When a loved one is lost, the void can be one that is hard to replace, regardless of the situation.
But when the hundreds of people that attended the 14th Annual Portsmouth Murals Banquet started to listen to the stories that were told about famed Reds scout Gene Bennett, and the kind words that were said about him, the banquet developed a mystical feeling of sorts — one that encapsulated every bit of Gene’s spirit and kindness even though his physical presence may not have been with the hundreds of folks in attendance on Wednesday evening.
And that, by itself, arguably made this year’s version of the Portsmouth Murals Banquet the best to date.
However, Gene Bennett’s closest confidants — among them Hall of Fame sportswriter Hal McCoy and retired major league umpire Terry Craft among them — weren’t going to have it any other way.
“Gene didn’t like to talk about himself,” McCoy said. “I’d bring up all the accomplishments that he had put together, and he didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about the current teams or some other things about baseball other than himself. There wasn’t an ego bone in his body, but he deserved to be talked about because he was the best.”
“I thought it was well done,” Craft said. “The crowd was terrific. When I pulled in the parking lot here a little before 6 p.m., I go, ‘Holy cow! This is a bigger crowd than we’ve had in the past.’ It was truly well done. The people came out and really supported the murals banquet. It’s easy to support Gene and his family, because he did much more for the sport and the community than he did for himself. I was glad to be a part of it.”
McCoy, who referred to Gene as “the scout of all scouts” — an appropriate phrase considering that Bennett personally scouted and signed Don Gullett, Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, and Paul O’Neill to the Reds organization, among others — was more than just a fellow sports aficionado.
In fact, McCoy’s first memory of Gene was when Bennett — who worked 11 NCAA Tournaments in his 21 years as a top-of-the-line basketball referee in addition to his scouting exploits that ultimately garnered OHSAA Hall of Fame, Major League Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, Wheelersburg High School Athletic Hall of Fame, and Legends in Scouting Award billing — made a call that wasn’t well-received with the home fans inside the University of Dayton’s Thomas J. Frericks Center. Bennett admired McCoy’s fairness, befriended him, and the pair began a friendship that would span five decades — the rest of Gene’s life.
“I actually met Gene back in the early 60s, when he was refereeing college basketball games,” McCoy said. “I was covering a basketball game at the University of Dayton, and he made a controversial call. He liked what I wrote about it, and he called me. That’s how I first got to know him. Then, he makes his ascension with the Reds. Through that time, I got to know an unbelievable man. It’s so sad that he’s gone.”
As part of that friendship — and as mentioned several times during the Portsmouth Murals Banquet — Gene would always introduce himself with the phrase, ‘Gene Bennett here!’ before proceeding to talk about friends, family, additional sports, and the game that he ultimately was such a successful part of growing — baseball.
“He used to call me and say, ‘Hal, Gene Bennett here!’” McCoy said. “The next hour, we’d take baseball, and it went so fast. I’d think, it’s only 10 or 15 minutes, and I’d hang up and realize that it’s been a full hour just talking baseball.”
Baseball, however, was just part of their bond. McCoy, as a matter of fact, admired Gene’s never-meet-a-stranger, upbeat attitude that made Bennett so easy to talk to about, well, pretty much anything.
“Absolutely not,” McCoy said. “I consider him a friend, and a close friend at that. It had nothing to do with baseball. Although I met him through basketball and baseball, he just became a friend that you really wanted to talk to. Anytime I wanted to talk, or he wanted to talk, I’d pick up the phone, and he was available. He could talk about anything you wanted to. We had some great conversations.”
As a baseball umpire for 20 full seasons from 1987 to 2006, McKell High School graduate Terry Craft had those same kind of conversations with Gene.
“Gene played the game, coached the game, scouted the game, and was an official,” Craft said. “Even though it was in another sport, officials are officials. He said, ‘Terry, this is a tough racket. You have to work very hard, and it’s very competitive. Two percent of the guys in the minor leagues, as umpires, go to the big leagues, so you’re chasing a dream that you likely won’t fulfill, based on the numbers.”
When Craft doubted if he’d ever make the big leagues as an umpire, it was Bennett who reassured Craft that he’d get there in due time with the proper amount of focus and work.
“Gene would instill confidence in me,” Craft said. “He’d say, ‘Hey, why can’t it be you? Why shouldn’t it be you?’”
That reassurance, along with a little gift from Bennett via an insurance agency, provided the spark that Craft needed. In fact, Craft, who got a calendar that had Riverfront Stadium on it, tore all the pages away expect for the picture of the very paced that housed the Reds from 1970 to 2002 — and put it on the refrigerator that he had when he lived in Portsmouth.
“I told myself, ‘That’s my goal,’” Craft said. “One day, I’m going to work in the big leagues at Riverfront Stadium.”
And so he did. After finishing his active duty tour with the Army, Craft — who started umpiring baseball games while in service — began pursuing it as a career. Seven years after starting it in 1979 — and after making it up to the AAA ranks from Class A — Craft began to umpire major league games along with minor league affairs in 1987 before getting the full-time call-up in 1993 according to The Prescott Courier.
“When the time came for me to go to the big leagues, I got assigned to the American League,” Craft said. “However, that was better than okay, because I got to be in the big leagues.”
When the American and National Leagues started sharing umpires in 2000, however, Craft — like a made-for-Hollywood movie script — got to umpire a game at Riverfront, on Opening Day no less. However, the 63-year old knows that it is an experience that he’d never have without the support of Bennett, who was there from the outset of his career.
“That’s a tough road (to get to the major leagues),” Craft said. “Having somebody with Gene’s knowledge and being in the game as long as he was on the other side definitely didn’t hurt my career. He was very instrumental in keeping my name out there in the forefront, so I know that he gave me a lot of push along the way with people that he knew. I’ll be indebted to him forever.”
For such a legendary baseball mind, however, Bennett never expected a repayment of the duties that he brought to the table. In fact, Bennett, in his mind, did the work that he believed God called him to do and simply treated people in the manner that he believed God would want him to treat them.
“He taught me the importance of not having an ego whatsoever, and to treat everybody the way that you would like to be treated,” McCoy said. “Don’t act like somebody’s a stranger. That’s what he always did.”
Regardless of where he was throughout the United States during his years in the sports realm, Gene Bennett stood tall, instructed fellow greats, and made lasting impacts that have been and will be felt for many years to come.
“He always was proud of where he was from,” McCoy said. “He always made sure that you knew that. Just being around him all of the time is something that I’ll never forget. He taught me so much about being humble and how to be a nice, down-to-earth person. If you didn’t know him or just met him, you’d say, ‘Hey, this is a nice guy,’ without knowing that he was an icon in the business.”
“Hopefully, I can pass that on,” Craft said. “Hopefully, I’ll do what he did with me and pass that on to a young guy who wants to be a Major League umpire someday.”
And that’s because Gene, as pinch-hitting guest speaker Greg Gibson said eloquently in the final sentence of his speech, never took no as an answer.
“The saying is, ‘There must be something in the water,’” Gibson said when referring to the success that the Tri-State Area has had in baseball during his keynote speech. “Well, I’d like to think if that was the case, Gene Bennett was the guy standing with the pump, priming the well. Without him, I don’t know where a lot of us would be today.”