If you opened packs in the 1970s, Johnny Bench baseball cards were about as good as it got. Even your mom probably knew the name thanks to all of those prime time games and resulting championships, the many commercials…and The Baseball Bunch.
Bench was a manager’s dream as a catcher. He was sure-handed and knew how to call a game. Blessed with a strong arm, he was equal to the challenge of would-be stealers, throwing out 469 of them (a 43 percent success rate) in 17 seasons.
He was a powerful, clutch hitter, too, leading the National League twice in homers and three times in RBI. He hit 389 homers and drove in 1,374 runs. Bench led the Reds to six postseason berths during the 1970s, including four World Series appearances and two Series titles.
Yet Bench made several appearances on cards before the Machine revved its engine.
Here are five early cards to honor the man who famously wore No. 5. Two of them are regular-issue Topps cards, but the other three are more obscure and intriguing.
1968 Topps Johnny Bench Rookie Card (#247)
This one is obviously the perfect place to start. He debuted with Cincinnati as a 19-year-old in 1967 but the 1968 Topps Johnny Bench rookie card is where his career starts for collectors. Bench sports an old-time, pre-Big Reds Machine cap, appropriately turned backward. He is positioned on the left-hand side of the card, sharing it with a pitcher named Ron Tompkins, a 6-foot-4 right-hander nicknamed “Stretch.”
Bench’s first full season wasn’t too shabby — 15 homers, 82 RBIs, a Gold Glove award, an All-Star berth, and Rookie of the Year honors. The value of a Johnny Bench rookie card today varies greatly based on condition but you can buy a near mint one for around $200.
1967 Reds Photo Team Issue Postcards
This is the first card depicting Bench in a major-league uniform. The card measures 3 ½ inches by 5 ½ inches and was issued by the Reds. Designed in a postcard-like format and issued later in the season, the cards contain a player photo, a facsimile autograph in bluish-purple tint, and red letters heralding the “Cincinnati Reds.” The cards are not numbered and considered very hard to find.
The Bench card is a wonderful portrait of the young Reds’ catcher, who played in 26 games that year. Bench had 14 hits in 86 at-bats, and six of those hits went for extra bases.
1968 Kahn’s Weiners Johnny Bench
The Cincinnati-based meat company had been putting out baseball card issues since 1955 and would continue through 1969. These were actually part of the label that wrapped around Kahn’s hot dog packages.
The 1968 set featured 56 players, and Bench is easily the most valuable card in the set. According to the latest Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, the Bench card is worth $550 in near mint condition — double the amount of any other card in the set — assuming the card has the top advertising panel and the bottom panel intact. Cut the price in half if the top tab is missing.
The 1968 cards measured 2 13/16 inches by 4 9/16 inches with both panels intact. A color photo is framed by yellow and white vertical stripes. Bench is shown in the act off tossing off his mask. The card also sports a facsimile autograph.
1968-69 Partridge Meats Johnny Bench
The 1968-69 Partridge Meats collection is a 12-card set that was issued in conjunction with players’ autograph appearances at Kroger grocery stories in the Cincinnati area. These cards measure 4 inches by 5 inches and feature a black-and-white photo set against a borderless white background. Bench is referred to as “John,” and the card notes that the Reds’ catcher “Likes” Partridge — the meats with big league energy.
Not easy to find and like the Kahn’s cards, probably a little underpriced at $200-$250 for decent examples.
1970 Topps No. 660 Johnny Bench
This card coincides with what was arguably Bench’s finest season in the major leagues: he hit 45 home runs, added 148 RBIs and collected 177 hits — all career highs. He won a Gold Glove and won the first of two National League Most Valuable Player awards.
Bench is shown in a classic catcher’s pose, as if he were squatting behind the plate. The photo was taken during spring training in Tampa; in the background, one can see a relatively new Tampa Stadium (the Big Sombrero) rising against a blue sky.
The 1970 Topps set broke records by being the largest baseball card set in the company’s history to date, with 720 cards. The Bench card was part of Topps’ 7th series in 1970, part of the difficult high-numbered cards the company issued each year. Thirty years ago, you had to hunt larger shows to find them and while they’re not exactly common today, thanks to the internet, you can have your pick from any grade.
Below is a live list of the most watched Johnny Bench baseball cards on eBay.