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MLB Network's Bench documentary will remind you of Johnny Bench's greatness in case you forgot

Johnny Bench was more than a baseball player, even though that's the only thing he set out to become.

The boy from Binger grew up to be a talk-show host, commercial pitchman and at age 71, a single father raising two young sons. He was also perhaps the greatest catcher the sport has ever seen.

Bench, MLB Network's documentary premiering at 7 p.m. Wednesday (Cox 264) explores each of those topics 30 years after the Cincinnati Reds legend was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The documentary features interviews with Big Red Machine teammates Pete Rose and Tony Perez and is narrated by actor Martin Sheen, a lifelong Cincinnati fan.

How big of a deal is Johnny Bench, some 50 years after his remarkable Rookie of the Year campaign of 1968?

When my parents came from Kentucky to visit me last summer, my father insisted that we drive an hour to Binger. As someone who grew up listening to Bench's Reds rise to power, he wanted to tour the town where the greatest Red of them all grew up. What he found in Binger is a friendly town of about 700 people that boasts of its most famous son. 

It's the kind of place where an assistant coach of the high school baseball team will invite you to watch practice at the field named after Bench. 

It's the kind of place where, as the documentary explains, they'll throw a parade but have nobody to wave to because the whole town was in the procession as they did after Bench won the National League MVP Award in 1970, five years after graduating from high school.

"Johnny did put us on the map," says Ronnie Crain, a high school teammate of Bench's.

Just as people from Cincinnati and beyond carry a deep fondness for Bench, the same goes for the man and his home state of Oklahoma.

Being an OU fan, Bench made the trip an hour south in late December from his Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., home to Miami Gardens to watch his Sooners face Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

Country music star Toby Keith, whose restaurant is located on Johnny Bench Drive in OKC, shares stories about Bench reliving his variety-show days by singing on Keith's tour bus.

In the documentary, Bench talks about how Yankees legend Mickey Mantle showed him how major leaguers could come from Oklahoma; and how his father instilled in him the work ethic to lead a pair of World Series champions.

"I didn't come from means or anything else," Bench says. "I'm just a kid who grew up in Oklahoma."

Related Photos
Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench is seen in this 1970 photo. (AP Photo)

Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench is seen in this 1970 photo. (AP Photo)

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Jeff Patterson

Jeff Patterson is the sports editor of The Oklahoman. A native of Lexington, Kentucky, he allegedly once told his father on a childhood trip passing through Oklahoma that he would one day live there. He doesn't recall this, but he fulfilled that... Read more ›