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Jim Bunning (R., Ky.)

Feb. 23, 1987
Feb. 23, 1987

Table of Contents
Feb. 23, 1987

Rendez-Vous 87
Lakers-Celtics
Sean Higgins
Reggie Williams
Aragon
Track & Field

Jim Bunning (R., Ky.)

Close your eyes—whap!—and you can hear—whap!—batting practice—whap!—in Connie Mack Stadium. Open them, though, and you're not in Philadelphia in 1964, but in Washington, D.C., the House of Representatives, in 1987, and the sound you hear is the sergeant at arms banging his mace, trying to restore order to the first session of the 100th Congress of the United States of America.

This is an article from the Feb. 23, 1987 issue

It is a little like the first day of spring training, as children scurry about while the players greet each other heartily after the off-season. The clerk is taking a roll-call vote for the election of the speaker of the House, and when he calls out, "Bunning," the distinguished gentleman sitting on the Republican side of the House says, "Michel," just loud enough to be heard above the din. Let the record show that Mr. Bunning, renowned in his pitching days for a follow-through that sent him lunging off the mound, does not fall off his seat after casting his vote.

The roll call goes on and on—past Connie Mack III (R., Fla.), a grandson of the original—and nearly half an hour later it is completed. In a foregone conclusion, the choice of the majority-party Democrats, the Honorable Jim Wright of Texas, is elected speaker by a 254-173 margin over his Republican opponent, the Honorable Robert Michel of Illinois. After speeches by both Representative Michel and Representative Wright, the members of the 100th Congress rise to take the oath of office.

Raising the right hand that won 224 major league games, that pitched a no-hitter in one league and a perfect game in the other, that once made him the No. 2 strikeout pitcher of all time, the Honorable Jim Bunning of Kentucky solemnly swears that he will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office he is about to assume. "So help me God," he says.

Then Bunning embraces fellow freshman Republican Jay Rhodes of Arizona, and now, all of a sudden, Gus Triandos is going out to the mound to put his arm around Bunning on that day in 1964. While Bunning is getting lost in the congressional camaraderie down on the floor, you get lost in the memories of that perfect game on Fathers Day, of the ill-fated ending to that year, of all the 19-win seasons and the 1-0 losses, and—talk about prolific winners—of those nine children of his. You see him plunging off the side of the mound, putting everything he had into every pitch, falling, falling...and somehow landing in the House of Representatives.

He was elected last November as a conservative Republican from the overwhelmingly Democratic Fourth District in Kentucky, and he won rather easily. How Jim Bunning, pitcher, came to be Jim Bunning, congressman, is a pretty good story, with episodes of grit and family and betrayal and luck. "An accident, really," says Bunning. "I never set out to be a politician." His wife and childhood sweetheart, Mary, calls it "God's little plan for Jim." But mostly, his is a story of a man determined to do something very difficult: change.

Bunning has always been smart, diligent and tremendously competitive, but his warmth was felt only by his family and friends at home in Fort Thomas, Ky. Asked if she ever thought her father would become a politician, Barbara, 34, the eldest child, says, "No, not really. He was always shy around people." Bunning himself says, "Boy, was I a hard guy."

That coolness toward outsiders may well have cost him the 21 additional votes he needed to make the Baseball Hall of Fame last month. Given the current entrance requirements, Bunning deserves to be in Cooperstown. Catfish Hunter had the same number of victories (224) and virtually the same ERA (3.26 for Hunter, 3.27 for Bunning), and he made it rather easily. Had Bunning won just four more games, the ones that would have turned his four 19-win seasons into 20-win seasons, or had he been as nice to reporters as Hunter was, he probably would have won that election, too.

But what the heck, he's in a different sanctum now, the one the late speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, called, "the highest theater anyone plays in upon this Earth today." There are 198 men in the Hall of Fame, but only one other major leaguer, pitcher Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell, has ever had a vote under the Capitol dome. The man to whom Bunning once stood second on the strikeout list, Walter Johnson, couldn't get into the House, though he tried. (Shortly after he announced his intention to run in 1940, Johnson, a Republican pig farmer, was asked his thoughts on the major issues. "I plan to study up on them things," said the Big Train.)

This year Bunning and rookie congressman Tom McMillen, the Maryland Democrat who played 11 years in the NBA, (page 70) joined representatives Jack Kemp (Buffalo Bills) and Mo Udall (the old ABL Denver Nuggets) and Senator Bill Bradley (New York Knicks) in the Jock Caucus, as Udall has come to call the collective of five former pro athletes now serving in Congress. "I like having jocks on the Hill, no matter their political persuasion," says Kemp. "We tend to be problem solvers, and we don't moan or groan about defeats." Mizell, who now works in the Office of Governmental and Public Affairs for the Department of Agriculture, says, "I used to look at it like this: After I was elected to Congress, I thought of my constituency in the same way I thought of the fans in St. Louis and Pittsburgh who watched me pitch. They expected, and I tried to give them, my best. There's another similarity between Congress and sports. The cloakroom is quite a bit like the clubhouse."

