Jim Bunning’s Baseball Career: A Primer, In Case It Comes Up

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03/02/2010 2:29 PM |

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Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, who is currently singlehandedly responsible for the furloughing of federal workers and the halting of unemployment benefits, is already a hilariously loathed Senator, who will be forced into retirement by his own party at his term’s end, for the many venal/senile reasons summarized here.

The only reason Bunning is in the Senate at all is because he was, in Robert Byrd’s hilarious dismissal, “a great baseball man.” (Robert Byrd was actually a freshman senator when Jim Bunning pitched his perfect game. As a thought experiment, imagine it’s the year 2050, and a doddering Sherrod Brown gets into a shouting match with Senator Buehrle. That is basically what happened.)

Bunning, a Hall of Famer and two-term Senator is the most accomplished politician to come out of baseball, and the greatest baseball player to make a significant mark in politics (aside from Castro).

His closest equivalent in the modern era is probably the former Knicks great and presidential candidate Bill Bradley—the difference being that Bradley is a legitimately brilliant thinker and served three distinguished terms in the senate. (Links between football and politics are, alas, the subject for another blog post.)

Bunning was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996, by the Veteran’s Committee, after missing out during his 15 years on the official ballot—in the weak year of 1988, his 12th year on the ballot and during his first term in Congress, he was just four votes shy of induction, though his totals declined in subsequent years. He is, objectively, a pretty borderline Hall of Famer, who probably benefitted from being a mainstay in a league with more media attention and half as many teams.

Baseball-Reference lists, among the pitchers with careers most similar to Bunning’s, Mickey Lolich and Luis Tiant, two exceptionally memorable, occasionally brilliant hurlers without enough sustained stretches of greatness; long-lived pretty-good pitchers like Rick Reuschel and Jerry Koosman; and borderline Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter and Don Drysdale.

Bunning won 20 games as a 25-year-old, pitched a no-hitter and twice led the league in strikeouts; he was the best pitcher in the AL in 1960 while going 11-14 for a bad team. After a down year in 1963, he was a 31-year-old with a career win-loss record of 118-87, accumulated for a consistently mediocre Tigers team. In December of 1963, the Tigers traded Bunning to the Philadelphia Phillies, and he spent the next four years as one of the best pitchers in the National League—coincidentally, or perhaps not, leading the league in hit batsmen all four years. (He was mediocre or worse after that in brief stints with the Pirates, Dodgers, and Phillies again.)

In 1964, the Phillies notoriously lost ten games straight in late September, blowing a lead that had stood at 6 1/2 games with 12 to play. During the streak, Phillies manager Gene Mauch panicked, starting his ace, Bunning, three times in a single week—Bunning lost all three games as the Cardinals overtook the Phils to win the pennant, and then beat the Yankees in seven games.

During the late 50s, when he was with the Tigers, Bunning struck out Ted Williams more than any other pitcher; in his memoir Ball Four (as a Wonkette commenter pointed out the last time Bunning was in the news), the former pitcher Jim Bouton tells this story:

In the bullpen tonight Jim Pagliaroni was telling us how Ted Williams, when he was still playing, would psyche himself up for a game during batting practice, usually early practice before the fans or reporters got there.

He’d go into the cage, wave his bat at the pitcher and start screaming at the top of his voice, “My name is Ted fucking Williams and I’m the greatest hitter in baseball.”

He’d swing and hit a line drive.

“Jesus H. Christ Himself couldn’t get me out.”

And he’d hit another.

Then he’d say, “Here comes Jim Bunning. Jim fucking Bunning and that little shit slider of his.”

Wham!

“He doesn’t really think he’s gonna get me out with that shit.”

Blam!

“I’m Ted fucking Williams.”

Sock!

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