Cooperstown came to West Chester for a night, at least.
On Nov. 3, the Courage and Character Foundation hosted eight Hall of Fame players and Pete Rose as part of the Johnny Bench and Friends fundraiser in West Chester. The nine players on hand — Bench, Rose, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Mike Schmidt, Rod Carew and Robin Yount — combined for 27,196 hits. This collection would have been an event anywhere, but it’s amazing that we were able to have it here, and it reminds us once again what a special place baseball holds in Cincinnati.
We’re lucky to have the likes of Bench and Rose who bring events like this back to our area and have the star power to bring in the rest of baseball’s royalty. When George Brett had to back out of his appearance, no problem, in comes Brock. In the end, we got about an hour of some of baseball’s best players telling stories. Not all the stories were new — some have been told and retold again and again. Rose and Bench have the timing of a comedy team down pat, having told the stories over and over, yet they were still entertaining.
What was great on this evening was that Bench, who can often take over whatever room he’s in, allowed the other eight Hall of Famers to be the stars. In the end, we heard several old stories, like how Brock’s base stealing abilities took off after he had a one-on-one lesson with the great Jesse Owens on how to help his start. Brock then went on to tell the story about how he wanted to make sure he stole against a young Bench before Bench was able to throw him out so he could hold it over Earl Lawson, the former Cincinnati Post Reds beat writer who had told Brock all about the young Reds catcher coming up.
On the other end were the likes of Schmidt and Molitor, who spoke of growing up idolizing Rose and Bench. At one point, Bench noted that he’d heard a story that Schmidt, from Dayton, grew up with posters of the two Reds in his bedroom.
“No, I had one of Pete,” Schmidt deadpanned, before noting he was at Crosley Field for the debuts of both.
“Johnny’s my wife’s favorite player,” Schmidt noted.
Carew talked about how he and Bench were in the minors at the same time and he’d heard all about “this phenom you can’t run on.” During their first matchup in the Carolina League, Carew said Bench had thrown out 28 would-be base stealers in a row. “I’m going to get him tonight, I told myself,” Carew said. “I tested him — and I was 29.”
He wasn’t the only one. Bench told a story about how a young Winfield tried to steal home against the Reds with Willie McCovey at the plate. Winfield, who was drafted by four different teams in three different sports, was out at the plate, the victim of his own hubris.
Molitor, a Minnesota native, said he grew up watching the Twins and learned about hitting from watching the great Harmon Killebrew, but “I learned how to run the bases from Pete.”
Yount, Molitor’s longtime teammate, also noted he grew up idolizing Rose and said, “Everyone up here is a Hall of Famer,” one of the few nods to the fact that Rose was the only one of the group who doesn’t have a plaque in Cooperstown.
Rose, who has his banquet banter down to an art, joked about his hit total, telling Schmidt he’d “loan” Schmidt 800 hits to get to 3,000, as Schmidt and Bench, the two best ever at their positions, were the only men on the dais without 3,000 hits. “I’ll still have 3,000 with some to spare,” Rose noted. “I don’t need ’em — Jeter won’t get them,” Rose said to laughs, noting some have speculated that Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter could someday challenge his status as the Hit King: “That’s all New York garbage.”
Last year the event honored Gold Glove winners, with Bench, Jim Kaat, Steve Garvey, Ryne Sandburg, Ozzie Smith, Andre Dawson, Al Kaline and Schmidt. “People asked me how we’d top that,” Bench noted. And it seems difficult to think they’ll top it again next year. But again, there’ll be a panel, there’ll be stories and there will be laughs.
Honestly, I see a lot of these kinds of things, and this was top-notch. A Sports Illustrated editor was sitting at my table and he remarked that he couldn’t believe how big the event was, and neither could I. This is what it means to live in a place where baseball is special, and that’s something you can certainly say about Cincinnati.
CONTACT C. TRENT ROSECRANS: [email protected] and @ctrent