Bunning always held the respect of his peers in the clubhouse. He was the player representative in both Detroit and Philadelphia, and he was one of the founding fathers, as it were, of the players' revolution in the early '70s that resulted in the hiring of Marvin Miller as president of an increasingly militant players union. He has already demonstrated his standing in the cloakroom. During orientation last December, Bunning's fellow Republican freshmen elected him to an important post on the executive committee of the Committee on Committees. That sounds almost Kafkaesque, but the executive committee decides on committee assignments, and Bunning was chosen to look after the interests of the freshmen. For himself, Bunning saved assignments to the banking committee—finance is his area of expertise—and to the Merchant Marines and Fisheries Committee, which tackles issues that are important to his district.

Bunning is a staunch supporter of the President, and, in fact, the careers of Ronald Reagan and Bunning have several parallels. Both had Democratic upbringings, both made big names for themselves outside politics, both were strong members of their professional unions, and both entered politics at the urging of influential friends.

The product of a Democratic household, Bunning registered as a Republican in college and was at one time a conservative ideologue. "Everything was black and white to me, but as time goes on, things are getting a little grayer," he says. "I think I understand the other side more. I'm more willing to compromise. Still, I guess you can say I come down right of center."

He does wear his partisanship on his sleeve. He took obvious glee, for example, in what might be described as a Republican "quick pitch" during that first session of Congress. Republican whip Trent Lott of Mississippi introduced a motion, tacked on to a routine rules package, that the 100th Congress commit itself to no further tax increases. The motion was easily defeated, but Bunning says with a cackle, "We got the Democrats on record as favoring a tax increase."

Although Bunning has taken the floor in Congress just once—he spoke in opposition to a raise for congressmen—he is not afraid of speaking his mind. At a congressional briefing on Nicaragua with Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, Bunning pointed out that the Administration had not delivered as good a public relations pitch in behalf of aid to the Contras as their opponents had.

Bunning delivered his first pitch in 1955 with the Tigers. He had signed with Detroit in 1950, but only on the proviso that he be allowed to skip spring training until he finished college. He got his degree in business administration from Xavier in Cincinnati in 3½ years.

In the meantime, Jim and Mary began adding to the census. Barbara was born in 1952, and after the 1954 season, a set of twins, Joan and Jim Jr., arrived. Seeing that their family was progressing faster than Jim's pitching career, the Bunnings began thinking of an alternative. The Tigers called him up in '55, but he was back in the minors in '56, and Mary was pregnant with Cathy. "We were going to give baseball one more year," says Mary.

But in 1957, Bunning won 20 games and pitched three perfect innings as the All-Star Game starter. And on July 20, 1958, against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, he pitched what was then called "the gabbiest no-hitter of all time"—he talked about the possibility as early as the sixth inning. The last batter he faced was Ted Williams. His first pitch to the Splinter tells you all you need to know about Bunning as a competitor. With a no-hitter within reach and a legend at bat, Bunning brushed him back. On the next pitch, Williams lifted a fly to Al Kaline for the final out. Mary, who was home in Kentucky with five kids—William was born in March—listened to the game on the car radio. She got so excited that she nearly drove into a tree.

From 1959 to 1962, Bunning gave the Tigers some pretty good years. Mary also gave him two more kids, Bridget and Mark, raising the total to seven. Following a mediocre '63 season, the Tigers traded him to the Phillies. On June 21, 1964, in New York, he pitched the first National League perfect game since John Montgomery Ward had one in 1880. That Bunning, a father of seven, did it on Father's Day, gave the feat an added shine.

But heartbreak awaited Bunning and the Phillies at the end of the '64 season, when they blew a 6½-game lead with 10 games to play. Still, Bunning had four brilliant years in Philadelphia, going 74-46 (including five one-run losses in '67) with a 2.48 ERA. He also had a burgeoning second career as a stockbroker, and in July '66 he became the father of another set of twins, Amy and David. That's all, folks.

During this time, Bunning became more involved in the Major League Baseball Players Association. He was instrumental in setting up the pension plan, and even today he says, "I am as proud of that as anything I did on the field."

In his curtain-call year, 1971, Bunning started and won the first game in Veterans Stadium, and later moved ahead of Cy Young into second place on the all-time strikeout list. On Sept. 28, the Phillies held Jim Bunning Day and gave him a Volkswagen bus, out of which popped all nine children. Nowadays, of course, Bunning buys American, and you wouldn't dare give him an import.

Although Mary had a feeling it wouldn't work out, Bunning decided to try managing, and he started with the Phillies' Double A team in Reading in 1972. He wasn't so much a manager as he was an unstinting taskmaster. Dane Iorg, who would go on to a 10-year major league career and heroics in two World Series, played for Bunning that first season. "I didn't like him at first, and a lot of the guys plain hated him," recalls Iorg. "He had this tape recorder with him, and every time you did something wrong, you'd see him talking into the microphone. We were so worried we'd be on that thing, we couldn't play."

During the next four years, Bunning grew more comfortable with the job and with his players. For example, he developed a close relationship with Lonnie Smith, who came to the minor leagues distrustful of whites, and to this day, Bunning remains Smith's agent. Smith even campaigned for Bunning when he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Kentucky in 1983.

