On May 9, 1973, Johnny Bench, All-Star catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, hits three home runs in one game off All-Star pitcher Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies. As Bench had homered in his previous at-bat the game before as well, this gave him four home runs in four consecutive trips to the plate.
In 1973, Bench was five seasons into a Hall of Fame career. After breaking in with the Reds in 1967 and playing 26 games, he won the National League’s Rookie of the Year award in 1968 with a .275 batting average, 15 home runs and 82 runs batted in. In 1970, Bench broke out, leading the NL with 45 home runs and 148 RBIs while batting .293. He repeated his 1970 NL MVP in 1972 behind 40 homers and 125 RBIs. That year, Cincinnati’s famed “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s–considered one of the finest teams in baseball history–was having another dominant year in the NL West. Led by manager Sparky Anderson, the Reds had won the National League pennant in 1972, only to lose to the powerful Oakland A’s in the World Series, four games to three. Bench was the leader of a team that was loaded with talent–including future hit king Pete Rose, second baseman Joe Morgan, outfielders Tony Perez and George Foster and shortstop Dave Concepcion.
On May 9, 1973, Bench’s hitting spree continued, despite his ongoing recovery from surgery to remove a benign lung lesion. His three home runs off defending Cy Young winner Carlton to give him four home runs in four consecutive at-bats tied a major league record. This was Bench’s second three-homer day: He had also hit three, and drove in seven runs, one year earlier to the day, also against Carlton.
In addition to his prolific hitting, Bench is remembered for pioneering the one-handed style of catching–in which catchers use oversized padded gloves and tuck their off hand behind their back–that is now used by nearly every major league catcher. He was also the first catcher to wear a batting helmet while catching, an important protection for men who have 90 mph fastballs thrown at their heads more than 100 times per game. Johnny Bench was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989 and named starting catcher of Major League Baseball’s All-Century team in 1999.