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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,378

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This is the grave of Jim Bunning.

Born in 1931 in Southgate, Kentucky, Bunning grew up Catholic and went to Xavier University in Cincinnati. He was also a star pitcher for the Musketeers. He was so good that in 1950, after his freshman year, he left the team to sign with the Detroit Tigers, though he took classes in the offseason and eventually got his degree. He didn’t fly through the minors, but he made it to the majors in 1955. He was up and down between Detroit and the minors for the first couple of years, but in 1957, he exploded onto the American League. He led the league with 20 wins and 267 innings that year. That was a very good year and followed it with a series of years that were between above average and very good. He led the league in strikeouts in both 59 and 60, but then he also led the league in home runs allowed in 59 too. Generally, depending on how good the Tigers were in a given year, you could depend on 15 or so wins, 250 innings, and an ERA around 3. Despite all those innings, Bunning did not have injury problems in these years. He threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox in 1958. He pitched for the Tigers through 1963, his age 31 year, and was just a solid performer. He made a bunch of All Star teams, but he never received a single vote in the Cy Young Awards, not even a downballot award. So that’s what he was–your solid #2 starter on a good team.

In the 1963 offseason, the Tigers traded Bunning to the Phillies. This led to the best four years of his career. He tossed a perfect game on Father’s Day of 1964 and had the best ERA of his career to that point. He surpassed that again in 1965, then again in 1966, and then again in 1967. In 1964, the Phillies had the lead in the NL most of the season, but Gene Mauch relied on Bunning and his fellow top pitcher Chris Short so heavily in August and September that they fell apart at the end of the season and the Cardinals beat them out. Mauch did not believe in holding pitchers back. In 1966, Bunning threw 314 innings and then followed that up with 302 in 1967, which led the NL. That 1967 year was one of his best and the only time he ever received any Cy Young votes, finishing second. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR stat, his actual best year was 1966 when he was worth 9 wins, but he did not lead the league. He did lead it in 1967, even though it was “only” 7.8 wins.

But the overuse pretty much wiped Bunning after that. The Phillies traded Bunning to the Pirates after 1967 and he was terrible in Pittsburgh. In mid-69, the Pirates traded him to the Dodgers and he was OK I guess in Los Angeles. He came back to the Phillies for the 1970 season, had one last decent campaign, was awful in 1971, and retired.

At the time of his retirement, Bunning was second all-time in strikeouts, only behind Walter Johnson. That was remarkable. But otherwise? He was an above average pitcher with a few awesome years. So it was pretty ridiculous when the Veterans Committee elected Bunning to the Hall of Fame in 1996. It’s not Harold Baines bad, but Bunning is a marginal HOF members.

Well, we’ve covered a lot of athletes like this in the grave series. Usually it stops there after a mention of however they made their living after they retired. Unfortunately, Bunning had a second act as a politician.

As it turned out, Bunning was a very stupid man but that did not get in the way of him having political success in Kentucky, a state where stupidity has rarely gotten in the way of electoral success. Interestingly, Bunning was an early activist for player rights during his career and helped found the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. It was he and Robin Roberts who chose the great Marvin Miller to run the union. Alas, this did not lead to any kind of other political awakening for this extremely conservative man. He worked as an agent for players for awhile and did some minor league managing in the Phillies system but in 1977 ran for city council in the town of Fort Thomas. That led him to the Kentucky senate in 1979 and into Congress in 1986. He was the Republican nominee for governor in 1983, but lost that race. The Cincinnati suburbs of northern Kentucky have been right-wing for a long time so he never faced any real opposition in his decade in Congress. Close to the right in the House, he became Ways and Means chair after Gingrich became Speaker in 1995.

In 1998, Wendell Ford decided to retire from the Senate after four terms. Bunning won the Republican nomination, At this time, the Democratic Party was still a relatively functional thing in Kentucky and the rest of the state was not nearly as far right as the Cincy burbs. He faced a real test against Scotty Baesler and only defeated the Democrat by a half point. Too bad.

As senator, Bunning was a proud and open idiot. He was a weird guy who would just say whatever crossed his mind, which was usually insulting people. He had absolutely no interest in actually working at the job. He was noted for caring about literally no policy issues unless baseball was involved. He was terrible to his staff and to the staff of other senators. He was a theocrat who National Journal named the second most conservative senator behind only the loathsome Jim DeMint in 2007. When running for reelection in 2004, he actually told reporters, “Let me explain something: I don’t watch the national news, and I don’t read the paper. I haven’t done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.” I mean, this is no different than Sam Alito but at least Alito doesn’t just come out and say it. Among his major beliefs were getting rid of the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Speaking of that campaign, at first it was a disaster for Democrats. The original nominee, Governor Paul Patton, was seen as a top flight opponent but his career blew up just at the wrong after an affair went public. So instead the nomination went to a state senator from Hazard named Daniel Mongiardo. No one gave him much of a shot, but then Bunning started insulting him. He said that Mongiardo looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons (I guess because Italians, Iraqis, what’s the difference between the brown races, amirite? Bunning also refused to show up in person for a debate and instead read off a teleprompter and it was an utter disaster. Alas, Kentucky was moving so far to the right at this time that Bunning managed to barely hold off the Democrat and win a second term.

Things did not improve. In 2006, Time placed him on their Five Worst Senators list. He was a prototype white nationalist who wanted all “illegal” immigrants deported. He cheer-led the cancer inside Ruth Bader Ginsburg publicly, bragging that in 2009 that she would be replaced by a Republican (thanks for not listening to that possibility in the future RBG!). He didn’t even bother showing up to the vote on the Affordable Care Act, the only senator to miss it. He came to realize that he could hold up Senate business for any reason and was the guy who refused to consent to a motion to extend unemployment insurance and COBRA coverage in 2010. It was very clear by 2010 that McConnell wanted someone else. Bunning originally wanted to run again but the powers in the party hated him so much that he eventually caved, ranting against McConnell all the way. Unfortunately, the voters of Kentucky chose…..Rand Paul to replace him. Stupidity was their bag.

Bunning died in 2017. He was 85 years old.

Jim Bunning is buried in Saint Stephen Cemetery, Fort Thomas, Kentucky.

If you would like this series to visit more pitchers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS stat, Bunning is the 53rd best pitcher of all time, making him a borderline Hall of Famer. Stan Coveleski, who pitched mostly for the Indians in the 20s and who is 52nd on the list, is in South Bend, Indiana. Pud Galvin, the 19th century ace and who is 54th on the list, is in Pittsburgh. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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