Jim Bunning, Hall of Famer and former U.S. senator from Kentucky, dies at 85.
Jim Bunning, a hard-throwing Hall of Fame pitcher who once threw a perfect game and who took his intimidating, combative style from the baseball diamond to Capitol Hill as a Republican member of the House of Representatives and later as a two-term U.S. senator from Kentucky, died May 26 at a hospice facility in northern Kentucky. He was 85.
His former chief of staff, Jon Deuser, confirmed the death. The cause was complications from a stroke several months ago.
Mr. Bunning first gained acclaim as one of the most reliable pitchers of the 1950s and 1960s, first with the Detroit Tigers and later with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was the starting pitcher for the American League in three All Star games and on June 21, 1964 — Father’s Day — he hurled a perfect game for the Phillies against the New York Mets.
He could be dismissive of reporters — as a baseball player and as a congressman — which some said kept him from being selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame by voters of the Baseball Writers Association. He was elected by the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee in 1996.
During his acceptance speech, he was characteristically blunt.
“For over four years now baseball has been rudderless,” he said. “For God’s sake and for the game’s sake, find a rudder.”
Even as a ballplayer, Mr. Bunning had shown an interest in politics and off-the-field issues. He was a leader in the founding of the players’ union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and in 1968 headed a group called Athletes for Nixon.
After his retirement from baseball in 1971, he managed for five years in the Phillies’ minorleague system before entering politics, first being elected to the city council, then to the state Senate. He was Kentucky’s Republican candidate for governor in 1983, losing to Democrat Martha Layne Collins.
Mr. Bunning was elected to Congress in 1986 and served six terms. As a conservative Republican, he voted to reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and to kill the U.S. Education Department outright.
“He’s a good guy, very principled, but a tough hombre,” Rep. Robert Borski (D-Pa.) told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997. “He’s not out there to make friends.”
The same reputation followed Mr. Bunning to the Senate after his election in 1998. He narrowly won reelection in 2004, after a nasty campaign in which he said his Democratic opponent, Daniel Mongiardo, “looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.”
In 2006, Time magazine named Mr. Bunning one of the country’s five worst senators and dubbed him “the underperformer.” He was discouraged from running for a third term by senior Republican leaders, including his fellow senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell.
After announcing he would not seek reelection in 2010, Mr. Bunning angered many when he blocked $10 billion in funding for extended unemployment benefits.
“It only adds to the frustration of the American people when we are unable to act on a measure that has overwhelming support,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said at the time. “He’s hurting the American people.”
When he described his impressions of his fellow Republicans who recommended that he retire, Mr. Bunning recalled his baseball days.
“When you’ve dealt with Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Stan Musial,” he said, “the people I’m dealing with now are kind of down the scale.”
James Paul David Bunning was born Oct. 23, 1931, in Covington, Ky., and grew up in Southgate, a Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati. His father worked for a company that made ladders.
Mr. Bunning attended a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati, where he excelled in sports. He went to Cincinnati’s Xavier University on a basketball scholarship, but the Detroit Tigers recognized his skill in baseball and signed him to a minor-league contract in 1950.
He was allowed to complete his education at Xavier, from which he graduated in 1953, while pitching in the minor leagues. Mr. Bunning joined the Tigers in 1955 and became a star two years later, when he led the American League with 20 wins.
It was his only 20-win season, though he would win 19 games four times.
On the mound, the 6-foot-3 Mr. Bunning was a menacing presence, especially with an almost sidearm delivery. He was known for a lively fastball, a hitter-freezing curveball and a tendency to throw at hitters who crowded the plate.
After being traded to Philadelphia before the 1964 season, Mr. Bunning — who had seven children at the time — found perfection on Father’s Day at New York’s Shea Stadium. He set down all 27 Mets hitters on a mere 90 pitches.
He defied baseball custom by speaking about his performance in the dugout between innings.
“I said, ‘Guys, we have a perfect game here. Do whatever you have to do. Dive for the ball. Whatever is necessary,’ ” he told the Inquirer in 2004.
It was the first regular-season perfect game in the major leagues since 1922. (The New York Yankees’ Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series.)
Mr. Bunning won 224 games during his 17-year career and had an earned run average of 3.27. He was the first pitcher of the 20th century to pitch no-hitters and to win more than 100 games in both the American and National leagues. When he retired in 1971, his 2,855 strikeouts ranked second in baseball history, behind only Washington Senators great Walter Johnson.
Survivors include his wife of 65 years, the former Mary Theis; nine children; 35 grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren.
During his embattled 2004 Senate campaign, Mr. Bunning said, “Sure we made mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes.”
Then he added, “The only time I’ve ever been perfect was for about two hours and 10 minutes on June 21, 1964.”
Three-time All Star pitcher Jim Bunning hurled a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies against the New York Mets in 1964.