The recent deaths of baseball greats Lou Brock, Tom Seaver and Al Kaline got Johnny Bench thinking about the future and the prospect of unloading memorabilia from his Hall of Fame career.
He had seen Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith sell their collectibles. Bench checked out items from Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully’s recent online auction.
“You wonder, what is the best thing to do?” Bench said by phone Thursday. “Who does it go to?”
Bench reaped the rewards of a 17-year career catching with the Cincinnati Reds: two World Series titles, 14 All-Star selections, two National League MVP awards, multiple Gold Gloves. He was leader of the Big Red Machine that won six division titles and four NL pennants in the mid-1970s.
“The memories are still there. I still am the MVP,” he said. “I’m blessed with what I’ve got and I’m enjoying my life.”
He lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, with 30-year-old son Bobby and sons Justin, 14, and Josh, 11, from Bench’s fourth marriage. The younger boys are with him 38 weeks of the year, keeping Bench busy as a single father cooking, grocery shopping, helping with homework and shuttling them to activities. They spend the rest of the time in California with their mother.
“How do you divide it up when you have three boys and you got two things?” said Bench, who turns 73 in December. “If they had said, ‘No, Dad, you can’t sell those,’ it would have made a difference. They’re two generations removed from what I did.”
Bench’s items will be auctioned live on Nov. 14 at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in Kentucky. A public preview will be held at the museum on Nov. 12-13.
The sale is being handled by Hunt Auctions, the same Pennsylvania company that recently sold Scully’s memorabilia, which earned over $2 million.
Bench’s trophies from the Reds’ World Series championships in 1975 and ’76 carry an estimated price of $25,000 to $50,000 each. His National League championship ring from 1970 and his 1968 NL Rookie of the Year award are estimated in the same price range.
The bat Bench used to hit his 389th and last home run in 1983 is estimated between $10,000 and $20,000.
Among the over 150 lots are his Gold Glove awards from 1969-77, a Reds home jersey from 1983, his catcher’s mitt from the 1970s, and a painting of Bench by LeRoy Neiman.
Bench’s son Bobby had already been in the process of tracking down and cataloging his father’s memorabilia, pulling items from storage in Cincinnati. The elder Bench has displayed items at his eponymous museum in his hometown of Binger, Oklahoma.
“Bobby has decorated my office with bats and sentimental items,” Bench said. “There are still things I’m going to hold on to.”
Bench jokes that today’s players “make more in two weeks than I made in my entire career.” He plans to use the auction proceeds to fund his younger kids’ college educations.
“I didn’t make that much money when I played. It’s been 37 years since I retired and the money doesn’t last that long,” he said. “The boys are the world to me. I want them to have a great education.”