THE WINDUP WAS SMOOTH, THE DELIVERY homespun and the pitch nearly perfect. Last Aug. 5, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench was warming a chair next to Barry Lawrence and Mel Arthur, two of the Home Shopping Network’s hyperbolic hosts. The banter quickly turned from baseball—in which Bench had spent 17 brilliant years as a Cincinnati Red before retiring in 1983—to baseballs: the ones with Bench’s autograph on them. As Bench, 45, looked on, Lawrence began by touting HSN’s “sensational” price of $129. Moments later, Bench himself made a lowball offer—$59.95—only to be undercut by Arthur’s “absolutely unbelievable” $49.95.
“Unbelievable” is right, says Richard Schrader. As New York City’s acting commissioner of consumer affairs, Schrader, 41, has charged Bench and HSN with misleading viewers into thinking they could obtain his baseballs for far less than their market value. In fact, says Schrader, HSN shoppers who called in may have overpaid by as much as 40 percent. (Tuff Stuff, a leading sports-collectible price guide, lists the Johnny Bench baseball for an unamazing $35, and some dealers sell it for $5 to $10 less.)
After being asked to settle the charges last week in New York City, where he faced a possible $5,000 fine, Bench, a CBS Radio sportscaster who lives in Cincinnati with his second wife, Laura, and their son, Bobby, 3, issued a statement: “If in any way I confused or misled anyone, it was not intentional, and I am deeply sorry.” Said a spokesperson for HSN (which could be socked with a fine for at least $17,500 for deceptive advertising): “We really don’t believe we’re in violation of any regulations.” Schrader, meanwhile, believes that Bench “was completely unwitting. I can’t imagine that he knows the law or consulted an attorney before he went on the air.” Which is why, said Schrader, “Bench should have stuck with catching balls and stayed out of pitching products.”