A very small number of people have achieved great success at the highest level of professional sports and gone on to be elected to national office. Jack Kemp comes to mind, and Steve Largent, both of whom were great pro football players and served in the House of Representatives. And, of course, NBA Hall-of-Famer and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. Am I forgetting anyone? My sincere apologies if so.
Jim Bunning joined this small group when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1985. He served six terms in the House, representing Kentucky’s 4th district. In 1998 he was elected to the Senate and re-elected in 2004. He was 85 when he died last Friday.
He led an interesting life, an impactful life, and ordinarily I’d feel happy to write a little about someone like that. But Jim Bunning did a lot of things as a congressman that make him an outlier, and not in a good way. He often found himself at odds with fellow Republicans and often caused controversy.
In the Senate, he was routinely given the highest “conservative” score by those that calculate such things. He opposed Obamacare, of course. A Catholic with nine children, he was strongly anti-abortion. He made inappropriate remarks about his opponents and Supreme Court justices.
This NPR piece says,
As a politician, he was known as “blunt and abrasive,” according to Politico. “In 1993, for instance, he referred to President Bill Clinton as ‘the most corrupt, the most amoral, the most despicable person I’ve ever seen in the presidency.’ In 2009, he made headlines by predicting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead of cancer within nine months.”
Bunning single-handedly held up unemployment payments for millions of Americans during a two-day filibuster against $10 billion in stimulus spending.
According to this CNN
Bunning decided to leave the Senate in 2010 after tension with his own party.
“Unfortunately, running for office is not just about the issues,” Bunning said in a 2009 statement. “Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fundraising. The simple fact is that I have not raised the funds necessary to run an effective campaign for the U.S. Senate.”
The remark appeared to be a thinly veiled hit at fellow Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who was the Senate minority leader at the time.
Bunning butted heads
with McConnell more than once and called him a “control freak”.
“McConnell is leading the ship, but he is leading it in the wrong direction. If Mitch McConnell doesn’t endorse me, it could be the best thing that ever happened to me in Kentucky.”
Asked by The New York Times in March 2009 whether he felt betrayed by some Republican colleagues, Mr. Bunning replied
, “When you’ve dealt with Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Stan Musial, the people I’m dealing with are kind of down the scale.”
Reading that made me think back to the first time the name “Jim Bunning” penetrated my consciousness.
On July 20, 1958, he took the mound for the Detroit Tigers in Boston’s Fenway Park and pitched a no-hit, no-run game against the Red Sox. That had only been done twice before in the 46-year history of Fenway, both times by Hall-of-Famers. Walter Johnson did it in 1920 and Ted Lyons in 1926.
Fenway is noted for its “Green Monster”, the huge wall in left field that appears to be just a few feet beyond the infield, and its lack of foul ground – hitters can stay alive on fouls that would be caught for outs in other venues.
It’s a hitter’s paradise and a pitcher’s nightmare. The Red Sox always tailored their line-ups for Fenway and routinely produced batting champs. Of course their own pitchers had to pitch in Fenway as well, so it didn’t translate too well into actual wins.
The line-up Bunning faced that day included a bunch of guys who were hard to get out on any day, and who were hitting over .300 at the time: Frank Malzone, Jackie Jensen, Pete Runnels, and, of course, the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, Ted Williams, who Bunning retired for the final out of the game.
The 26-year old Bunning was coming off a great 1957 season in which he led the American League with 20 wins. He had a side-arm delivery that gave right-handed hitters the impression the ball was coming at them from somewhere around third base. He was known for his combative nature, burning desire to win, and willingness to throw a “purpose pitch” when he thought it was needed, i.e. to hit an opposing batter to make him a little less comfortable digging in against him.
Bunning led the league in hit-batsmen four years in a row, and had 160 for his career. That’s more than anyone else in the last 90 years except for Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough, both knuckle-ball pitchers who really didn’t know what was going to happen to the ball after it left their hands. And if the knuckle-ball did hit a batter, everyone knew it was an accident and it didn’t hurt a bit.
Tiger team-mate Frank Bolling said, “If he had to brush back his mother, I think he’d do it to win.”
Bunning didn’t appreciate opposing players talking trash at him, either. He once threw at the always-talkative Red Sox center-fielder, Jim Piersall, for jawing at him too much. That one was a little unusual because Piersall wasn’t batting at the time, but waiting his turn in the on-deck circle.
Team-mate Larry Bowa told a story about Bunning’s approach, which is quoted in this NYT Obit, about a game that he pitched at Montreal in the early 1970s.
“The Expos had Ron Hunt, a guy who loved to get hit. Well, Bunning threw him a sidearm curveball, Hunt never moved, and it hit him. The ball rolled toward the mound, and Bunning picked it up. He looked right at Hunt and said: ‘Ron, you want to get hit? I’ll hit you next time.’ And next time up, bam. Fastball. Drilled him right in the ribs. And he said to Hunt, ‘O.K., now you can go to first base.’”
Bunning thoughtfully described pitching the no-hitter this way,
“For most pitchers like me, who aren’t overpowering supermen with extraordinary stuff like Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan, a no-hitter is a freaky thing, You can’t plan it. It’s not something you can try to do. It just happens.
Everything has to come together – good control, outstanding plays from your teammates, a whole lot of good fortune on your side and a lot of bad luck for the other guys. A million things could go wrong – but on this one particular day of your life none of them do.”
He was traded to the Phillies in 1963, and was as effective in the National League as he had been in the American. He pitched a “perfect game” (retired all 27 men he faced) against the Mets in New York on June 21, 1964, the first one pitched in the National League in 84 years, thereby revealing his previous comments about pitching a no-no to be overly modest.
To get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, you need to get 75% of the votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America, and you have only 15 years of eligibility after retirement. Bunning came close, but never got the nod from the writers. But in 1996, 25 years after he retired, he was voted in by the Veteran’s Committee, which included many players who had tried unsuccessfully to hit his pitching. “The writers never faced him,” Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio said at Bunning’s induction ceremony.
As a Boston baseball fan and someone who thinks government can actually solve problems once in a while, I always dreaded it when my team had to go up against Bunning. I didn’t like to see him standing on the pitcher’s mound opposing us and I didn’t like to see him standing in Congress opposing us either.
But give the devil his due: Jim Bunning knew what he wanted to do, did things not because they were politically expedient but because he believed in them, went about achieving his objectives in his own unique way, always fought hard, and never backed down.