Jim Bunning, the Hall of Fame righthander who died Friday night of complications from an October 2016 stroke, didn’t mind breaking a few taboos. Whether during a perfect game, helping the hunt for the Major League Baseball Players Association’s first executive director, or driving even his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill nuts, the freckled Kentuckian feared no hitter, manager, owner, or fellow politician.
Twice Bunning was the American League’s strikeout champion as a Tiger. Once upon a time he was the team’s player representative and, all coming things considered, a prospective nuisance in their eyes. When the Tigers traded him to the Phillies after the 1963 season, the team didn’t mind speculation that it was because they thought Bunning—who held a bachelor’s degree in economics he earned from Xavier University during his minor league seasons—was beginning to age.
June 21, 1964 was Father’s Day. Mary Bunning and her oldest daughter, Barbara, decided to give father Jim a treat, driving to New York to watch him start the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets. “Of course, the 1964 World’s Fair was right across the street,” Dad cracked looking back, “and I really think they came up for that.”
By the seventh inning, the usually loyal Shea faithful turned against their hapless heroes and began rooting aloud for Bunning to finish what he started. He even helped his own cause in the top of the sixth, when he hammered a double to the back of center field to drive in the final two Phillies runs of the game.
Bunning flirted with a no-hitter earlier that season. Obeying all the unwritten rules governing conduct during, he lost the no-hitter. Now, he couldn’t have cared less about them. “He was chattering like a magpie,” remembered his catcher, Gus Triandos, joking between innings, counting the outs, calling Triandos to the mound at one point not to discuss working a certain hitter but to crack a joke neither would remember in the years to come.
“You don’t talk when you have a no-hitter, right? But Jim was going up and down the bench telling everybody what was going on and telling us to dive for the ball so nothing would fall in for a hit,” remembered Phillies center fielder Johnny Callison. “We just hoped like hell that nobody would hit the ball to us. The pressure was incredible. We tried to get away from him so we wouldn’t jinx the thing, but he kept following us around.”
“Sure, I started thinking about a no-hitter around the fifth inning,” Bunning himself would remember. “I knew I had a chance after Tony [Taylor, second baseman] made that play on [Jesse] Gonder [Mets catcher]. If you talk about it, you’re not as disappointed if you don’t get it.”
The play to which Bunning referred was Taylor’s fifth inning, diving stop of Gonder’s hard liner toward the hole at second. Taylor hit the ground and dropped the ball, but he grabbed it quickly and threw Gonder out from his knees.
Back at home the Bunning family babysitter had the other six Bunning children in front of the television to watch him work the ninth. (Bunning ultimately had nine children and thirty-five grandchildren.) Little did they know Dad—whose best pitch was a hard slider—turned to Triandos before they headed back to work and cracked, “I’d like to borrow Sandy Koufax’s hummer for the last inning.”
Bunning’s double knocked Mets starter Tracy Stallard out of the game. Stallard was no stranger to the wrong side of history. Three years earlier, pitching for the Red Sox, Stallard served what Roger Maris turned into his 61st home run of the season. Now, he was on the wrong side of the first regular season perfect game in 42 years, the first in the National League in the 20th Century, and the only one to be pitched on Father’s Day.
The game also made Bunning the first to throw a no-hitter of any kind in each league (he’d thrown a no-no against the Red Sox in 1958) and Triandos—who’d caught Hoyt Wilhelm’s no-hitter with the Orioles in 1959—the first catcher to catch one in each league.
The bad news: The Phillies were destined for a rendezvous with disaster down the 1964 stretch. They went from running away with the pennant to a collapse that seared team and city alike. The catalyst was a ten-game losing streak that began when Cincinnati rookie Chico Ruiz stole home, with Frank Robinson at the plate, taking advantage of Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey’s elegant but not swift windup.
From there, manager Gene Mauch decided he’d take no chances, pitching Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest each the rest of the way. Insanely, Mauch trusted almost no one in his bullpen, even his effective closer Jack Baldschun. He also dog-housed Mahaffey over the Ruiz steal, not letting him pitch for a full week, and—dropping no few jaws—had his most dangerous hitter, rookie Dick Allen, bunt several times, despite having lesser bats behind him to drive in key runs.
Mauch believed Mahaffey, Baldschun, and others were cracking under the pennant race pressure. Bunning believed otherwise. “Art should have been starting right along with Shorty and myself because he was sound and willing,” he said. “Art lost a 1-0 game in Cincinnati . . . That’s not cracking under pressure, it’s a fluke. Within the next week he also took us into the eighth inning against the Braves and pitched very well.”
It wouldn’t be his pitching but his Players Association work that finally got Bunning in the Phillies’ doghouse and out of town entirely. He’d forced Phillies owner Bob Carpenter to do away with a policy that made Phillies players pay to park at Connie Mack Stadium. And he was part of the union’s committee that searched for an executive director and—after Bunning couldn’t convince fellow committee members Robin Roberts, Bob Friend, and Harvey Kuenn to join him backing a lawyer who once handled a lawsuit for him—came up with Marvin Miller.
Bunning made clear it had nothing to do with Carpenter himself. “[He] came to me and said, ‘You don’t need Marvin Miller’,” Bunning remembered. “I said, ‘No, Bob, if you were the owner and I were the player representative we wouldn’t need Marvin Miller . . . If I had a dispute with you, I wouldn’t worry. We’d solve it. Not everybody has that kind of relationship, though.”
The Phillies traded Bunning to the Pirates despite his leading the National League in strikeouts in 1967, now that Koufax (who retired after 1966) was gone. But his best pitching was past. He had a dismal 1968 with the Pirates, who traded him to the Dodgers during 1969 despite a 10-9 record (he’d finish the season 13-10). The Dodgers released him; he had a final go-round with a mediocre Phillies team in 1970-71 before retiring.
He managed in the Phillies system before realising any hope given that he’d manage the parent club in due course was false. He also continued his offseason work as a stockbroker (the same offseason profession as an opponent who hit .273 off him lifetime: Joe Torre) and became a players’ agent, until his native Fort Thomas, Kentucky elected him to its City Council.
That’d teach him. He went from there to a failed gubernatorial campaign but a successful election to the U.S. House and, in due course, the U.S. Senate. The former righthander who knew how to talk straight in baseball, sometimes to his detriment, became a conservative Senator who stood athwart metastasising taxation but sometimes talked strange. (He once described a re-election opponent as resembling a son of Saddam Hussein.)
By the turn of the century his Republican colleagues wondered whether Bunning was a help or a hindrance. Never mind that, also in the new century, Bunning wondered much the same thing about them. (He once single-handedly delayed an unemployment extension bill, not to kill it but to try getting it financed out of an existing economic stimulus package; he also voted—wisely—against the 2008 auto industry bailout.) Politics turns lesser men into caricatures when they don’t enter that way.
Bunning—who championed his former Phillies teammate Dick Allen for the Hall of Fame, remembering Allen’s excellence despite the searing pressure of Philadelphia’s racial growing pains and some of the Phillies’ less tolerant players, which provoked Allen to acts he’d later admit were foolish—knew how pyrrhic politics really is.
The New York Times once asked Bunning whether he felt some Republican colleagues had betrayed him in the later years of his Senate life, when party support seemed to waver too widely for his taste. ”When you’ve dealt with Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Stan Musial,” he replied, “the people I’m dealing with are kind of down the scale.”
Even in his final decade, it’s refreshing to learn that, before his health finally betrayed him, Bunning could still throw a hard slider when need be.