Hall of Fame Phillies pitcher, former U.S. Senator Jim Bunning dies at 85

HALL OF FAME
Jim Bunning during his playing days as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Jim Bunning, 85, the only person elected both to baseball’s Hall of Fame and the U.S. Senate and a central figure in the best and worst moments of the Phillies’ historic 1964 season, died late Friday night. Mr. Bunning had suffered a stroke in October.

The first pitcher to throw no-hitters in both the American and National Leagues, the wiry sidearmer won 224 games in 17 big-league seasons. Eighty-nine of those victories came during six years with the Phillies, and Mr. Bunning’s “14” is one of just five numbers retired by the club.

“Jim was an incredible competitor and was determined to maximize his ability and make the most of everything he did in life," Phillies chairman David Montgomery said in a statement. “The Bunning family has lost a very special patriarch, and we at the Phillies have lost a very special friend.”

“The family is deeply grateful for the love and prayers of Jim’s friends and supporters,” his family said in a statement. “While he was a public servant with a Hall of Fame career, his legacy to us is that of a beloved husband, caring father, and supportive grandfather.”

Ambitious beyond baseball, Mr. Bunning also was an outspoken players union leader, a minor-league manager, and a players agent before abandoning the game for his insurance business and eventually a long political career in his native Kentucky and Washington.

“Recognizing the need to ensure that all players receive fair representation in their dealings with Major League club owners, Jim, along with a number of his peers, helped pave the way for generations of players,” Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said in a statement.

A conservative Republican despite his union past, he won the first of six consecutive terms as a congressman from Kentucky’s Fourth District in 1986. Elected twice to the U.S. Senate, he served there from 1998 to 2010.

For all of his varied achievements, Mr. Bunning always will be best remembered in Philadelphia for that star-crossed 1964 season.

On Father’s Day, June 21, with his wife, Mary, and oldest child in the Shea Stadium grandstands, he threw a perfect game against the New York Mets, the first in the National League since 1880, the first in regular-season baseball since 1922.

He won 19 games for Gene Mauch’s surprising club, which built a 6 1/2 game lead with just 12 to play. But when the manager twice started Mr. Bunning and Chris Short on two days’ rest in those final weeks, the Phillies lost 10 straight. Even though Mr. Bunning shut out Cincinnati on the star-crossed season’s final day, the Phillies lost the pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals by a single game.

More than a half-century later, Philadelphians — and many others — still blame that historic collapse on Mauch’s decision start his two best pitchers on short rest. Mr. Bunning was not one of them.

“I don’t blame Gene for that,” he told The Inquirer in 1989. “The rest of his pitching staff was either hurt or didn’t want the ball. What else could he have done?”

Stern and intensely focused, his will as strong as his arm, Mr. Bunning was a leader on those Phillies teams, both on and off the field. As their player representative, he lobbied for simple benefits his teammates had long been denied, like free parking. And on the mound, with an exaggerated sidearm motion that literally brought him to his knees on each pitch, he was one of baseball’s best righthanders.

Camera icon  Inquirer Archive
James "Jim" Bunning - April 11, 1965

“He was one of the best competitors I ever managed,” said former Phillies manager Frank Lucchesi. “He was a jewel to manage. He never alibied. It was always, ‘Just give me the ball.’ ”

“Not only was he an incredible workhorse, but he was also a great leader,” said fellow Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.

After retiring at age 40 in 1971, Mr. Bunning managed at Reading, Eugene, Toledo, and Oklahoma City in the Phillies’ minor-league system. He was blunt and outspoken, and those traits might have cost him a shot at managing the big-league Phillies, who didn’t renew his contract in 1976.

The father of nine children, he returned to his northern Kentucky home, where he ran an insurance business and dabbled as a sports agent before entering politics. Capitalizing on his name and reputation, he was elected to the Fort Thomas City Council and the state senate before entering Congress in 1987.

A member of the Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, he became more stridently conservative with time. He once told reporters he didn’t read the papers and got “all my information from Fox News.” In 2002, he was the committee’s only member to oppose the confirmation of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

His final Senate years were marked by bouts of bizarre behavior. In his 2004 reelection campaign, he accused members of his Democratic opponent’s staff of assaulting his wife. He eventually lost the support of Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, and did not seek a third term in 2010.

In addition to his nine children, Mr. Bunning had 35 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. One of his grandsons, Patrick Towles, is a quarterback at Boston College.

Mr. Bunning, who is wearing a Phillies cap on his Hall of Fame plaque despite spending his first nine big-league seasons in Detroit, returned here regularly through the years for team events. Invariably, the conversations turned to the enormous civic and personal disappointment that was 1964.

