MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Bench worthy of being a Greatest Living Player

The Reds' Hall of Famer's inclusion with Mays, Aaron and Koufax was well deserved

Bench worthy of being a Greatest Living Player

NEW YORK -- Congratulations, folks. Nice job -- for the most part in the Greatest Living Player vote. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were no brainers as half of the GLP quartet. And no one on this (Dodger) blue planet we inhabit was going to quarrel with Sandy Koufax, even though Mays once said he'd choose Bob Gibson over Sandy to pitch the one game that had to be won.

"Gibby was a very good hitter. He might hit one off Sandy," was Mays' rationale. "Sandy ain't touchin' Gibby."

It was the other selection that tickled me. Johnny Bench as one of the four greatest still roaming the earth. That's the one I didn't see coming, though the Reds' Hall of Fame catcher was my choice.

Based on the hundreds of "Who's best?" conversations I've heard and participated in over four decades and the debates I've heard since the deaths of Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Warren Spahn, I thought Bench would be without a place to sit when the music ended.

I was concerned that Barry Bonds might join his godfather, the man he displaced atop the career home run list and Koufax in the Greatest Living foursome. I thought Yankees followers might push for Derek Jeter or even Mariano Rivera or that the Midwest multitude of Cardinals fans would forgive the betrayal of Albert Pujols and vote him to where Stan the Man would've-should've-could've finished.

Or maybe Seattle and Cincinnati could have held hands while voting for Ken Griffey Jr. Or the Phillies' fanatics could have pushed for Mike Schmidt. Or fans of strikeouts and no-hitters might have put Nolan Ryan on the Greatest Living pedestal.

But Johnny Bench was No. 4. To borrow phrasing from the '86 Mets, "Baseball as it ought to." To me, Bench was a no brainer too. A splendidly skilled catcher with power and the habit of delivering critical hits for one of the great teams of the 20th century.

Thing is -- or was -- Bench seldom was included in those many debates and conversations in pressboxes, managers' offices and saloons. I heard other names more often -- Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, Frank Robinson and, from those wearing blinders, Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez.

I recall a conversation with Tim McCarver at Spring Training in 2014 in which both of us were bothered by what we perceived as the likely exclusion of Bench in saloon balloting. We weren't sure who would join Mays, Aaron and Koufax instead of Bench -- perhaps Maddux, perhaps Gibson. Randy Johnson was a possibility.

But Bench prevailed as the massive electorate showed off its good sense.

The chosen four are good choices. No argument here, just disappointment that this sort of election wasn't staged before Aug. 13, 1995. My vote would have been Mays, Aaron, Williams and Mantle. Sorry Warren, but the other guys played every day.

Since the March, 1999 death of Joe DiMaggio, the only player singularly recognized as "The Greatest Living," Mays and Aaron have been 1-2 or 2-1. And until July 5, 2002, Williams was No. 3 for most folks, I think. And there was a time -- it ended in November, 2003 -- when Koufax, the skilled basketball player, would have been effectively boxed out by Spahn, my choice for the No. 1 pitcher, dead or alive.

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Most of the Franchise Four voting seemed sensible, though the absence of Walter Johnson (Senators, Twins), Cy Young (Red Sox) and Christy Mathewson (Giants) hurt the credibility of the electorate. We haven't forgotten Washington and Lincoln, have we? And once again, Eddie Mathews was squeezed out.

But it is another exclusion that is more troubling. A three-time MVP-winning catcher who regularly collected World Series jewelry from 1947 to 1962. I can't quarrel with the Yankees' four, but Yogi Berra can't be omitted.

Give the Yankees five places -- you can make a case for them deserving more than other teams -- or allow Nos. 7 and 8 to share a spot (I know that's a cop-out). But how can one of greatest winners ever be excluded.

Yogi might be the second greatest living catcher, too. Behind Bench.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.