Jim Bunning, Hall of Fame Pitcher Turned Senator, Dies at 85

  • Bunning pitched perfect game, was early leader in player union
  • Dubbed one of America’s ‘worst senators’ by Time magazine

Jim Bunning, a baseball Hall of Famer who in 1964 pitched the first perfect game in the National League in more than 80 years and later served two terms as a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, has died. He was 85.

He died Friday after suffering a stroke in October, according to a Facebook post by his family.

Pitcher Jim Bunning poses for a photograph in 1956.

Photographer: Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Bunning will “long be remembered for many things, including a perfect game, a larger-than-life personality, a passion for Kentucky, and a loving family,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who served alongside Bunning, said Saturday in a statement.

Bunning pitched for 15 seasons with the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies and had short stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers. As a 6-foot-3, 190-pound right-hander with a sidearm delivery, he was a strikeout artist who liked to pitch inside to brush batters back. Bunning retired in 1971 with 224 wins and 184 losses. His 2,855 strikeouts ranked him second at the time on the all-time list, after Walter Johnson.

After laboring for six seasons in the minor leagues, Bunning broke into the majors with Detroit in 1955 and earned a reputation as a hard worker.

Bunning also was a force in the Major League Baseball Players Association, helping to transform the union into an organization that stood up to team owners. In 1966, he was one of a committee of three who selected Marvin Miller as the association’s first executive director. He also helped negotiate big increases in player pensions.

“I am as proud of that as anything I did on the field,” Bunning said in a 1987 interview, according to Sports Illustrated.

As a senator starting in 1999, Bunning was not associated with major legislation but was a strong voice in the emerging conservative movement and an outspoken critic of the Federal Reserve System. He emerged in the spotlight in 2010 by delaying a Senate vote to extend federal unemployment benefits during the recovery from the 2007-2009 recession.

Early Life

James Paul David Bunning was born Oct. 23, 1931, in Southgate, Kentucky. His father, Louis A. Bunning, owned a ladder factory, according to a biography by the Society for American Baseball Research. His mother was the former Gladys Mae Best.

In 1949, he signed a minor-league contract with the Tigers, stipulating that he would skip spring training each year while he was attending college, according to the biography. He received a B.S. in economics from Xavier University in Cincinnati, a Jesuit institution, in 1953.

After two seasons shuttling between major and minor leagues, Bunning broke out in 1957 as a full-time starter for the Tigers. He won a league-leading 20 games and retired all nine batters he faced as starting pitcher for the All-Star game. It was a career high for victories. He had three more 19-win seasons. The next year, 1958, he threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox.

Historic Feat

Bunning’s perfect game came on June 21, 1964, against the New York Mets at their home, Shea Stadium. Archival footage of the game shows fans giving Bunning a standing ovation after he struck out the last batter, John Stephenson. Previously, the most recent perfect game in the National League had been pitched by John Montgomery Ward in 1880 for the Providence Grays.

In the off seasons, Bunning worked as a stockbroker and insurance salesman. Years later, Senator Bunning would assail the chairman of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy.

“I studied economics about the same time as Alan Greenspan, and my professors at Xavier were better than his,” Bunning said in 2001 of the Fed chairman who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from New York University, according to a story in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Jim Bunning in 2014.

Photographer: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Bunning retired after the 1971 season and managed for five years in the Phillies farm system. He became a player agent and had a roster of 30 clients by 1977.

Washington Bound

That year, his political career began as a city councilman in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. He joined the Kentucky state senate in 1979 and ran unsuccessfully for governor four years later. In 1986, Bunning was elected to the first of six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a U.S. senator, Bunning courted controversy and sometimes exhibited erratic behavior, as when he said a political opponent resembled Saddam Hussein’s son. In 2006, Time magazine dubbed him one of America’s worst senators.

By 2009, when he was gearing up to run for a third senate term, McConnell withdrew his support and Bunning retired, citing an inability to raise funds, according to msgTime. Rand Paul won his seat.

Bunning was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1996 by the Veterans Committee.

He had nine children with his wife, the former Mary Catherine Theis.

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