Paradox Lost

The bizarre Jim Bunning as you never knew him: an unlikely power broker behind the birth of the all-powerful baseball players' union
March 14, 2010

Jim Bunning would not shut up. Just about everyone thought he should shut up because, well, that's how things were done.

But Bunning never did believe in groundless etiquette. For the last three innings of the perfect game he threw for the Phillies against the Mets on June 21, 1964, Jim Bunning kept babbling in the dugout between innings—"Jabbering like a magpie," recalled his catcher, Gus Triandos—jabbering and coaxing his teammates and jinxing himself. "There's a perfect game going on here!" he told them.

There is a procedure for perfect games. Nobody is supposed to say what's actually happening. Bunning didn't buy it. Just 23 days before, he had retired the first 20 Houston batters he faced. In that game he tried to handle things the accepted way. It didn't work. Bunning gave up a hit and then another and then he melted down.

Yes, Jim Bunning has never been a slave to convention. That contrary streak surfaced again last week, when the U.S. Senator from Kentucky was vilified for single-handedly, albeit temporarily, holding up an extension of unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans.

Bunning's stubbornness is Hall of Fame--worthy. His baseball career was built on an act of rebellion. When he was young, he pitched with a crazy sidearm motion. Detroit Tigers management buried him in the minor leagues for seven years and tried to teach him how to throw overhand. Bunning had a losing record in the minors.

He went back to his old motion, and he won 20 games in his first full big league season. Bunning's pitching style—and one of the most devastating sliders in baseball history—would help him win 224 games. When he retired, he had struck out more batters than anyone except Walter Johnson. He also had learned a key lesson: People didn't always know what the hell they were talking about.

That hard-won wisdom prompted him, in turn, to speak his mind. "No, the Jim Bunning I knew was never shy about expressing his opinion," says Marvin Miller, the longtime executive director of the players' association. To say the least. Bunning was never especially popular as a player. Mickey Mantle once had to be restrained after Bunning hit him in the leg with a pitch. Jimmy Piersall charged the mound when Bunning plunked him. Though he wouldn't admit it, everyone knew he was cutting baseballs and using pine tar to get more action on his slider.

But nobody questioned Bunning's toughness on the mound or his passion for doing what he thought was right. His sense of purpose provided a sometimes paradoxical pragmatism: Bunning played a big role in the baseball hiring of Marvin Miller. Bunning, even then, was a deeply conservative man, and Miller was a New York City economist who worked for the United Steelworkers of America. Bunning believed that there should be a friendly relationship between players and owners; Miller thought that impossible. It hardly seemed like a match. But Bunning was on the committee—along with Harvey Kuenn and fellow future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts—that interviewed Miller. And Bunning worked hard, and successfully, to sell Miller to the skeptical players and, in effect, help build arguably the most powerful union in America.

"I'll tell you a Jim Bunning story that I find interesting," says Miller, now 92. "At some point he got traded to Pittsburgh. And I remember he came to the office, and he had this peculiar look on his face. He said, 'You know, when I got to the Pirates, they had a vacancy as player rep.... So I nominated Roberto Clemente. I did that because I remembered one conversation where you said it was pretty sad that there had never been a nonwhite player representative. I think Roberto is the perfect one to break that color line.'

"I just think that's interesting, don't you?" Miller asks.

Well, Bunning is interesting. He's 78, and he's retiring from the Senate—he is basically being forced out by his own party. In 2006 TIME magazine called him one of the five worst senators; his stance is often extreme (for instance, he came out in favor of fencing off the border with Mexico); and he has made numerous bizarrely provocative public statements, like the time in '04 when he said his senatorial opponent, Daniel Mongiardo, looked like one of Saddam Hussein's sons.

But it's also true that Bunning is one of the few men in American history to reach such great heights in two disparate fields. Bunning, the ballplayer, was private and blunt and shrewd and difficult—the last guy anyone would expect to go into politics. Bunning, the politician, has served six terms in the House and two terms in the Senate.

"This Jim Bunning—the one who conducted a one-man filibuster against unemployment benefits—no, that's not the Jim Bunning I knew," Miller says. "My wife died in October. And a few days after that I got a call. On my answering machine I heard, 'This is Jim Bunning.' He was very kind. Very gentle."

Marvin Miller coughed a little. "That," he said, "was the Jim Bunning I knew."

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"THIS JIM BUNNING—the one who conducted a one-man filibuster against unemployment benefits—no, that's not the Jim Bunning I knew," Miller says.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)