Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning died at the age of 85 on May 29, 2017.
#1. Learned to throw by skipping stones
Bunning was born in Kentucky and attended school in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River. He spent his youth enjoying the outdoors and all athletic pursuits. One of his favorite activities was throwing stones, which he became very good at. His trademark sidearm delivery had its genesis from skipping stones in Kentucky. Later, he starred for St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati in baseball, basketball, and track. He received a scholarship to play basketball at Xavier University but the Tigers persuaded him to play pro baseball instead.
#2. Pitched first perfect game in 84 years
On Father’s Day in 1964, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium, Bunning fired a perfect game. He faced 27 batters and set them all down, ten by strikeout.
It was the first perfect game thrown in the National League since 1880 (by John Ward). In addition to being the first NL perfect game in 84 years, it was also the first perfect game thrown in the regular season in either league in 42 years (1922 by Charlie Robertson of the White Sox). After Bunning’s gem, two perfect games were thrown in major league baseball over the next four years. In all, through 2016, there have been 23 official perfect games. At the time, Bunning’s was only the seventh.
#3. Needed only 90 pitches for perfection
In a performance that took only two hours and ten minutes on Father’s Day, June 21, 1964, Jim Bunning needed just 90 pitches to toss a perfect game. He threw only 13 pitches in the fifth and sixth combined against the overmatched Mets. His by-inning pitch breakdown went like this:
1st … 8 pitches
2nd … 11 pitches
3rd … 8 pitches
4th … 13 pitches
5th … 6 pitches
6th … 7 pitches
7th … 11 pitches
8th … 12 pitches
9th … 13 pitches
Bunning struck out six of the final nine batters, including the last two hitters he faced, both of whom were pinch-hitters sent to the plate by Casey Stengel. Stengel had been on hand for the last perfect game, pitched in the World Series by Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series.
#4. Tigers let him go to college after signing him
The 6’3″ 18-year old Bunning was a talented pitcher as he graduated from high school in 1949 and he drew attention from several scouts in the Midwest, including those of the Detroit Tigers. The team got their man by offered a deal that pleased Bunning’s parents: Jim could go to college and get a degree before reporting to the Tigers. They allowed him to miss spring training every year while Jim was enrolled at Xavier University in Cincinnati. The Tigers even went a step further to accommodate the family by assigning Bunning to their team in Indiana, only an hour or so away from their home.
The Tigers signed Bunning for a $4,000 bonus and $150 per month. He used the bonus money to buy his sweetheart Mary an engagement ring. They were wed in 1952 and remained married for 65 years.
Bunning’s deal with the Tigers nullified his collegiate eligibility and he was forced to remove himself from consideration for the Xavier basketball team. After school finished each June, Bunning would report to his minor league team. He slowly improved his pitching but it took seven seasons in the Detroit farm system before Bunning was ready to take a place in the Tiger rotation.
#5. Second greatest strikeout pitcher when he retired
Bunning was 25 years old in 1957 when he finally earned his way into the Detroit pitching rotation. On May 21, he pitched a complete game victory over the Red Sox at Fenway Park and proceeded to win six straight. He never looked back on his way to a league-high 20 wins. The tall righty would go on to win 110 games from 1957 to 1963, and he led the AL in strikeouts twice.
Ultimately, when he retired after the 1971 season at the age of 39, Bunning’s 2,855 strikeouts ranked second all-time to the great Walter Johnson.
Bunning’s sidearm delivery baffled hitters and he was able to throw his fastball between 90 and 94 miles per hour, working in an excellent curveball as well. Pitching for mediocre Tiger teams, Bunning was a standout, making the All-Star team six times and starting the game three times. In 1963 he went 12-13 and battled with two Detroit managers over how he was used (Jack Tighe, who was fired in June, and his replacement Chuck Dressen).
Entering the 1963 offseason, after nine years in the big leagues with Detroit and 14 years in their system, the All-Star righthander was at a crossroads. He was sure his days as a Tiger were numbered.
#6. Helped form the baseball players’ union
During his latter years in Detroit, Bunning had been active as a player representative and in the early days of a new players’ union. He also worked as an investment banker in the offseason. His roles off the field rankled Tiger ownership, who wanted their players to be “dumb jocks.” They didn’t appreciate having to deal with Bunning on union issues, and Detroit’s front office especially did not like negotiating with the smart Bunning on his contract. After balking at the way he was handled by two managers during the ’63 season, and with the union growing stronger with Bunning’s help, Detroit was ready to move a player they saw as a “clubhouse lawyer.”
At the 1963 Winter Meetings, the Tigers traded Bunning, a six-time All-Star, to the Phillies for catcher Gus Triandos, outfielder Don Demeter, and pitcher Jack Hamilton. Philadelphia manager Gene Mauch reportedly screamed with delight when he heard about the deal. The transaction proved to have very different impacts on Bunning and the Tigers.
Bunning flourished in the NL, winning 19 games in each of his first three seasons with the Phils. He struck out more than 200 batters four times and eventually garnered 106 wins in the National League. Despite logging at least 240 innings eight times, Bunning never walked more than 79 hitters in a season. He was an accurate sharpshooter on the mound. He was durable too, making at least 30 starts in 13 of 14 seasons from 1957 to 1970.
Bunning was one of a handful of players who interviewed Marvin Miller for the position as president of the MLB Players’ Association, a job he was offered and accepted. Miller went on to make the MLB union one of the strongest in the history of labor.
#7. Was 12-1 in his political career
A Republican, Bunning first ran for city council in Fort Thomas, Kentucky in 1977. He followed with terms as a state senator in Kentucky before running for and winning six terms as a U.S. Congressman. He ran and won two times for U.S. Senate. In all, Bunning ran for office 13 times and only lost one election — when he ran for the Governor of Kentucky in 1983 but lost to Martha Layne Collins.
#8. Criticized baseball in his Hall of Fame speech
In his 1996 acceptance speech at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Bunning took the opportunity to criticize Major League Baseball.
“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’s comments were made with then-commissioner Bud Selig sitting on stage with him, and with many MLB officials within earshot.
At the time, baseball was coming off two turbulent years of labor strife. In 1994 the season was halted by a player strike and eventually canceled. As a result, the World Series was not played for the first time in 90 years. In 1995 the season was shortened when owners locked players out of spring training. There were also rumblings about a current owner (Bud Selig) being the “interim” commissioner of the game.
#9. Had a tough time with Ted Williams
Few pitchers handled Ted Williams well, so it’s not shocking that Jim Bunning struggled against the Red Sox slugger in his career. But his numbers against The Splendid Splinter are miserable. In 76 plate appearances against Williams, Bunning pitched the lefthanded batter carefully, walking him 15 times. But when Ted made contact he did damage. Williams hit .377 against Bunning, with 13 of his 23 hits going for extra-bases, including five doubles and eight home runs.
To end on a good note for Kentucky Jim, the righthander fared well against Willie Mays, holding the Hall of Famer to a .213 average and just two homers in nearly 100 matchups.