I knew him personally for a very short time, but in that decade Reds scout Gene Bennett taught me a lot I didn’t know about people…and a little bit about baseball.
I received some sad, sad news on Wednesday night.
First from friends along the Ohio River, Portsmouth and Wheelersburg, via text and email – and then from Hal McCoy. Former Reds scout and Wheelersburg’s baseball icon, Gene Bennett had passed away at the age of 89.
If you’re a Reds fan, and you’re not familiar with the name Gene Bennett, well, uh, er…you’re really not a Reds fan at all. For it was Bennett, you see, who for nearly 60 years found and signed such talents as Don Gullett, Barry Larkin, Chris Sabe, Paul O’Neill and Charlie Leibrandt, principal figures in the club’s World Series triumphs in ’75, ’76, and 1990.
And for years, though few actually realized back then, Bennett was a very good college basketball official, working games across the Midwest in the Metro Conference, the Southern Conference, the Missouri Valley Conference, and The Big Ten. He was a colorful, personable guy, who loved the games, did not detract from them with his own personality and ego, and was never afraid to admit that he’d made a mistake. He was genuinely liked and respected by coaches everywhere.
But it was in scouting that Bennett made the biggest, and most profound, impression. He was justly proud of his finding those afore-mentioned gems that the Reds did sign. But it was the one they didn’t draft and sign that plagued him – made him shake his head – no doubt until he took his final breath.
In 1992 the Reds were to have the fifth overall pick in the draft, and chose to ignore Bennett’s expertise and advice on a player that he labeled, “a can’t miss super star.” Instead, they took Chad Mottola, an outfielder who ultimately played 35 games for the Reds in 1996 and hit .215.
The player they didn’t take…was Derek Jeter.
“When I heard the choice I said, “Holy cow,” said Bennett a couple of years ago. “I was sick to my stomach.”
Despite his significance, Bennett was never one to take himself for granted, or dwell on his celebrity in tiny Wheelersburg. He saw baseball for what it was, a wonderful pastime for kids, and people, of all ages. In later years he devoted his name and resources to ensure his community had a Little League facility it could be proud of…and one that will forever bear his name.
I saw him often at the state tournaments, when coach Mike Estep’s hometown Pirates played and won titles in 2012 and ’13. He always made it a point of saying, “This is nice, but if you want to really enjoy a high school baseball game …come on down to Wheelersburg.” And we did.
He lost his beloved spouse, Loretta, a few years ago, and while he kept his chin up and his focus forward on his community and its baseball legacy, he would admit privately that her loss was one that he would never overcome. “It’s like batting with two strikes against you, every day,” he told me last year when I visited with him at the annual Portsmouth Murals banquet. “I keep on going but I don’t know how. I just got hit by a car, and I’m STILL here.”
He would call me on the phone, out of the blue. “Hey, you talked to Hal McCoy lately?” he’d often ask. Hal was one of his closest baseball friends.
Or, “I’m sending you a copy of the book I wrote. Read it and tell me what you think of it.”
Or once, “You guys (Hal and me) gotta’ come down here one day this summer and we’ll get together with Gully (Gullett) and Al (Al Oliver) and eat some dinner and talk baseball. I promise you, now, it’ll be a good time and we need to do it while we’re all still here.”
We never got that done, perhaps my fault for being too busy to remember that something as good – someone as kind – as Gene Bennett is not to be taken for granted, forever! For I can truthfully say at this point in my life that he’s one of the people in professional baseball that I knew…that was worthy of one’s trust and like.
He slipped away Wednesday in Portsmouth, due to kidney failure. I’m sorry for that because he was a wonderful guy – one of the last truly ‘good’ ones.
Well, it didn’t take him a lifetime to become a good friend – only about ten years. How many others can you say THAT about?