When Jim Bunning retired from baseball in 1971, only walter Johnson had struck out more batters in baseball history. Bunning had also pitched one of only eight perfect games in the history of the game. Pretty good résumé material. But since he left the diamond, Bunning has continued to add stellar accomplishments to his ledger.
Tall, lean Bunning toed the rubber for the Detroit Tigers for nine seasons, but you’d be forgiven if you didn’t quite remember him. His last pitch in a Tiger uniform was more than 38 seasons ago. Bunning was dealt away at the age of 31 after the ’63 season. He missed out on the celebration in 1968, he spent most of the rest of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League, never once sniffing the post-season. In 1964, his first year in Philly, he lost three critical games in the last week and a half of the season as Gene Mauch’s team completed an infamous collapse and lost the pennant after being up 5 1/2 games with 11 to go.
Bunning was still a great pitcher after leaving the Tigers, winning 19 games in each of his first three seasons for the Phils. He finished second in Cy Young voting in 1967, wrapping up a four-year stretch in which he averaged 18 wins, 248 K’s, 15 complete games, six shutouts, 298 innings, and a 2.48 ERA. That stellar performance, combined with his 118 wins and two strikeout titles in Detroit, earned Bunning a plaque in Cooperstown.
By the time he was making his acceptance speech in Cooperstown in 1996, Bunning had already been elected to the U.S. House of representatives five times in his homestate of Kentucky. Representing one of the most conservative counties in the south, Bunning was a popular legislator. In 1998 he ran for a vacant U.S. DSenate seat in Kentucky and won a close race. He served two terms as a Senator before retiring in 2010.
Bunning was born in Southgate, Kentucky, the son of Gladys and Louis Aloysius Bunning. He graduated from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati in 1949 and later received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Xavier University. Always interested in the business side of things, Bunning was very involved in attempts to unionize baseball players in the 1950s and 1960s. He served as his own agent when dealing with the Tigers and Phillies, which earned him both respect and disdain as he fought to gain what he felt he deserved.
On the mound, Bunning was a master of several pitches and arm angles. One scout wrote that the righty possessed “an excellent curve ball, a confusing delivery and a sneaky fast ball”. He was adept at keeping the ball at the batter’s knees, getting strikeouts or groundballs. He strukc out 2,855 batters in his 17-year career, but showed remarkable control as well – walking just 1,000 or a ratio of 175 K’s to 60 walks per season.
His masterpiece came against the New York Mets on June 21, 1964, – Father’s Day – when he twirled a perfecto. Bunning’s perfect game was the first in the National League in 84 years. He is one of only seven pitchers to throw both a perfect game and an additional no-hitter, the others being Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Addie Joss, Cy Young, Mark Buehrle, and Roy Halladay. Bunning had tossed a no-hitter for the Tigers on July 20, 1958, against the Boston Red Sox.
The winner of 224 games (68th all-time), Bunning has been a winner after leaving the game of baseball too.