Jim Bunning, U.S. senator and baseball luminary, dies at 85

Jim Bunning, the only person ever elected both to the U.S. Senate and the Baseball Hall of Fame, has died. He was 85. 

Bunning, a blunt, conservative Republican who spent a combined 24 years representing Kentucky in the House and Senate, weathered several close elections to earn his place in both institutions. Sometimes, his two professions seemed to go together perfectly. 

“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,” he said in his farewell Senate speech in December 2010. “I have also thought that being able to throw a curve ball never was a bad skill for a politician to have.” 

A fair number of former athletes have attempted to make careers in politics, but few made it as far as Bunning, whose distinguished major-league career from 1955 to 1971 was followed by decades on the political stage. 

After his playing career, Bunning went into coaching — he hoped to be named manager of the Phillies in 1973 but was bypassed — and then became a sports agent. “I never thought about being involved in politics,” he told Philadelphia sportswriter Stan Hochman in 1986. 

That changed in 1977, when he was approached to run for a local office. “I didn’t want to run,” he told Hochman. “I had just gotten out of the frying pan and they wanted me to jump into a fire.” 

But Bunning changed his mind and made a successful run for the City Council in Fort Thomas, then moved up to the state Senate two years later. After an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1983, he jumped into an open-seat race and was elected to the House in 1986 from Kentucky’s 4th District. He kept that seat until running for Senate 12 years later. 

Both of Bunning’s Senate elections were perilously close. In 1998, he battled for an open seast with another ex-athlete, Democrat Scott Baesler, a former University of Kentucky basketball player. The race was considered too close to call all election season and the ultimate margin was less than 1 percent — Bunning won by 6,766 votes out of more than 1 million cast. 

Entering 2004, Bunning started off in a better spot, but his advantages were rapidly frittered away. Facing state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, Bunning conducted a campaign that struck observers as dangerously odd — filled with strange remarks such as saying Mongiardo looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons — and he declined to debate his foe in person, debating instead by video. Rumors circulated that Bunning was in bad health, or, worse yet, losing his faculties. At one point, the Louisville Courier-Journal —a regular subject of Bunning’s wrath —pondered whether “Senator Bunning has drifted into territory that indicates a serious health concern.” 

Ultimately, Bunning held off his challenger by 2 percentage points but drew almost 200,000 fewer votes in the state than President George W. Bush. 

For years, Bunning was best known for his efforts to safeguard Social Security benefits, sponsoring, among other things, legislation that made the Social Security Administration a separate agency. He also supported legislation to aid adoptive parents and was known for actively working on local Kentucky issues and, whenever they came before Congress, baseball-related issues. 

Like his eventual successor in the Senate (Rand Paul), Bunning was wary of the Federal Reserve and its powers. When Ben Bernanke’s nomination to lead the Fed came before the Senate, Bunning used the occasion to denounce both Bernanke and the Fed itself. “I will do everything I can to stop your nomination and drag out the process as long as possible,” Bunning said. “We must put an end to your and the Fed’s failures, and there is no better time than now.” 

He did not seek a third term in 2010. Bunning’s retirement was not entirely voluntary; during his final years in the Senate, he battled with the GOP leadership, including his home-state colleague, Mitch McConnell. In July 2009, when he announced he was not running again, he was notably critical of his party: “Over the past year, some of the leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate have done everything in their power to dry up my fundraising.” 

In February 2010, Bunning drew perhaps more attention to himself than he ever had before, launching a one-man crusade against the short-term extension of unemployment benefits because Congress had not found a way to pay for those benefits. With the unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent, he sparred verbally with Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and the press and even faced criticism from his fellow GOP senators. 

He did relent in early March. “Neither side has clean hands,” he said at the end of his stand. “What matters is that we get our spending problems under control.” 

The episode helped cement his image as ornery. 

He was blunt and abrasive, particularly when discussing Washington. In 1993, for instance, he referred to President Bill Clinton as “the most corrupt, the most amoral, the most despicable person I’ve ever seen in the presidency.” In 2009, he made headlines by predicting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be dead of cancer within nine months. 

“On Capitol Hill,” wrote the The Almanac of American Politics 1996, “Bunning had shown much of the aggressiveness that he had on the pitching mound and organizing the baseball players’ union.” 

Bunning’s prickly personality definitely dated back to his hyper-competitive years as one of baseball’s best pitchers. A 1965 Sports Illustrated article referred to him as a “grim competitor.” 

“I was very intense about every performance,” Bunning told Hochman of his baseball days in 1989. “I thought it was a life-and-death situation at the time. “ 

His greatest moment in baseball came pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies on Father’s Day 1964. Bunning hurled a perfect game against the New York Mets — 27 batters up, 27 batters out, ending with a strikeout of the clearly overmatched John Stephenson. Remarkably, it was the first perfect game in the National League since 1880. 

“It’s like achieving something you never thought you would ever achieve,” he told Hochman, “and I don’t know how many people get to do that. Plus being totally aware of what you were doing as you did it.” 

The perfect game was the second no-hitter of his career (he had thrown one in 1958 for the Detroit Tigers) and one of 224 career wins. The win over the Mets also came in the middle of what ended up as a traumatic season for the team and the city of Philadelphia, as the Phillies collapsed at the end of the season, losing 10 straight games to blow a seemingly insurmountable lead. “We had it; it was ours, and we let it go,” Bunning was quoted as saying in The Philadelphia Story by Frank Dolson. 

Bunning became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1977 and started building a constituency, collecting 38.1 percent of the vote that year out of a required 75 percent. He steadily gained until reaching 74.2 percent in 1988 — four votes short of what he needed — but stalled there. Finally, after 15 years of annual consideration by baseball’s writers, his candidacy was kicked over to the Hall’s Veterans Committee, which then elected him in 1996. 

Wrote Murray Chass for the New York Times: “Jim Bunning, a Republican congressman from Kentucky who is one of the few members of his party not running for its Presidential nomination, won his own election today, and he wasn’t even running in a primary.” 

Fittingly, Bunning’s election was celebrated on the House floor: His colleagues stopped the proceedings to announce his honor and give him a standing ovation.

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