Bunning, James Paul David ("Jim")

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BUNNING, James Paul David ("Jim")

(b. 23 October 1931 in Southgate, Kentucky), Hall of Fame baseball player who pitched no-hitters in both the American and National Leagues, including the first perfect game in modern National League history for the Philadelphia Phillies against the New York Mets in 1964, and later embarked on a political career as a six-term congressman and a U.S. senator.

Bunning was one of three children of Louis A. Bunning, Sr., a manager of a ladder manufacturing plant, and Gladys Mae Best, a homemaker. His college years were spent at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, a Jesuit institution from which he received a B.S. degree in economics in 1953. During his junior year, on 26 January 1952, he married Mary Catherine Theis. The couple had nine children, including two sets of twins.

Bunning, an intense competitor, persevered in the minor leagues before earning a major league job with the Detroit Tigers in 1955. Told early in his career than he would not be successful throwing the way he did—sidearm with a stiff front leg, hurtling off the mound after each pitch—the tall, lanky right-hander proved otherwise by winning twenty games and starting in the All-Star game for the American League in 1957, his first full big league season.

Bunning would switch teams several times in his seventeen-year career. After his ninth season in a Tiger uniform, he spent eight years in the National League, playing in Philadelphia (1964–1967 and 1970–1971), Pittsburgh (1968 and part of 1969), and Los Angeles (1969). Bunning became the second pitcher (Cy Young was the first) to win 100 games and strike out 1,000 batters in each league. When he retired following the 1971 season, Bunning had amassed 224 victories; 184 defeats, mostly for also-ran clubs; and 2,855 strikeouts, at the time second only to Walter Johnson.

As a player Bunning failed to achieve his biggest goal, a chance to pitch in the World Series. In 1964 his Philadelphia Phillies team came close. The team led by six and a half games with twelve games to go, then lost ten in a row. Even though Bunning pitched one of his forty career shutouts on the final day, they finished one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

Although he was deprived of the World Series spotlight, Bunning made the most of his All-Star opportunities. In his 1957 start against the National League, he retired nine straight batters in a lineup that included Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson. Four years later, when two All-Star games were played, Bunning retired fifteen batters in a row—six in the first game, nine in the second. In all he pitched eighteen innings in All-Star competition, allowing only seven hits and two earned runs, walking one, and striking out thirteen. It was a record befitting a pitcher who retired Ted Williams to close out his first no-hitter for the Detroit Tigers against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1958. Six years later, he celebrated Father's Day at New York City's Shea Stadium by retiring twenty-seven straight Mets batters to pitch the first National League perfect game in eighty-four years.

Those who played with him or against him remembered Bunning best for his fierce competitiveness. Larry Bowa, who played shortstop behind Bunning in the pitcher's last two seasons, recalled making an error once in San Diego. "He turned around and glared at me," Bowa said. "I wanted to find a way to hide. Later he said to me, 'Larry, I didn't mean anything by that.' It's just that he was so intense. I mean this guy battled." Bunning pitched in an era when it was accepted practice to pitch inside, often sending batters sprawling in the dirt. Joe Torre, who played against Bunning in the National League, said: "He was like [Dodger Hall of Famer Don] Drysdale. He gave you the same look—big, came a little sidewinding, and he was mean."

Bunning's serious, all-business approach was evident in his relationship with sportswriters and later with political writers, many of whom found him difficult to interview. He did not tolerate what he considered "dumb questions." His refusal to curry favor with the press was likely a factor in his long wait to make the Hall of Fame. The baseball writers never voted him in, although they once gave him 74.2 percent of the vote, just shy of the 75 percent needed. In 1996, however, Bunning attained baseball's highest honor, voted in by the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee.

Pitching was only part of Bunning's baseball legacy. He was an early leader in the formation of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1947 and one of the men responsible for choosing Marvin Miller as its first executive director in 1966, a move that angered the owners and ultimately changed the course of the game by shifting the balance of power away from management. In addition Bunning was a driving force in establishing a pension program for big league players that set the standard for pro sports.

When his playing career was over, Bunning became a major league manager. For five years he managed in the Phillies' farm system, but his bluntness and honesty did not always sit well with the organization. The Phillies fired him at the close of his fifth and most successful managerial season. In retrospect, Bunning said, they did him a favor. His baseball career cut short, he surprised everybody, including himself, by turning to politics.

Bunning was hardly the political type. The thought of him shaking hands, making small talk, and kissing babies was laughable to those who knew him. But with a huge assist from his wife, he entered politics. A conservative Republican, he served as city councilman in Fort Thomas, Kentucky (1977–1979), and as Kentucky state senator (1979–1986). In 1983 he made an unsuccessful run for governor. Three years later he was headed to Washington, D.C., elected a congressman from Kentucky's Fourth District. Following his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, he won his biggest prize, a seat in the U.S. Senate (elected in 1998).

Along the way Bunning waged verbal battles with two baseball commissioners, Peter Ueberroth and Bud Selig, and angered the baseball establishment by taking a strong stand against the sport's antitrust exemption. In his Hall of Fame induction speech in the summer of 1996, Bunning pulled no punches, as usual. "For over four years now baseball has been rudderless," he said. "For God's sake and for the game's sake, find a rudder."

Bunning has always said what he thought, not what he thought others wanted to hear. His friends have been intensely loyal. His enemies, whether baseball commissioners, journalists who did not do their homework, or liberal Democrats have often despised him. Through it all, his love for baseball has never disappeared, nor has his disdain for the men running the game.

Bunning published an autobiography, as told to Ralph Bernstein, The Story of Jim Bunning (1965), aimed primarily at young fans, that includes a play-by-play of his perfect game. The most complete work on Bunning's life as a ballplayer and as a politician is Frank Dolson, Jim Bunning: Baseball and Beyond (1998). Bunning's adventures as a minor league manager are covered in Dolson, Beating the Bushes (1982). For information on Bunning's work in the formative years of the Major League Baseball Players Association, see Bowie Kuhn, Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner (1987), and Marvin Miller, A Whole Different Ball Game (1991). Details of his no-hit games are in Rich Westcott and Allen Lewis, No-Hitters (2000), which includes an exceptionally interesting foreword by Bunning.

Frank Dolson