Thursday, July 14, 2016

Johnny Bench and Bob Hope: Power Hitting in Vietnam

When it came time to support the troops of the United States military in the 20th century, there were two institutions that stood above all the rest: Bob Hope and Major League Baseball. Hope began making goodwill tours for overseas troops officially in 1941, but  there were unsubstantiated reports of a character who billed himself as Bob "Continental Army" Hope running around Valley Forge dropping one-liners about Washington's teeth and saying, "Hey, and how about that King George, he really thinks he's something . . ."

After the 1966 season, in response to a request by the Department of Defense, which was in desperate need of something to raise the spirits of the troops, baseball commissioner and former Air Force General William Eckert put together a heavy-hitting lineup that included Brooks Robinson, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Joe Torre and Stan Musial to tour U.S. outposts in Vietnam on a goodwill mission.

The trip was such a success that it became a regular thing for the rest of Eckert's tenure. 
After the 1967 season, it was Pete Rose and Joe DiMaggio. While sweating at a jungle firebase, Rose and DiMaggio poured water over each other's heads in a canvass shower, thereby giving Pete one of his favorite lines for the next five decades: that he was the only man ever to give the Yankee Clipper a shower.


In 1968 it was Ernie Banks, Pete Richert, Ron Swaboda and Larry Jackson.

These trips were universally popular with the military men as might be expected. They provided the young soldiers a small reminder of a better time and place and, at least for a short period, a short respite from their daily horrors.

Whereas the above trips were set up by a collaborative effort between Major League Baseball and the military, Johnny Bench's involvement was entirely different proposition. Late in 1970, Bob Hope personally asked Bench to accompany him and his troupe on their previously scheduled trip. Hope had been regularly doing holiday shows in Vietnam since 1964 ("the pentagon decided they had tried everything else, they might as well send me," he quipped). Bench, who had been planning to use the time for much-needed vacation and relaxation, quickly signed on. Bench was coming off the best overall season for a catcher in major league history: a Most Valuable Player, Gold Glove season in which he hit 45 home runs and 148 RBIs.

Johnny Bench was more than just the most talented 22-year-old catcher anyone had ever seen. He was a young man on the move. He had raised eyebrows when he told reporters--with a straight face--before 1970 that his goal was to have a million dollars before his thirtieth birthday. In those days in which only a handful of major leaguers made even $100,000 a season, and only after 15 years of first-ballot-Hall-of-Fame-caliber play, that was about as likely as a kid being able to hold seven baseballs in one hand.

But Johnny Bench had a plan. As precociously mature in front of a camera as he was behind the plate, Bench was in the process of carefully crafting a public image in which he would be a media crossover superstar and would be acclaimed as the most eligible bachelor among sports icons this side of Joe Namath. By the end of the 1970 season, he had already made the rounds on the Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore shows. And he had plans in the works for a syndicated Johnny Bench variety/talk show that would start in 1971.

Hope's Christmas shows for Vietnam troops were filmed at various outposts and then put together for a prime-time television special broadcast in January. They were always a hit. They were especially a treat for the soldiers, so far from home over the holidays. Despite Hope's jokes (at one stop he told the crowd, "America's behind you fifty percent"), it was truly important for the morale of the troops, to let them know they were not forgotten. In between the one-liners poking fun at military life, officers and the so-called peace talks, he made them forget the war, if only for a few minutes.

Of course, for a healthy young male like Bench, the tour contained added benefit from the bevy of beautiful girls that Hope always took with him. The 1970 tour included singer Lola Falana, original Bond girl Ursela Andress, the reigning Miss World and the Golddiggers, a troop of ten beautiful leggy dancers in low-cut outfits from the Dean Martin show. Flying cramped up in a military transport plane with these fellow tour-members made the time pass much easier.

The first time Bench met Hope, the comedian asked him, “Hey, ya doin’ any power hitting?” While casting a sideways smirk around his famous ski-slope nose to let the baseball player know that he wasn’t talking about baseball, the 67- year-old Hope added, “If I were six months younger you wouldn’t have a chance.”
That became Hope’s standard greeting for Bench throughout the years: “Been doing any power hitting lately?”

