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Friday, May 8, 2009

Philip's Friend, Johnny Bench

Johnny Bench and Bob Hope in Vietnam. I remember many years ago reading the autobiography of Hall of Fame Reds Catcher Johnny Bench. The name of the book is Catch You Later, and, of course, it is filled with details of Bench's life and great baseball career. And what a career it was! "The Little General," as he was affectionately known, is widely regarded as one of the best catchers in the history of baseball. But, one thing in the book made the read most memorable for me. The book detailed the story of Bench meeting and befriending a four year-old boy named Philip Buckingham, who suffered from leukemia. At 25, Bench first met the boy thanks to a Sue Lily who had set up a department store product promotion in Dayton, Ohio. Bench, himself, had just had a lung lesion removed that he feared may have been malignant and had let few people know of his operation. Although the tumor turned out to be benign, the experience made him nervous to be around sick people, and he had heard all he wanted about the terrible disease of cancer. He was a budding superstar on the rise. Bench describes the pitiful sight he witnessed the first time he met Philip in that Dayton department store. "He was the sad-looking kid...Philip's complexion was as white as flour. Skinnier than a stray dog, he seemed to have no hair," Bench remembers. Bench, urged by Sue to sign an autograph for the boy, told Philip, with an enthusiasm he did not feel,"Come on here, pardner." Thrilled, Philip ran quickly to Johnny, jumped into his lap, and put his arms around Bench's neck. Johnny began to pull back but caught himself. After Philip left, Bench felt relieved to get him out of his sight. But, Philip's hug and brave grin haunted Johnny. He inquired more about Philip, and Sue told him the family was extremely poor, with no car and astronomical medical expenses that put them in danger of losing their home. Still, Bench was afraid to get involved until Christmas presented an opportunity for Johnny to take a step forward. Johnny talked to Sue Lily around Christmas that year and asked her about "that poor kid" with cancer. Sue told him the family, thanks to a local newspaper, had received some much needed money. Then, unexpectedly, Sue invited Johnny to visit the Buckinghams with a few others the day before Christmas. Trying to beg off the visit by telling Sue he had planned another trip, Johnny finally and reluctantly gave into her request. On the afternoon of December 24, Bench joined Sue and some others for a visit to the Buckingham's modest frame home. Upon spotting Johnny, Philip ran to him yelling, "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny!" as he jumped onto Bench's back. Presents were shared. The group had even secured a used car for the family and a check to keep them from being evicted. Some happy holiday time passed. But, then, as Philip pulled Bench to the floor to help him build a fort out of blocks, Philip looked up at him and asked him point blank, "Did you really want to come, Johnny?" Bench knew immediately something significant had happened to him, but he wasn't sure what it had been. This pointed question began a friendship with the brave child that continued throughout the season as Bench called him repeatedly, took him to games at Riverfront Stadium, and much more. Never big on prayer before, Johnny found himself praying for Philip in airplanes, during batting practice, in the shower... everywhere. Philip was fighting for his young life. Bench visited the Buckinghams again the next Christmas, giving Philip a little china Cincinnati Reds doll emblazoned with Bench's #5. Several weeks later, clutching the doll with all his might, Philip entered the hospital for the last time and died. His parents buried Philip with his prized keepsake. I should let Johnny Bench's words speak for themselves about this tremendously significant part of his life: "Philip showed me something important. That we should be open to everyone we meet, no matter who they are. Because I was open to Philip, his love flowed through me, making me vulnerable and more caring, and breaking down my fear of letting my feelings come out. Thank God for that little boy. Philip truly opened my eyes as well as my heart, and I will always be grateful." (Catch You Later, Johnny Bench with William Brashler, Harper, 1979) My mother and I took my three year-old twins to Johnny Bench Night, his last home appearance at Riverfront Stadium on September 17, 1983. The stadium was sold out, and our tickets were in the last row, red seats behind home plate far above the field. The retirement ceremonies were spectacular and worth the world to a rabid Reds fan. We were so happy just to attend the event. During his second at bat that night, Johnny hit a line deep line drive to left field. An eerie silence fell upon the 60,000+ crowd as the ball sailed through the air and cleared the outfield fence. Then, the loudest roar I have ever heard thundered during the five minutes of standing ovation as Bench rounded the bases and took numerous curtain calls. Johnny had hit his 389th and final home run. I was in shock, caught in a fantastic moment of incredible reality. As I clapped until my hands turned blue, tears streamed down my face for Johnny Bench and his unbelievable career. But mixed with those happy tears of admiration were joy drops for a child as I imagined Philip Buckingham holding a porcelain doll and yelling, "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny!" from his luxury box in heaven.
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