“Mentally, I’ve never gotten over it,” he said in 2009. “It was as close as I ever got [to a World Series].”

Discovering the slider

The second of three sons, Mr. Bunning was born to a devout Catholic family on Oct. 23, 1931, in Covington, Ky. That was just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, whose hometown Reds, particularly pitchers Paul Derringer and Bucky Walters, became an obsession for the sports-crazed youngster.

A 1949 high school graduate, the all-around athlete won a basketball scholarship to Xavier University. Then, in 1950, Mr. Bunning signed with the Tigers for a bonus of $4,000. Though forfeiting his scholarship, he managed to continue his education while a minor-leaguer and in 1953 earned his degree in economics.

He made steady progress in the Tigers’ system and was promoted to Detroit for parts of the 1955 and 1956 seasons. It was in the winter of 1956, while Mr. Bunning pitched in Cuba, that manager Connie Mareno altered the trajectory of his career by teaching him a slider.

“[It] was the biggest break of my life,” he said. “That was the pitch I needed to throw and get over when I was behind the hitters.”

The 25-year-old Mr. Bunning won an American League-best 20 games in 1957, compiling a 2.69 ERA in 267 1/3 innings and making the first of nine All-Star Game appearances. In the ’57 classic, he was the starter and winner, retiring all nine batters he faced.

On July 20 of the following season, a sweltering day at Fenway Park, Mr. Bunning, who thrived in the heat, no-hit the Red Sox. He struck out 12, allowed only three baserunners, and retired Ted Williams for the final out.

“That was the only game I ever got Williams out four times,” he said. “Four pop-ups.”

In that era before free agency, Mr. Bunning was a careful and firm contract negotiator. By the time he left Detroit, he was earning $39,000, well above the big-league norm. He also was that team’s player representative, a role he would reprise in Philadelphia.

“Bunning always thinks out his demands so carefully and considerately — as he sees it — that if it’s reasonable at all, we might as well sign him,” Tigers general manager Rick Ferrell said in 1962. “Otherwise he’s prepared to discuss it forever.”

In 1963, Mr. Bunning’s record slipped to 12-13. At 32, he suddenly was considered expendable. When the Tigers dangled him, the Giants, Twins, and Phillies expressed interest. Detroit needed an outfielder as badly as the Phils wanted a veteran starting pitcher, and those two teams completed a deal on Dec. 5. Mr. Bunning and catcher Gus Triandos went to Philadelphia while the Tigers got outfielder Don Demeter and pitcher Jack Hamilton.

“We had Short from the left side,” Mauch said. “We needed a big righthander.”

Mr. Bunning and the ’64 Phillies got off to fast starts. He was 6-2 on June 21 when, after a hearty breakfast, Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and a spectacular warm-up session, he walked to Shea Stadium’s mound for the opener of a Father’s Day doubleheader.

“We knew when he was warming up that this was something special,” Mauch said later, “the way he was throwing so live and as high as he was. Not high with his pitches. High himself.”

After retiring the first 15 Mets, Mr. Bunning shattered the baseball tradition that claims it’s bad luck to discuss a potential no-hitter.

“C’mon,” he shouted from the bench, “let’s get that perfect game.”

Triandos, his catcher that day, said Bunning grew increasingly silly on the mound as the game progressed. “He was jabbering like a magpie.”

With two outs in the ninth inning and a 2-2 count on .047-hitting Mets catcher John Stephenson, Triandos signaled for a curveball.

“I knew that Stephenson couldn’t hit my curveball if I had gone up there and told him it was coming,” Bunning said.

Camera icon  Harry Harris / AP Photo
Jim Bunning, the Phillies right-handed pitcher, strikes out John Stephenson, pinch hitter for the New York Mets in ninth inning for the final out in a perfect game at New York's Shea Stadium, June 21, 1964. The catcher is Gus Triandos.

He threw it. The batter flailed and missed. Bunning pounded his fist into his glove.

“What a day,” Mr. Bunning recalled years later. “Just a perfect day.”
He negotiated a $1,000 payment to appear on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan Show that night and used the money to add a pool to his Kentucky home.

The magic continued for Bunning and the overachieving Phils until the final 12 games of the season. As the team squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead, he lost three times.

“For 150 games we played some of the best baseball you ever saw,” Mr. Bunning recalled. “We moved runners, made the pitches we needed to, caught the ball. But then at the worst possible time, all of a sudden and without warning, it just stopped.”

Though baseball’s reserve clause left that era’s players indentured to team owners, Mr. Bunning was never afraid to speak out. Shortly after the trade to Philadelphia, he became the Phillies’ player representative and immediately won his teammates some perks — free parking at Connie Mack Stadium, and the right to bring wives on some road trips.

