Jim Bunning accomplished something no one else in the world ever did.
Bunning was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame and the United States Senate.
And, as trivia fans know, Bunning was the only pitcher ever to strike out Ted Williams three times in a single game.
But I didn’t like him and I told him why.
Here’s the story. During the 1955 baseball season, I went with a yeshiva classmate (who took off from studying for his bar mitzvah) to a Tigers game. Detroit was hosting the Baltimore Orioles. We sat high in the upper deck between the pitcher’s mound and first base.
It happened to be Bunning’s major league debut. He was tall, slim, and light haired. From a distance he looked like my favorite player, Hoot Evers, a Tigers outfielder who was traded to Boston and bounced around to four other teams.
I followed Evers religiously and so I thought it was an act of sacrilege that Bunning wore Evers’s uniform number while with the Tigers. The first time I saw Bunning turn around and noticed number 14, I took an immediate disliking to him. Although I rooted for my home team Tigers, I wasn’t too sorry that Bunning wasn’t impressive in his debut and that he had a high earned run average of 6.35 in 51 innings in 1955.
Three years later my classmates were playing ball on a Sunday afternoon. I’d started watching the Tigers on television with Bunning on the mound against the Red Sox, but I opted to join my friends and so I missed the last several innings.
About an hour later a friend came running from his father’s car. “Bunning pitched a no-hitter,” he yelled. “Ted Williams made the last out.”
Fast-forward six years, to 1964. I’d recently begun a new job and young men my age were being drafted, with an increasingly good chance of ending up in Vietnam. I joined the reserves, which improved my chances of not being sent overseas. After basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, I was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey. I lucked out. Because of my typing skills (compared to that of the other guys, at least) I became chaplain’s assistant.
My position gave me access to a portable radio which I often took back to the barracks so the guys could hear some games. We listened to the end of the Phillies/Mets game in which Bunning, then with Philadelphia, pitched a perfect game.
Bunning had won more than 100 games with the Tigers before being traded to the Phillies in 1963. Traded to Pittsburgh in 1967, Bunning also pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers before going back to Philadelphia in 1969 for his last two years in the majors.
Bunning’s career record was 224-184 with an earned run average of 3.27. He is the answer to the trivia questions “Which pitcher won 100 games in both the American and the National League?” and “Who pitched a no-hitter in each league?”
As a player, Bunning was known by management as a “clubhouse lawyer” – anything but a positive term in those years. He was active in fighting for players’ rights and helped bring in Marvin Miller as the executive director of the players’ union. After managing in the Phillies’ minor league system through 1976, Bunning worked as a stockbroker before deciding to run for political office.
I had a chance to chat with Bunning on the baseball beat prior to an Old-Timers Game in 1983. He was sitting in the dugout at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. I introduced myself and told him I saw his debut and explained why his uniform number kept me from liking him.
He explained that the team had issued him that number and he would have chosen a different one if he knew of my dedication to Hoot Evers. I got an autograph from Bunning and then listened to Bunning and Dom DiMaggio (former Red Sox outfielder and Joe’s brother) talk about my favorite era – the 1950s.
In 1986, Bunning, a conservative Republican, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Kentucky’s Fourth District. He served five terms and in 1998 was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 2010.
Known throughout his baseball career for his devotion to his family, Bunning had nine children, 35 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.
Bunning suffered a stroke in October 2016 and was a few months short of 86 when he died this past May 26. Because of baseball and politics, he was a part of our lives for 60 years.