May 28th, 2017

Billy Reed remembers Jim Bunning

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor 


Billy Reed remembers Jim Bunning
Jim Bunning passed away Saturday morning / photo from mlb.com

Whether you remember Jim Bunning mainly as a major-league pitcher or a staunchly conservative politician, you’ll have to agree that he always came with his best stuff. He was as subtle as a fastball to the head. He challenged political rivals as fiercely as he challenged hitters who tried to dig in on him at the plate.

When I heard that he had died at 88, the first image that popped into mind was of Bunning in the uniform of the Philadelphia Phillies, literally falling off the mound as he released a fastball. That’s how hard he threw. When he retired after the 1971 season, only Walter “Big Train” Johnson had more career strikeouts than Bunning’s 2,855.

He threw a no-hitter in each of the big leagues, one of the few pitchers ever to accomplish that feat, and the one he fired against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 21, 1964, was particularly noteworthy because it was the first perfect game in the National League since 1884.

In retiring 27 consecutive batters, Bunning struck out 10 and needed only 90 pitches, an amazing 79 of them strikes. It didn’t matter that his victims were the hapless New York Mets. The odds against throwing a perfect game are roughly the same as those of Harvard beating Alabama in college football.

That game showed that it is possible to improve on perfection because it came on Father’s Day. At the time, Jim and his wife Mary Catherine were the good Catholic parents of seven children (two more came later). Afterward, even the normally taciturn Bunning seemed to be a bit overcome by the timing of it all.

That was the season in which Bunning had his best chance to pitch in a World Series. With 12 games remaining, the Phillies had a 6 ½-game lead in the National League. However, the team lost 10 in a row to virtually hand the pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals.

One reason for what’s still known in Philadelphia as “The Great Collapse” was that Manager Gene Mauch lost confidence in all his pitchers except Bunning and left-hander Chris Short. He terribly overworked both down the stretch. Instead of begging off, however, Bunning always took the ball and gave his best, whatever it might be on a particular night.

Bunning actually got into politics while he still was in the big leagues. He became known as a “clubhouse lawyer” because he staunchly supported a union, a decidedly un-Republican position to take, and helped replace the “reserve clause,” which bound a player to a team for life, in favor of free agency.

The owners declared him to be a “trouble-maker” and their flunkies in the press dutifully carried that message to the public. But that only made Bunning throw harder, so to speak, and he paid a price when he became eligible for the Hall of Fame upon his retirement in 1971.

The inductees are selected by the Baseball Writers of America, and they justified not voting for Bunning because he had only one 20-win season, never pitched in a World Series, and won 224 games, well short of the magic 300 number. They conveniently ignored, of course, that unlike a Don Drysdale or Bob Gibson, he rarely had the opportunity of pitching for a competitive team.

After 25 years of getting shut out, Bunning was elected by the Old-Timers Committee in 1996, the first year he was eligible for consideration by that panel of former players. His old rivals knew how tough he was.

Upon his retirement in 1971, Bunning continued to work for the Cincinnati brokerage firm that had employed him in the off-season since 1960. He also managed the Phillies’ Class AAA team in Oklahoma City before being replaced after the ’76 season.

In early 1977, some political leaders from Fort Thomas asked him to run for a seat on the city council, which he won. Then some state GOP leaders talked him into running against incumbent Donald Johnson for a Campbell County seat in the state Senate. In what was considered a major upset, Bunning won again – and he gave a big assist to an old Tigers fan named Gerald Ford.

“I got to know him when I was with the Tigers and he was a Congressman from Grand Rapids,” Bunning said. “I wrote and asked him if he would make an appearance for me and he said he would anytime I wanted. He came in on October 24, about two weeks before the election. I think that had a definite effect on the outcome.”

Bunning kept winning until 1983, when he was the Republican nominee for Governor and lost to Martha Layne Collins. But he recovered quickly and was elected to the U.S. House in 1986. He served until 1998, when he ran for the U.S. Senate and won. Re-elected in 2004, Bunning served until retiring prematurely because of health issues.

As a Washington politician, Bunning fought with the political media as much as he did with the sports writers from his playing days. He often was frank to the point of bluntness. There was nothing “politically correct” about him. With Bunning, what you saw was what you got, agree with him or not.

As a lifelong resident of Southgate, it’s too bad Bunning never got to pitch for the Cincinnati Reds. That would have been a match made in box-office heaven. Instead, he spent his declining years with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers before returning to Philadelphia for his last hurrah.

I did a long piece about him for The Courier-Journal in early 1980. I suppose he liked it, because from that time on he introduced me as “the only writer who’s ever been fair to me.” I know he was lobbing me a fat one, but I liked it just the same. To me, he was still that guying falling off the mound as he sent another Red or Yankee or Dodger back to the dugout, dragging his Louisville Slugger behind him.

 

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