If ever there was a bad word uttered about Gene Bennett, I have never heard of the person who said it.
Bennett was not only an icon as a baseball scout, he was even more of an icon as a person.
Some of the best times of my baseball life were when Gene Bennett called me, which was often during the winter, and we talked baseball for an hour-and-a-half.
It seemed like five minutes because time stood still during those wonderful conversations.
My phone won’t ring this winter with the greeting, “How is my favorite baseball writer?” Gene Bennett, 89, died Wednesday in Portsmouth, where he was THE legend among legends.
I first met Bennett when he was a basketball official and worked games at the old University of Dayton Fieldhouse when Tom Blackburn was coach and later for Don Donoher during the embryonic period of UD Arena. He would stop by the press table during timeouts and talk baseball.
One of the best compliments I ever received came from Bennett. We talked often during his 60 years as a scout for the Reds and a member of the front office.
He would say, “I can tell you anything off the record and know it won’t appear in the paper. I can trust you.” And he told me many, many things that would make a great story but might get him in trouble if I wrote it. I never did.
Among many, many good players he signed for the Reds was Don Gullett, Barry Larkin, Paul O’Neill, Chris Sabo and Charlie Leibrandt.
He signed Gullett after watching a high school game during which Gullett struck out 20 of 21 batters in a seven-inning game. The other guy? He tried to bunt and Gullett threw him out for a perfect game.
He convinced the Reds to draft Barry Larkin when most of the front office people wanted to draft somebody else.
But the one that got away was one that hurt him most. Bennett was at a tryout camp in Michigan when he saw a kid playing shortstop, wearing a Reds cap.
He told the kid, “We already have a great shortstop, name of Barry Larkin.” The kid looked at him and said, “I can play anywhere, Mr. Bennett. I can play center field.” And he went out and played center field at the tryout like Eric Davis.
The kid’s name was Derek Jeter and Bennett pleaded with the Reds to draft him. They didn’t. They drafted a big, strong kid named Chad Mottola and one of the scouts said, “This kid can whip a bear with a switch.”
But he couldn’t hit a baseball with a bat and everybody knows what happened with Derek Jeter.
Bennett lived in Wheelersburg, Ohio, not far from Portsmouth and there is a baseball complex in Wheelersburg named after him.
Every year Bennett was the driving force behind a baseball banquet in Portsmouth, an event to raise money for the upkeep of the famous murals on the Ohio River flood wall in Portsmouth. In fact, Bennett’s likeness is on that wall.
Nearly 300 people show up every year for the dinner, including a plethora of baseball personalities like Don Gullett, Tom Browning, Al Oliver, Larry Hisle, Gene Tenace, Johnny Lemaster, umpire Greg Gipson, Ron Nischwitz and always a large contingent from the Reds front office.
They introduce all the celebrities and Bennett was always the last introduced and he received a standing ovation, every time. Nobody else did.
I was fortunate to have Bennett ask me to be the keynote speaker a few years ago. Afterward, Bennett said, “You should put away that pen and pad and become a speaker.” That was Gene Bennett. It could have been the worst speech ever given, and it might have been, but he would find something nice to say.
The last time I saw Gene was at a Reds game early this summer. He was in a wheel chair, but he was in his element and his face glowed. The folks with him called me aside and said, “He doesn’t have much time.” I went back to my press box seat and cried.
If there is a heaven, there is more entertaining baseball talk going on than ever before and it will be Gene Bennett holding court, wearing a Cincinnati Reds cap.