A few years ago, I shared a lunch with Gene Bennett, the Cincinnati Reds amazing scout of 58 years, at the invitation of major league umpire Greg Gibson.
Bennett held court with us by telling baseball stories, basketball officiating stories and many more. Gene was 86 but could recount people, places and dates like few others.
He was part of the Cincinnati Reds family for almost 60 years, from when he was signed as a player in 1952. He moved into scouting in 1958 and was promoted to scouting supervisor in 1975. His notable signings include Reds Hall of Famers Don Gullett, Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo along with Jeff Russell, Charlie Leibrandt and Paul O’Neill.
Bennett, who lived in Wheelersburg, was a treasure for the entire area for years. He died on Wednesday at the age of 89 in Portsmouth. His wife Loretta preceded him in death.
If baseball was the subject — and it almost always was if Gene Bennett was in the room — then the clock was turned back.
Bennett’s life was certainly an amazing one. He met two presidents — President Jimmy Carter and President George W. Bush — and was known throughout the baseball world for his scouting prowess.
He met President Carter in Atlanta while chatting it up with Bobby Cox and met President Bush in the Astrodome.
He also had a secondmeeting with President Bush when he came through Portsmouth on a campaign swing.
Bennett recounted that story during that lunch a few years ago, telling us it was when the Portsmouth Mural project had just started. Al Oliver’s portrait was going up but not quite finished. The socks he was wearing were still white.
President Bush took notice that it was indeed, Oliver, who had also played for the Texas Rangers when Bush was a minority owner there. He also noticed the uncompleted socks.
“He pointed that out right away,” Bennett said. “But he knew who Al Oliver was.”
He met President Carter and to his amazement the president actually remembered his name on a later trip to Atlanta when they met again.
“What a memory!” Bennett said.
Of course, he probably remembered Bennett because he has that kind of effect on people.
He was a warm person from top to bottom.
I didn’t know Bennett’s college basketball officiating background but it included stints with the Ohio Valley Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and Mid-American Conference. He called games until 1991.
His first game was between Morehead State and Western Kentucky University in Laughlin Gymnasium.
Bennett said he never called a game involving the University of Kentucky or Ohio State, so he never dealt with the wrath of Adolph Rupp.
Baseball has always been Gene Bennett’s calling card.
In January 2009 he received the Legends In Scouting Award from the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation and at the December 2009 Winter Meetings he received the Midwest Scout of the Year Award.
More recently, Bennett penned a book My 58 years with the Cincinnati Reds and donated the proceeds to the Wheelersburg Little League baseball program.
He was also in the inaugural class of the CP-1 Ashland Baseball Hall of Fame three years ago. Bennett spent more than a few days watching baseball in Central Park.
His funeral arrangements are incomplete.