Red letter career

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 14, 2006

CINCINNATI — Nearly 60 years ago, Gene Bennett went out to the ball game and he never came back.

Bennett, who still lives in Wheelersburg, is the senior special assistant to the general manager and advance scout.

He began his career in 1952 as a player with the Reds organization, but shifted gears in 1958 when he took a scouting job. He was promoted to scouting supervisor in 1975 when the Reds won the first of back-to-back World Series during the Big Red Machine era.

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“Back then, things were a little different than it is today,” Bennett said. “Back then there were 16 teams and lots of guys in the farm system.”

During his illustrious career, Bennett won the TOPPS All-Star Scout Award in 1988. In 1996, he was elected to the Middle Atlantic Major League Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame.

In 1990, the Reds hired a 30-year-old general manager in Jim Bowden and made the veteran Bennett his assistant.

Bennett was responsible for signing many of the players on the 1970s teams including left-handed ace pitcher Don Gullett of South Shore, Ky.

Others players included Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, Paul O’Neill, Jeff Russell and Charlie Leibrandt.

“Scouting is a good job. I liked it. I was fortunate to sign a lot of good players that made it to the big leagues and were stars,” Bennett said modestly. “The only scouting I do now is advance scouting. I see the team the Reds are going to play next.”

The advance scouting is also valuable in the trading process. Bennett will look at opposing players and file a report with the general manager.

“We have three or four guys who cover all of the major leagues and others who cover the minor leagues. Once we get in on a deal, most of those players I’ve already seen, so I can talk about them right off the top of my head.

“We all read the reports and talk to the other scouts and then we have to determine if we want to move a player or if you don’t want to move a player.”

But signing players through a strong scouting program has been challenged by the large market franchises. Teams like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox have the money to buy proven players and not worry if their scouting department makes a mistake.

The free agent system took hold in the late 1970s when the Reds were in the Big Red Machine era. After the 1976 championship, general manager Bob Howsam met with front office officials and scouting chiefs to discuss the new system. Being a small market, Cincinnati didn’t have the same amount of money to match owners like George Steinbrenner.

“I remember in a meeting with Mr. Howsam and we were discussing how we were going to attack this thing of possibly losing players,” Bennett said. “Our goal was to sign and develop players faster than they would become free agents.

“Let’s say you had a Barry Larkin. He’s your big league shortstop. You’ve got six years to get you another one and have him ready to play. If Barry goes, you just move this kid in and keep on going.”

Bennett has worked for his share of general managers and owners during his tenure with the Reds. One of the most notable owners was controversial Marge Schott who was considered a miser.

One report said Schott did not have a lot of respect for the organization’s scouting department. Bennett said it was all a misunderstanding.

“We were at a dinner and someone joked to Marge about a raise. She said, ‘What? All you do is watch games.’ Everybody laughed and it was a big joke,” Bennett said.

“But a sports writer overheard the story and it was in the headlines the next day. (Schott) liked anybody who worked hard. The two things you had to do for Mrs. Schott was to tell the truth and work hard.”

As for current owner Bob Castellini, Bennett needed only a few words to offer some high praise.

“He’s the most knowledgeable owner I’ve ever worked for,” Bennett said.

According to Bennett, the Reds are an outstanding organization and there is great loyalty and trust between him and the front office. He said doesn’t have any plans of slowing down, but when the time comes to quit, he’d know it.

“I’ve always told the Reds that the day I can’t do the job and keep up with the other guys, we’ll just tear up the contract and take it to the house. They don’t owe me anything and I don’t owe them,” Bennett said.