In 1965, Mr. Bunning was part of the players committee that hired Marvin Miller, the legendary union negotiator, as the executive director. Miller transformed what until then had been a weak and ineffective union into a sports juggernaut.

“After we hired Miller, the owners took some of us to the woodshed,” Mr. Bunning said in 2001. “They said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? You know we can take away your pensions.’ ”

Mr. Bunning also won 19 games in 1965 and 1966, but the Phils never seriously contended. Before the 1967 season, he signed a contract for $70,000 annually.
“It was the most any player in Philadelphia had made in the history of the franchise,” Mr. Bunning recalled proudly.

But the ’67 Phillies finished fifth, and Mr. Bunning, having thrown 302 innings at age 35, was traded to Pittsburgh.

Over the next four years, he went 45-61. His last two seasons were spent back with the Phillies, who’d signed him after he was released by the Dodgers at the end of the ’69 season. He retired in 1971, his 2,855 strikeouts then putting him second on the all-time list behind Walter Johnson.

On the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years beginning in 1977, Mr. Bunning never garnered the necessary 75 percent of the writers’ votes, his best showing (65.6 percent) coming in 1986. But in 1996, the Veterans Committee finally voted him in. U.S. House members, upon hearing the news, gave their colleague a standing ovation.

“I was convinced I was never going to get in,” he said.

At 40 in 1972, he became a minor-league manager, first at double-A Reading, then moving up through the system. Mr. Bunning could be blunt in assessing talent and in talking with reporters, traits that irritated some in the organization but which endeared him to many players and coaches.

“Working with Jim was a good experience,” said Scott Reid, one his coaches with Toledo in 1975. “This is the best guy you could be playing for. If you can play, he will get you to the big leagues. If you can’t, he will send you home, and he’s doing you a favor. He’s not going to be your buddy. He’s not going to fraternize with you. He’s going to treat you like a man.”

But Mr. Bunning’s vision of his future didn’t match the Phillies’, and after 1976 they parted ways. Free agency had just come to baseball, and he became an agent, eventually representing 30 players, many of whom had played for him.

Political life

A successful insurance broker with a recognizable face, Mr. Bunning was persuaded to run for city council in Fort Thomas, Ky., in 1977. Two years later. he was elected a state senator. When the Republican Party had difficulty finding a gubernatorial candidate in 1983, he agreed to run. He lost that contest, but in 1986 was elected to Congress.

He was reelected five times in a heavily Republican district, and Mr. Bunning’s most powerful position in the House was chairman of the Subcommittee on Social Security, a post he held for four years. Then, when longtime Sen. Wendell Ford retired in 1998, he sought his seat.

In a close-fought general election, Mr. Bunning defeated Democrat Scotty Baesler by half a percentage point. But seeming to always put family obligations ahead of the Senate’s, he failed to accrue much power or accomplish much of significance in the upper chamber.

By the 2004 election, he was exhibiting behavior so odd that some observers contended the 73-year-old was suffering from dementia or some form of mental illness. In addition to claiming his opponent’s staff had assaulted his wife, Mr. Bunning likened Democrat Daniel Mongiardo to “one of Saddam Hussein’s sons” and labeled him “limp-wristed.”

Still, he won, but by less than 2 percent in a state President George W. Bush carried by 20 percentage points. He continued to tack farther right. In 2005, he and Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum were the only senators to oppose the nomination of Robert Gates as secretary of defense.

A year later, Time rated him one of America’s five worst senators. The magazine claimed he was hostile to staff and fellow senators and “shows little interest in policy unless it involves baseball.”

Powerful fellow Kentucky senator McConnell began to ignore him, and by 2009 Mr. Bunning’s approval rating had fallen to 35 percent. That’s when he announced he wouldn’t seek reelection to a seat that would be won by Republican Rand Paul.

Despite being elected to national office eight times, Mr. Bunning, who tended to be aloof and overly serious, always noted that he wasn’t cut out to be a politician. Others agreed. When, for example, Phillies pitcher Dick Ruthven heard his former manager was running for Congress, he burst out laughing.

“I didn’t think he could smile enough,” Ruthven said.

The skepticism reminded some people of similar doubts at the start of Mr. Bunning’s baseball career.

“Jim Bunning wasn’t born to be a great pitcher,” Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson once wrote. “He was told he couldn’t be successful with the sidearm motion that became his trademark. And yet … he won more than 100 games in each major league and earned a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame.”

Visitation is to be held at Muehlenkamp-Erschell Funeral Home in Fort Thomas, Ky., from 2 to 8 p.m. Friday. A Mass of Christian burial is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Ky.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz