If you were a kid in southwestern Ohio in the 1970s and you could eat anywhere you wanted, the answer was clear: Johnny Bench‘s Home Plate.
Bench owned two restaurants in the Cincinnati area at the time and one of them was near the Northgate Mall, which was about 40 minutes from my house. I don’t remember a whole lot about the restaurant except that there was a HUGE catcher’s mitt chair in the lobby. At my age it could easily swallow me up and it was a must-do each time we visited.
I frequently asked to go there for my birthday and it often worked because my father liked their steaks. Worked for me, too. On one occasion we were there for dinner when in strolls Johnny himself. I was in awe. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything with me for him to sign, but my mother was a college professor and was thus equipped with a piece of paper and a fountain pen. That’s right: A fountain pen. Johnny inked my piece of paper.
So Mr. Bench, We Meet Again
Years later, I worked at WCET-TV (PBS) in Cincinnati. The building had a large studio that we would rent occasionally. Parts of Rain Man and Little Man Tate were shot there. I came to work one day and was informed that Fifth Third Bank would be shooting a commercial in the studio and that Bench would be in the house. Johnny had been working with Fifth Third since the early ’70s and had done lots of commercials and print ads. Someone from our staff needed to be there in case the ad agency needed anything and since I was the resident baseball freak, they gave me the plum assignment. Basically my job was to sit there, watch the show and tell people where the bathroom was.
Once again I didn’t have anything for Bench to sign, but I did have a car. When the crew broke for lunch, I headed straight to Koch’s Sporting Goods in downtown Cincinnati and bought a baseball. When everyone came back I asked Johnny to sign it.
He was hesitant, probably it was a pretty serious breach of etiquette on my part to ask for an autograph while we were both working. I think he also figured I would sell it. Damage done on the first count, but not the second. He asked me my name and signed the ball to me, which worked out great.
A Treasured Keepsake
The ball now sits proudly on a shelf with others signed by Hall-of-Famers. Thanks, J.B!
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