"I had him his last year as manager, and he was great," says Iorg. "But he could still scare people, and I think that's why he didn't get a chance. He intimidated the Phillies."

Had it not been for Bunning's inability to play politics in baseball, he might never have become a politician. His baseball career came to an end in Oklahoma City in 1975, when the Phillies let him go after repeated assurances that his job was safe. The decision was made by assistant general manager Dallas Green, Bunning's closest friend. "I just didn't think he was cut out to be a major league manager," says Green. "He could have stayed in baseball, and he very well could have gotten a major league job. and maybe I was wrong. Anyway, the country is much better off with him in Congress."

According to Bunning, "I just said, 'Baseball, you've been my life, but now it's time to say goodbye.' " He is sitting in his congressional office in Fort Wright, signing all the Jim Bunning pictures in the Topps Baseball Cards book, no small task considering he has 27 separate cards. He's doing it for the son of a constituent, but he allows that he has yet to find the perfect balance between his baseball life and his political life. "I loved baseball, and I'm grateful for the name recognition it gave me." he says. "But I don't want to be autographing balls on my way to a vote in the House."

In June '76, when Bunning was concentrating on his new business as a player agent, friends talked him into getting on a slate of candidates, the People's Ticket, for the Fort Thomas city council. He wrote "We need your help" on 6,000 postcards, signed them and sent them out. He was easily elected. "I enjoyed it." he says, "and Mary and I decided we might like a life in public service."

Next he challenged Campbell County's Democratic state senator. Donald Johnson, a 16-year incumbent. Bunning knocked on enough doors to defeat Johnson by a scant 400 votes. In the process, he was getting over the shyness he hid behind during his playing days. "You spend so much time guarding your privacy in baseball that I found it hard to go up to people and ask for their votes." says Bunning. He had another major political asset besides his name. Mary more than made up for Jim's seeming lack of warmth.

Once in the state senate, where the Republicans were outnumbered 29-9, Bunning came to be known as Dr. No for his contentious opposition to Democratic programs. But he did his homework, and the Republican senators made him the minority leader in January '83. After trying to talk other prominent Republicans into running for governor in '83, Bunning decided to run himself. His opponent. Democratic Lieutenant Governor Martha Layne Collins, was a heavy favorite. Collins spent a great deal more money ($5.4 million to $1.3 million), but Bunning, who had been behind in the polls by as much as 32%, wound up losing by a less lopsided 9%.

Still, the state's press found him rather stiff and forbidding. "He could be arrogant, short and nasty at times," says Bill Straub, Frankfort bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. "Covering him was something of a chore." On the other hand, here was Bunning, trying to convince people he was a serious candidate, while newspapers ran headlines like GOP GETS IN BALLGAME and EX-MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER GOES AFTER BIG WIN.

Bunning had a decision to make: Run for governor again in '87 or for Congress from the Fourth District, his home field, in '86. M. Gene Snyder, the Republican incumbent, was retiring after 11 terms, and Bunning was a natural for the district, which runs along the Ohio River from the suburbs of Cincinnati to the suburbs of Louisville and encompasses 12 counties. His Democratic opponent, Terry Mann, carried eight counties, but Bunning soundly defeated him in the two counties where more than two-thirds of the voters lived, and won by a 56%-44% margin. Although he tends to credit his staff for the victory, he was simply a much better campaigner this time around. "He underwent an interesting transformation between 1983 and this past election," says Straub. "He was charming throughout the campaign. He really loosened up. It was almost as if he went to candidate school."

So, Mr. Bunning went to Washington.

After his swearing-in, Bunning hurries back to his office. Room 1123 in the Longworth House Office Building, where a reception is being held for his staff and family and supporters. "Sitting there, listening to those speeches, I kept thinking of all the people who were waiting for me back here," he says. "But when the time came, I felt the chills. I remember Jay Rhodes telling us in orientation the story of how he took the oath of office when he was eight years old, standing beside his father. John Rhodes [then a Republican congressman from Arizona]. And today, there was Jay's own five-year-old son, standing in the aisle, taking the oath."

Off to one side, Mary is explaining to a hometown newspaperman the difference between this day and that Father's Day in 1964. "Maybe I got more excited at the perfect game," she says. "But this thrill was somehow deeper, more emotional. I really had tears in my eyes when he hugged Jay Rhodes."

Just then the voting bells go off. and Bunning excuses himself, saying, "My first real vote." Bunning goes jogging off across Constitution Avenue over to the Capitol. He's 20 years older, several pounds heavier and dressed in a gray business suit, but the old athletic stride is still there. He's trotting out to the mound now, to pitch against the Democrats.

PHOTOJAMES DRAKEWITH others in the 100th Congress, Bunning (in red tie) took the oath of office.PHOTOJAMES DRAKEBUNNING'S falling-off-the-mound motion helped him chalk up 224 wins.PHOTOJAMES DRAKEBUNNING with (from left) daughters Amy and Joan, wife Mary and son David.PHOTOJACK KLUMPEBY 1966, Jim and Mary had enough little Bunnings to field their own team.