Jim Bunning, Hall Of Fame Pitcher And U.S. Senator, Dies at 85

Jim Bunning, who followed-up his career as a Hall of Fame pitcher in Major League Baseball with a stint as a Republican Senator from Kentucky, has died at the age of 85

Jim Bunning, the Hall of Fame pitcher who threw a perfect game and later forged a second career as a fervently conservative and often cantankerous Republican representative and senator from Kentucky, died on Friday in the Fort Thomas, Ky., area. He was 85.

His death was confirmed by his son David, a Federal District Court judge in Kentucky. Mr. Bunning had a stroke in October.

Pitching for 17 seasons, mostly with the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies, Mr. Bunning, a right-hander, dominated batters with his sidearm deliveries.

He was the second pitcher, after Cy Young, to win at least 100 games, record at least 1,000 strikeouts and throw no-hitters in both the American and National Leagues. When he retired after the 1971 season, his 2,855 strikeouts were second only to Walter Johnson’s 3,509.

Mr. Bunning threw fastballs, curveballs and sliders out of a 6-foot-3-inch frame, seeking to intimidate batters with a gruffness that would be a hallmark of his time in Congress.

Larry Bowa, the Phillies’ longtime shortstop, once recalled a game that Mr. Bunning pitched at Montreal in the early 1970s when “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,” Bowa told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “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.'”

Mr. Bunning pitched a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 20, 1958, retiring Ted Williams for the final out.

His perfect game was the first in the National League in 84 years and the first in the major leagues since the Yankees’ Don Larsen threw one against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Mr. Bunning set down all 27 Mets batters at Shea Stadium on June 21, 1964, in the first game of a Father’s Day doubleheader, striking out John Stephenson, a pinch-hitter, for the final out.

The only Baseball Hall of Fame player to have served in Congress, Mr. Bunning was elected to Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee in 1996.

After serving as majority leader in the Kentucky State Senate, Mr. Bunning was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1986. He served six terms in the House and then was elected to the Senate in 1998 and re-elected in 2004. He spoke out against spending and taxes and showed a contrarian streak in the Senate while receiving national attention for some strange remarks.

While running for a second Senate term, Mr. Bunning said that his Democratic opponent, Daniel Mongiardo, resembled one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. Mr. Bunning also said he and his wife had been roughed up by supporters of Dr. Mongiardo at a political event, telling of “little green doctors pounding on my back.”

Although President George W. Bush easily carried Kentucky in the 2004 presidential election, Mr. Bunning barely survived the Democratic challenge to his seat.

While discussing the need for conservative judges at a dinner in Kentucky in February 2009, Mr. Bunning noted that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a member of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, had undergone surgery for pancreatic cancer a few weeks earlier. “Even though she was operated on, usually, nine months is the longest that anybody would live” with the disease, he said.

He apologized for his remarks about Dr. Mongiardo and Justice Ginsburg.

A critic of Federal Reserve Board policies, Mr. Bunning was the only member of the Senate to vote against the confirmation of Ben S. Bernanke as chairman of the Fed in 2006.


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.”

Mr. Bunning had planned to run again in 2010, but he retired instead.

James Paul David Bunning Jr. was born on Oct. 23, 1931, in Southgate, Ky., the son of a businessman, and grew up in Fort Thomas, Ky., a suburb of Cincinnati.

He pitched for Xavier University in Cincinnati and then signed with the Tigers’ organization in 1950. While in the minors, he received a bachelor’s degree from Xavier in business administration.

Mr. Bunning pitched for the Tigers from 1955 to 1963, when he was traded to the Phillies. He threw his perfect game in ’64, the season best known for the Phillies’ collapse in the final week, when the St. Louis Cardinals overtook them to win the National League pennant. It was the closest Mr. Bunning ever got to a World Series.

He was active in the rise of the baseball players’ union in the 1960s, joining with Robin Roberts and Harvey Kuenn in recruiting Marvin Miller, then an economist for the steelworkers, as the union’s executive director.

Mr. Bunning was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1967, later pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers and then returned to the Phillies in 1969. He had only one 20-win season, going 20-8 for the Tigers in 1957, but he had four 19-win seasons and was a seven-time All-Star. He had a career record of 224-184 with an earned run average of 3.27.

He managed in the Phillies’ minor league system and worked as a stockbroker before arriving on the national political scene.

In addition to his son David, Mr. Bunning’s survivors include his wife, Mary; his sons Jim, Bill and Mark; his daughters Barb, Joan, Cat, Bridget and Amy; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In his farewell address to the Senate in December 2010, Mr. Bunning defended his outspoken ways. Standing at the desk once occupied by Kentucky’s Henry Clay, one of the great names in the Senate’s history, Mr. Bunning cited another forum to make his point.

“I have been booed by 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium standing alone at the pitcher’s mound, so I have never really cared if I stood alone here in Congress as long as I stood by my beliefs and my values,” he said. “I have also thought that being able to throw a curveball never was a bad skill for a politician to have.”

Bunning retired at the end of his second term in 2010 and was replaced by current Republican Senator Rand Paul.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.