The group traveled to England, West Germany, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and Alaska. At Camp Eagle, opening date of the tour in Vietnam, 18,000 GIs showed up. Helicopter gun ships circled the nearby hills and infantry patrols were dispatched for a fully manned perimeter security.

Bench stood on stage next to Hope wearing a baseball cap backwards, holding a catcher’s mitt tucked under one arm. Hope had on a cocked Reds cap and held a century old mitt on his left hand.

Hope's opening line to Bench later incurred some mild wrath from military brass and the conservative press when he told him, “It’s a great sport, baseball. You can spend eight months on grass and not get busted.”

Bench showed surprising polish and decent comedic timing on stage with Hope.
JB: “I’m surprised you asked me to come with you.”
BH: “Why are you surprised?”
JB: “I’m not a girl.”

BH: “The Gold Diggers are mad about you, but you’re ignoring them. Why is that?”
JB: “They are adorable, but they’re all married.”
BH: “Who told you that?”
JB: “You did! Right after you told me to wear my catcher’s mask all the time. I almost starved to death.”
BH: “Well, I just wanted everyone to know who you are. It’s your identification.”
JB: “I guess you’re right. I notice you don’t go anywhere without your nose.”

BH: “Why do they call the catcher’s gear the tools of ignorance?”
JB: “That reminds me of a question I wanted to ask you. Why do they call them idiot cards?”

They spent Christmas day in Long Binh. Troopers hitched rides in three-quarter ton trucks from all over. Hope's group performed in a hastily arranged outdoor amphitheater on a hot sunny day. Over twenty-five thousand soldiers wearing floppy hats and sunglasses, many shirtless, sat around the stage. Some GIs climbed trees and telephone poles to get a better view of the stage. They hooted, whistled, clapped and cheered every joke, no matter how corny.

Hope mentioned the recent troop withdrawals, “It's nice of you guys to stick around just for me. . . .This is my seventh time here . . .  I volunteered to come back. The Pentagon was very impressed. They said we once had a General like you, Custer.”

When the show ended with everyone singing “Silent Night” there were few dry eyes.

Afterwards, they toured hospitals and talked to wounded soldiers. To the men in hospital beds, Hope cracked, “Did you see the show or were you already sick?”

On the plane traveling back to Bangkok, the troupe was suddenly struck with the fact that they were also thousand of miles away from their families. Bench and Betty Lannigan, the press secretary for the tour, began singing Christmas carols. Within a few minutes, the entire plane was singing along.

After the tour, Bench told a reporter, "I don't like war any more than anybody else does. But those men over there are fighting for us and they deserve our support and respect. They're my heroes."

For years Bench would always mention the tour as his most memorable Christmas away from home.
He spoke of how much the trip meant:  “Giving of something. It’s doing something freely without being pressed by anybody. . . . It meant a lot to me to be able to go over there and give just a little something to those guys who have given so much to all of us.”

Bench and Hope would become long-time friends. They exchanged Christmas cards for decades.

When Johnny Bench started his talk show the next year, Hope appeared as one of his first guests.

Bench would appear regularly in Hope’s golf classic for years. Bench later went on another Bob Hope tour in the 1990s during Desert Storm.

Bench would go on to numerous television appearances the next few years, among them a bizarre one-scene, overly serious gig as a guard shouting orders on Mission Impossible in 1971:

A tongue-in-cheek spot as a waiter at King's Island on the Partridge Family in 1973:

and numerous crooning attempts on Hee Haw (this one belting out "You Don't Mess Around With Jim"):

Overall, while Bench was able to pull these off, most astute observers agreed that he should continue to play baseball as long as he was able. But then, neither Jim Croce nor David Cassidy could ever hit a curveball.


  1. Sort of nice to remember Bench for something more substantial than being a shill for the Blue Emu goop.

  2. Don't forget Krylon paint: No runs, no drips, no errors. Before that I think he was a pretty fair baseball player.