“Talent sets the stage, character sets the ceiling.”
For Josh Newman, that saying was exactly what fellow Wheelersburg native and legendary baseball figure Gene Bennett told him as Newman began his foray into coaching.
Not surprisingly, Bennett’s advice, as with many of the pupils that Bennett mentored, turned into great success for Newman, who accepted a position as Penn State’s pitching coach in June after a meteoric rise that has seen Newman advance from a volunteer coach to a full-time assistant on a Power Five staff in a matter of seven years.
Unfortunately, Bennett won’t be around to share his stories for the next generation to grasp. The 89-year old, who contributed to the game of baseball for six decades in a variety of different areas, used his philanthropic efforts to help formulate a new baseball park and the Wheelersburg Challenger League, and, based on his personality, could’ve been easily mistaken for an individual who was 29, passed away on Wednesday from kidney failure.
Without any doubt, the loss leaves a gaping hole in the baseball community to Newman and fellow Wheelersburg native Ron Slusher.
But that’s to be expected — considering how much Bennett gave to the game of baseball, and more importantly, the generations of youths that he touched, and is still touching today, through it.
“It’s hard for me to talk about (Gene’s passing) just because of how much Gene’s done for me personally, not just the physical side of it,” Newman said. “Growing up in Wheelersburg, he was always willing to be present, whether it be on the phone or whether it was during my own recruiting process. He was a guy that I really leaned on. It’s just somebody that was always willing to help. It didn’t matter where it was or what he was doing, he was just simply a person that I wanted to be like.”
“I called Gene right out of the blue,” Slusher said, his voice beginning to crack. “Whether it was a holiday or the middle of the week, I’d call him anytime of the day or night just to hear his voice just because he was one of those guys. Now that he’s gone, it’s going to be rough sometimes. When I’m in that mood to shoot the bull with him, he’s not going to be there. That will be greatly missed. I called his cellphone just to hear his voice, because he’s got the same answering that he’s had for years. It’d say, ‘Geeennnneeee Bennett! Play ball!’”
As is the case for a individual who wore his passion on his sleeve, Bennett’s accomplishments are stranger to very few.
After a solid minor league career that lasted from 1953 to 1957 — one where Bennett collected a lifetime batting average of .284 with 95 doubles, 46 triples, and 25 home runs in 2,024 at-bats, injury forced the 5-11 second baseman to find another career within the game — scouting.
That field, however, turned out to be where Bennett truly excelled.
From the time that the Wheelersburg native began scouting at the end of the 1957 season, Bennett built a reputation as one of the finest scouts in the game, all while establishing the Cincinnati Reds franchise as a mainstay at or near the top of the National League standings from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Two of the players that Bennett scouted, South Shore native Don Gullett and Barry Larkin, were drafted by the Reds at Bennett’s behest and ultimately became the best players at their respective positions during the peak of their Major League careers at pitcher and shortstop, respectively. Larkin was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012 after collecting a batting average of .295 and collecting 2,340 hits, all with the Reds, while Gullett, who went 109-50 with a lifetime average of 3.11 during his major league career, would have likely had the same fate had rotator cuff injuries not cut his career short. The duo proved to be central figures in four of the Reds’ six World Series titles.
Bennett’s success with the duo, along with the results seen from fellow scouting prospects Paul O’Neill, Chris Sabo, and others allowed the Wheelersburg native to obtain a promotion as the special assistant to Reds’ general manager Jim Bowden in 1992, a position that he held until his retirement from baseball.
“The legacy that Gene will leave behind will be hard to match,” Newman said of Bennett’s accomplishments. “I’m just going to strive to be like him in everything that I do.”
But as much as Bennett accomplished as a part of the Reds’ organization, the 89-year old did just as much to ensure that Scioto County natives could experience the game in the same manner that he had.
That was evident not just in the twilight of Bennett’s career, but in the middle of his prime — when Bennett, right in the middle of the summer, and in the middle of scouting season — came back to Wheelersburg to coach the Wheelersburg Senior League team in 1968, a unit that Slusher considers himself extremely lucky to have been on.
