Johnny Bench’s Friend Buys Over $1M Worth of Bench Memorabilia, Donates it Back to Him
Hunt Auctions. Pictured: Johnny Bench’s 1975 World Series ring, which Horwitz bought for $115,000.
In 1967, the Cincinnati Reds sent their young catcher Johnny Bench to the Winter League in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to fine tune his skills. It was there, at a show featuring a hypnotist, that Alan Horwitz, a 23-year-old kid just making his name in Philadelphia real estate, met Bench. The two chatted and Bench gave him tickets to the upcoming San Juan Senators game.
What followed was a lifelong friendship.
Horwitz closely followed the catcher's rise from Rookie of the Year to two-time MVP to two-time World Champion, attending spring training for 16 straight seasons to visit with the now Hall of Famer.
When the Reds came to Philadelphia, Horwitz had lunch or dinner set up at Bookbinder's, the famous seafood and steak establishment and Bench had tickets to the game. Horwitz always livening up the party, whether it was singing the "Bristol Stomp" with the Dovells or making sure that he had his Rolls Royce ready for Bench when he wanted to impress the ladies.
Horwitz is first a basketball fan. He's had tickets to the 76ers for decades and he's the "sixth fan," the team's most famous supporter, who is visible in his courtside seats for every contest and was famously kicked out of a playoff game for coming into contact with Rajon Rondo.
But his relationship with Bench was special and, having turned his on-and-off college campus real estate business into an empire, he paid Bench back last month with a tremendous tribute: Buying Bench's precious baseball awards in an auction expressly for the purpose of returning it to him. The auction raised $2 million in total.
Bench said in his entire career he earned $2.2 million, including $11,000 for his rookie year in 1968.
Bench, now 73, kept pretty much everything from his career, including his gold gloves and his World Series rings and trophies. Not wanting his family to squabble over the assets when he was gone, Bench decided to auction what he had collected at Hunt Auctions on Nov. 14 to help pay for college for the boys he has become father to, Justin, 14, and Josh, 11.
"These trophies don't own me," Bench reasoned.
When the auction began, some of the prices paid seemed a bit high. Someone paid $80,000 for Johnny Bench's last home run bat, more than double the estimate and $90,000 for his last Reds jersey, nearly five times what it figured to go for.
There was the $32,500 winning bid for his Rookie of the Year Gold Glove and a $55,000 winning bid for the same trophy he won in 1975, when the Reds won their first of two consecutive titles. His championship rings from the two titles went for $115,000 and $125,000, respectively.
Little did Bench know that the person bidding on these items was Alan Horwitz, who had set up with the auction house to do whatever it took to buy the items back so that Johnny could have them again.
"In my 30 years of being in this business, I've never seen something like this," said Hunt Auctions owner David Hunt.
Before the auction, Hunt went to dinner with Bench. He had him say which items he would love to keep forever, not hinting of the plan. Horwitz proceeded to buy every single one of them, totaling well over $1 million in items.
"There was no way I was going to let Johnny sell these to collectors," Horwitz said. "Seeing how hard he worked to be recognized the way he was after all these years. Only he deserves them."
When Bench found out, he cried.
"I'm proud of what I've done," Bench said. "When I was 18 years old, in the Canadian League, I had a fear of failure that fueled me. I wanted the people back home, who counted on me, to be proud when they would read the newspaper and find out what Johnny Bench did."
Bench knows what he's going to do with what Horwitz gave back to him. He's going to donate it to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Reds Hall of Fame and lastly, the Hall of Fame in Oklahoma, where as a second grader he told his teacher he was going to be a Major Leaguer.
"When I called up the guys in Oklahoma, they told me that the first thing people ask for is the Johnny Bench exhibit. This adds to all of that."
The bat and the jersey from his last game that went for so much money?
It was Johnny Bench Night on Sept. 17, 1983, as Bench, saying he was not "Johnny Bench" anymore, was ready to play for the final time with two years still left on his contract. But the man who hit more home runs than any catcher in the game at that point, managed to hit one more home run.
Said Horwitz: "When you have friends like Johnny, this is just what you do."