Hall of Famer, Former U.S. Senator Jim Bunning Dies at 85

by Rocco Constantino | Posted on Saturday, May 27th, 2017
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Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher who threw two no-hitters and showed remarkable consistency over a 17-year career, died at the age of 85.  Bunning, who went on to a successful political career after baseball, capped by a 12-year run as the United States Senator from Kentucky, had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in October.

Bunning was a hard-throwing righty with excellent secondary pitches and was a nine-time All-Star.  He made his Major League debut at the age of 23 when the Detroit Tigers called him up in July and thrust him into the starting rotation.  Bunning picked up his first career win in his second start, a 7-3 win over the Washington Senators.

Bunning spent much of the 1956 season in the minors, earning a call up at the end of July.  He would go 5-1 with a 3.71 ERA while pitching mostly in relief.  His performance out of the bullpen and at the end of 1956 and then the start of the 1957 season was good enough to finally land a permanent spot in the Tigers rotation in May of that year.

From that point, Bunning became a tough, reliable starter for the remainder of his career.  Bunning earned his first All-Star start in 1957, his first full year in the majors.  In that start, Bunning pitched three perfect innings, with four of the nine outs coming against some of the greatest Hall of Famers to ever play the game.  He retired Hank Aaron and Stan Musial in the first inning, then got Willie Mays on called third strike to start the second and ended that inning by getting Frank Robinson to ground out.

Bunning led the American League with 20 wins in ’57 and finished ninth in the MVP voting.  It was the only 20-win campaign of Bunning’s career.

The 6’3″ righty went 118-87 for the Tigers over nine seasons, but was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies during the 1963 winter meetings.  He was an All-Star in two of the four seasons he pitched in Philadelphia and finished second in the 1967 Cy Young Award voting.  After pitching 907 innings between 1965-1967, Bunning’s production fell off over the final four seasons of his career.

He went 32-51 over his final four seasons and retired after the 1971 season.  The final batter he faced was Wayne Garrett of the New York Mets, who became the 2,855th strikeout of his career.  At the time of his retirement, only Walter Johnson had more career strikeouts than Bunning.

Bunning finished his career with a record of 224-184 and a 3.27 ERA.  He threw 40 shutouts and 151 complete games over his 17-year career.  He topped 200 strikeouts six times and led the league in strikeouts three times.  He won 100 games, struck out 1,000 batters and threw a no-hitter in both leagues.

Bunning hurled his first career no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox on July 20, 1958.  In the game, Bunning recorded 12 strikeouts and retired Ted Williams on a fly ball to right field for the final out.

His signature performance came in his famous Father’s Day perfect game in 1964.  The perfect game was the first in the National League in 84 years and came against the New York Mets.  The opposing pitcher that day was Tracy Stallard, who had given up Roger Maris‘ historic 61st home run three years earlier.  The game was pitched at Shea Stadium, with Mets fans cheering him on.

Upon his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Bunning finished with only 38% of the vote, the ninth highest total of anyone that year.  In his Hall of Fame speech, Bunning said that he considered withdrawing his name from further consideration after such a disappointing showing.  Bunning said that Frank Dolson, the late sports editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, convinced him not to do so.  His candidacy didn’t gain momentum until 1986, when he topps 65% of the vote for the first time.  That year, he finished fourth with 66%.  Bunning came achingly close to gaining enshrinement in 1988, but fell just four votes shy.  He failed to top 63% in any of the subsequent three years before falling off the ballot.

Bunning finally earned his place in Cooperstown in 1996 when the Veterans Committee selected Bunning, Negro League star Bill Foster, manager Earl Weaver and Dead Ball Era manager Ned Hanlon after no players were elected during the writers’ voting.

In his Hall of Fame speech, Bunning used his platform to campaign for Don Sutton, Phil Niekro and Tony Perez to gain enshrinement.  All three were elected within the next three season.  He also chided the players and ownership on their relationship, which was still troubled in the wake of the 1994 strike.  He demanded that the owners “get a real commissioner” and said that “for over four years now, baseball has been rudderless.  For God’s sake, and for the game’s sake, find a rudder.  Pick a course and stick with it.”

Bunning was born in Southgate, Kentucky in 1931.  He married Mary Theis when he was 21 years old and remained married to her until his death.  The couple had nine children and 35 grandchildren, including Patrick Towles, who was the starting quarterback at the University of Kentucky and Boston College the past three seasons. At the time of his death, the only living Hall of Fame players older than Bunning were Bobby Doerr, Red Schoendienst, Whitey Ford and Willie Mays.

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Rocco Constantino
About the Author

Rocco is the author of 50 Moments That Defined Major League Baseball (Available on Amazon now!) and former Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. He is also a die hard Mets fan going back to the awful early 80's and ready for the revival. D2 NCAA softball coach and athletics administrator. Follow Rocco on Twitter @mlb100years.

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