Jim Bunning: The Cy Young he should have won, and force for the players union

Jim Bunning

Jim Bunning won 224 major-league games and election to the Hall of Fame and both houses of Congress, for which he is best remembered. But he also helped win power for the major league players union in its early days, for which he is not as well remembered and which seems at odds with his politics. Bunning died last month at age 85. Bunning won 19 games for the 1964 Phillies in his first season with the team — he’s the third member of the team (Dallas Green and Ruben Amaro) to die this year — but the 19th win came on the final day of the season. He had tried three times previously, twice on two days rest and lost them all, three of the 10 straight games the team lost which cost it the NL pennant. Manager Gene Mauch is often blamed for starting Bunning and Chris Short on short rest, but he wasn’t by Bunning, according to his bio at sabr.org. From the bio: “Bunning would have none of that; he blamed neither Mauch nor any one player for the lost pennant.” (Fifty years later, Bunning was one of the leading advocates for sometimes-controversial ’64 Phillies teammate Richie Allen’s candidacy before the Golden Era Committee. Bunning after Allen fell one vote shy: “You know, I played with him for four years, and his career statistics match up with anybody who played first or third base that is in or should be in the Hall of Fame. He was the guy who other teams said, ‘Don’t let him beat you.’ … I’m just completely disappointed. That’s all I can say.”) Bunning’s career was full of accomplishments, if not awards. He was the second pitcher, after Cy Young, to win 100 games, strike out 1,000 batters and throw a no-hitter in each league (Bunning’s no-hitter in the NL was on Father’s Day 1964, and was a perfect game, which seemed fitting since he had nine children. It was the first regular-season perfect game in 42 years, though there was one by Don Larsen in October 1956). When Bunning retired after the 1971 season, his 2,855 strikeouts ranked second all-time, behind Walter Johnson. They now rank 17th (everyone who’s passed him is a Hall of Famer but for Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling). Bunning won 20 games once and 19 games four times and led leagues in strikeouts three times and innings pitched and games started twice. (As a testament to what kind of pitcher he was, he led the league in nothing more often than he did hit batters — four straight years for the Phillies, at a time Bob Gibson was active. Gibson had the rep; Bunning had the stats.) But Bunning received a Cy Young vote only once — for most, but not all, of his career it was one award for both leagues — in 1967, when he got one vote. He was tied for second with Ferguson Jenkins to NL Cy Young winner Mike McCormick. Bunning should have won, and someone had the foresight to vote for him despite a 17-15 record for an 82-80 Phillies team. Bunning had a 2.29 ERA more than a half a run less than McCormick’s 2.85; Bunning pitched 302.1 innings, more than anyone else in the NL and 40 more than McCormick; Bunning struck out 253 batters, more than anyone else in the NL and 103 more than McCormick; Bunning walked eight fewer batters, gave up seven fewer hits, had an ERA+ 31 points better (149-118), and an OPS against 40 points better (.593 to .633). McCormick won 22 games and lost only 10, which by the standards of 1967 was Cy Young worthy. By today’s standards, Bunning might have been unanimous. Bunning had been just as good, maybe better, the year before: 19-14 with a 2.41 ERA, 314 innings, 252 strikeouts and .614 OPS, but Sandy Koufax was, and deservedly so, a unanimous winner in 1966, his final season. (In the final game of 1966, Koufax clinched the NL pennant for the Dodgers, beating Bunning. It was Bunning’s last chance to match his 20-win AL season with one in the NL). Nineteen-sixty-seven was Bunning’s last year of that caliber. Traded to the Pirates, he was 4-14 in ’68, 13-10 for the Pirates and Dodgers in ’69 and then dealt back to the Phillies, where he finished his career with a 5-12, 5.48 ERA season in 1971 in the first year of Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium. Included in that season was one of the longest home runs I ever saw hit, by Bunning’s former Pirates teammate Willie Stargell, about 30-40 feet below the 700 level seats where we were sitting. Bunning, from phillysportshistory.com: “The Stargell Star (the seat Stargell hit was commemorated with a marker) was a high slider that I used to get Stargell out on, only I didn’t throw it hard enough and didn’t get it in. It got over the fat part of the plate. He couldn’t hit it any further.” Ted Williams, who hit eight of his 521 career home runs off Bunning, had made the Bunning slider famous. From Jim Bouton’s Ball Four: “Ted Williams, when he was still playing, would psyche himself up for a game during batting practice, usually early practice before the fans or reporters got there. He’d go into the cage, wave his bat at the pitcher and start screaming at the top of his voice, ‘My name is Ted fucking Williams and I’m the greatest hitter in baseball.’ He’d swing and hit a line drive. ‘Jesus H Christ Himself couldn’t get me out.’ And he’d hit another. Then he’d say, ‘Here comes Jim Bunning. Jim fucking Bunning and that little shit slider of his.’ Wham! ‘He doesn’t really think he’s gonna get me out with that shit.’ Blam!” Bunning did sometimes get Williams out with his little shit slider. In Bunning’s 1958 no-hitter for the Tigers, he retired Williams four times, including for the final out. Bunning had graduated from Xavier University (Ohio) with a degree in economics and was the Tigers player representative when he was traded after the 1963 season. According to a story at alternet.org on Bunning’s union involvement, after the trade, “the Detroit Free Press ran a story headlined, ‘Was Player Rep Bunning Too Busy?'” Bunning became the Phillies play rep, and soon became involved in the search for a union leader, according to alternet.org. (Link here). According to the alternet.org story, the union had $5,700 in the bank in 1966, and the 1965 average salary was $14,341, or less than what Clayton Kershaw gets today per out. According to the story, when Bunning joined the Phillies, players had to pay for their parking spaces at Connie Mack Stadium. And according to the story, the players were the ’62 Mets when it came to negotiating. Bunning in 1990, according to Alternet.org: “We would take our requests to the owners at a joint meeting and then they would just laugh at us and say ‘sure, we’ll look at it,’ and that was the end of it. We didn’t know labor law. We didn’t know collective bargaining.” According to the story, Bunning, Robin Roberts, Harvey Kuenn and Bob Friend interviewed candidates to lead the union, among them former vice president Richard Nixon (how history might have been different had he taken the job). Roberts got behind Marvin Miller, and Bunning did, too. Miller was hired and the players union soon gained power. Alternet.org: “At first, the team owners and many sportswriters tried to turn the players against Miller. Some used his leftist and Jewish background as a weapon. But Bunning, a Southerner and a Republican, stood up for Miller. In 1967, he and other members of the union’s executive board replaced Miller’s first contract (which had another year to run) with a three-year extension and a $5,000 raise to $55,000. Speaking for the union, Bunning told the press about the board’s action, explaining: ‘I know that baseball people resent our new leader…I have news for them. Marvin Miller will be around for a long time.’” He was, and that Miller is not a Hall of Famer, but a commissioner who overlooked racism and another who presided over the default of an entire postseason are, indicates some of that attitude is embedded in the game 50 years later. In Congress, Bunning earned a 12 rating from the AFL-CIO, according to alternet.org, but he deserves a 100 for Miller. When it came to baseball, Bunning believed in Solidarity Forever, though perhaps not on days he pitched. From alternet.org, citing Charles Korr’s history of the MLBPA, The End of Baseball As We Knew It, Tim McCarver on Bunning: “Bunning would talk with you one day about the ‘righteousness of the cause the need for staying united’ and then knock you down with a fastball the next day.” Bunning took the same approach to Congress. From his farewell address in 2010, delivered, according to Bunning’s New York Times obit, from the desk once occupied by another senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay: “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. I have also thought that being able to throw a curveball never was a bad skill for a politician to have.” Career numbers: 224-184, 3.27 ERA, 3,760.1 innings, 3,433 hits, 1,000 walks, 2,855 strikeouts, 151 complete games, 40 shutouts, 16 saves, 160 hit batters, 115 ERA+, 3.22 FIP, 1.179 WHIP, seven years an All-Star, MVP votes five times (ninth in ’57 his best finish), .670 OPS against, 372 home runs allowed, seven home runs hit, 60.3 WAR, selected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1996 (received 74.2% of the vote in 1988, the year Willie Stargell was elected).

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