CINCINNATI – When a fire gutted Johnny Bench's Mount Lookout house overlooking the river and downtown in 1982, friends came to the rescue even before firefighters did.
Not to save the Reds great from the flames, but to save a Hall of Fame career's worth of priceless trophies and keepsakes.
Bench was safely out of town - the 34-year-old baseball star was playing golf at the time in one of that sport's biggest celebrity events, the Bob Hope Desert Classic near Palm Springs, California.
The fire was discovered about noon on a bitterly cold Cincinnati Saturday, Jan. 16. Out west, Bench said he was on the practice green when someone ran up and told him he had an "emergency call." When he got to the clubhouse phone, a Cincinnati friend said his two-story wooden home was on fire.
Dennis Janson, retired WCPO sports anchor, asked Bench what happened next.
"Has it burned down?" Bench said he asked his friend.
"Not yet," the friend said..
"Then I'll call back when I finish my round," Bench said. "There's nothing I can do about it."
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A budding restaurateur named Jeff Ruby, Bench's attorney Reuven Katz and Katz's wife Cate, and others got to the house before fire crews did, due to a mixup in emergency communications. They had a key and were able to snatch up Bench's trophies. Then, Ruby said, they carried almost 100 of Bench's baseball awards to safety in the garage of Katz's nearby home.
"We were running up and down the hill with them at 15 degrees below zero," Ruby was quoted in the Cincinnati Post. Ruby, Bench and other local sports celebs were partners in a newly-opened restaurant, The Precinct.
"I think we worked as hard for the trophies as he did," Ruby said.
Alas, they weren't able to save all of Bench's prized possessions. The avid golfer - Bench had even aspired to play on the pro tour - told Janson he lost about 400 golf clubs in the blaze.
MORE FROM THE VAULT: Bench, Big Red Machine celebrate 1976 World Series championship.
Some of the damage, estimated at $650,000, might have been prevented if there hadn't been a 30-minute delay from the time Bench's burglar alarm went off to the time firefighters arrived, according to a Post report.
"It's purely speculation, but it is possible we could have contained the fire," Fire Chief Norman Wells said.
"One half of the house was pretty well gutted and the other was well smoked," Fire Investigation Capt. James Gamm said. "There was a lot of damage."
The burglar alarm went off at 11:53 a.m. The alarm company called police and an officer was dispatched at 11:55, according to the Post. One minute later, a fire alarm went off, and the alarm company called police again.
But nobody called the fire department. To make matters worse, it took the officer 24 minutes after the first alarm to get to Bench's house, discover the fire and call it in. The first fire company didn't get there until 12:23 p.m.
The alarm company president said employees usually called the fire department directly when they received a fire alarm, but this time they didn't because they had already called police after the burglar alarm.
A police sergeant who was working in the communications office when the call came in said they assumed the alarm company had called the fire department.
The fire started in the basement near the furnace and water heater, then burned through the ceilings and walls to the upper floors, the district fire captain said.
Bench rebuilt the house on the same ridge on Reisling Knoll. He no longer lives there.
Bench retired from baseball in 1983 after 17 seasons – all with the Reds. He was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fall in 1989. After Bench turned 50, he did play in several PGA Senior Tour events.
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