“For Gene to come back to his hometown, right smack-dab in the middle of the season scouting for the Reds, and come and coach us, you just don’t see that stuff now-days,” Slusher said. “He taught us the fundamentals of the game, he taught us to respect the game, to never disrespect anybody, to show appreciation, and to never cheat the game.”
All of those qualities that Bennett taught Slusher have, unsurprisingly, worked out quite well for the latter. Slusher was able to take the knowledge that Bennett shared with him and put it to great use, as Slusher formed the Ohio Warhawks, a high school travel ball program, in 1990. That same baseball program has gone on to produce major league talents such as Kris Bryant, Joey Gallo, Roy Halladay, Aaron Hill, Noah Syndergaard, Brandon Phillips, Mike Napoli, Brian Roberts, Drew Storen, AJ Pierzynski, and Freddie Freeman among many others over a 27-year period.
“I only played under him for one year, but it was a huge impact on my life,” Slusher said. “He did this for a whole bunch of kids. He was a very positive man and was one of those guys who could galvanize people.”
Two decades later, their paths crossed again in baseball when the former teenager was brought on by Bennett as a scout for the Reds in 1991. Slusher continued to work for the Reds until Bennett retired in 2011, at which point Slusher decided to do the same.
And even during his latter years, Slusher said that Bennett’s baseball mind was still as sharp as it had ever been.
“I would call Gene up during the middle of our (travel ball) season,” Slusher said. “He would tell me about players here and players there. He’d go, ‘Hey Slush! You ever heard of this kid?’ I’d say, ‘No, who is he?’ He’d say, ‘Well, let me tell you something about him, by God …’ I’d listen to everything he’d tell me, and as soon as I hung up the phone, I’d go check on that kid, and 10 out of 10 times, the kid was a stud.”
As both neared the end of their careers with the Reds, both individuals devoted more time to growing the game for the next generation. Bennett helped formulate the District 11 Challenger League in 2006, and in 2010, along with Slusher, local businessman Jeff Brown, and former Shawnee State University head coach Ted Tom, started the Gene Bennett Baseball Classic, which has been held each June since 2010. Behind their work, the GBBC grew from eight teams in 2010 to a record 21 travel ball organizations in 2015, including Slusher’s Warhawks, the Midland Redskins, the Kalamazoo Maroons, and the Huntington Hounds among many others.
“The Gene Bennett Baseball Classic has been one of the highlights of my life,” Slusher said. “It’s been a joy every year for us because of the things that Gene did.”
Despite all of the successful accomplishments that Gene Bennett obtained, he ultimately never forgot his roots. In fact, as per tradition of the Gene Bennett Baseball Classic, Bennett would not only shake the hand of every player, but spend 15 minutes with each team to talk to the members of said teams about his own experiences going up through the major league ranks and give each of them advice on how to approach the game of baseball.
“(Gene) never missed a chance to talk to a kid and try to educate them on things,” Slusher said. “He just talked to them and asked them how their everyday lives were going. These kids looked up to Gene, Al Oliver, and those guys.”
“I believed everything that Gene Bennett told me,” Slusher continued. “He was just one of those kind of guys. He was a legend to me, and like a second father. He was the one who steered me into the right direction with baseball, and I’ve been with baseball my whole life. If it wasn’t for Gene Bennett, the Ohio Warhawks wouldn’t even exist because of the influence that he had on me as such a young kid. My coaching philosophies are based on how Gene coached me.”
For many individuals in this world, the talent is there to execute and obtain accomplishments that are rarely seen. And talent was something Gene Bennett certainly had a lot of.
However, as Newman and Slusher will tell you, it was Bennett’s character that made the lifelong Scioto County native one of the greatest major league baseball scouts of all time — and a winner in life that will be rarely forgotten.
“I looked up to him so much,” Newman said. “Seeing a guy with such prestige, class, and a guy that was always willing to help somebody was tremendous. It’s just not common. I am so blessed and thankful to have met him. The way that he went about his life and his daily work on this planet is the way that it should be. That’s what I want to be like, both as a person and as a professional.”
“There’s a few of us in Southern Ohio who believe that, when the first ray of sunshine peaked through, it lit on his house, and when the sun set, it set on his house,” Slusher said. “He’s a great man, a great, great, great man. He’s going to be greatly missed by me, I can tell you that.”