagues.”

Bench, inducted in 1989 into the Hall of Fame, won 10 Gold Glove awards for defense, was named to 14 All-Star games, was twice named National League Most Valuable Player, hit 389 home runs, had 1,376 runs batted in and collected 2,048 hits for a career average of .267. He is regarded by many observers of the game as the greatest catcher ever.

He was told by doctors after a serious car accident at age 18 that he would eventually have hip problems.

“Part of the reason I retired (at age 35) was that I knew I needed to do something. I wanted to play golf in my 50s and 60s,” he said. “The pain was so severe. I was worried about my health. I had both hips replaced, and it was life-changing, where I could get some sleep again.”

Bench had hip replacements in 2004 and 2010, both with Stryker Orthopaedics products. He is a paid spokesman for Stryker and shared his experiences as part of an educational seminar at OakLeaf.

Bench, who has three sons ages 7, 10 and 26, is involved with a number of charitable organizations, including educational scholarships, and also is involved with a number of business ventures — from apps for schools to beverage containers that chill in a short amount of time.

“I love knowledge; finding out things and using other people’s knowledge, and I like to look out for other people,” he said. “That’s pretty much who I am.”

Contact: 715-830-5831, chuck.rupnow@ecpc.com, @crupnow on Twitter


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