Jim Bunning’s legacy is so unique as many remember him as the baseball Hall of Famer and many as a U.S. Congressman. Whether you loved him or not as a politician, a look back at Bunning’s statistics and achievements on the diamond definitely validate his 1996 Hall of Fame induction.
Bunning died just before May 26 at the age of 85. To remember him after his passing, here are nine interesting things about Bunning’s 17-year baseball career spent mainly with the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies.
1. Two leagues of his own
Bunning’s most notable claim to fame is the symmetry his accomplishments had in baseball’s American and National leagues. He combined spending nine seasons in the AL with the Tigers and eight in the NL on three teams with remarkable consistency resulting in similar achievements in each.
He became only the second pitcher to record 1,000 strikeouts in each league – Cy Young being the first – and accomplished the rare feat of 100 wins in each. He also managed a no-hitter in each league, the second of which a perfect game on Father’s Day against the New York Mets in 1964.
2. Ultimate WARrior
Today’s stat-minded sabermetrics crowd would likely appreciate Bunning’s numbers more than they were back in the 50s and 60s.
Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a tool stat junkies use now to compare players’ overall value – basically a number-crunching formula to show how many more wins a player means to a team over whomever would replace him if he didn’t play. Confusing math aside, Bunning’s WAR is very good.
Bunning is 185th all time in career WAR at 59.4, according to BaseballReference.com. That ties him with Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza and puts him ahead of notable names like Vladimir Guererro, Ichiro Suzuki and Mariano Rivera as well as Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell and Hank Greenberg. That’s pretty good company.
3. All-Star Jimboree
Bunning was no stranger to the All-Star Game, making the team nine times in his career. Two of those years – 1961 and ’62 – had double-header All-Star Games.
<p>In that 1961 twin bill, Bunning was a standout among the stars. In the first game in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Bunning pitched two perfect innings of relief. He then started the second game in Boston’s Fenway Park and tossed three more perfect innings. Fifteen batters faced and 15 batters retired.
4. Always a Cy’s maid, never a Cy
Despite his many All-Star appearances and Hall of Fame credentials, Bunning never did win the Cy Young Award as the top pitcher in either league.
The closest he came was 1967 when he finished second behind San Francisco’s Mike McCormick. While McCormick had more wins and fewer losses, Bunning was ahead of him on many other categories, including strikeouts, earned run average, complete games and innings pitched.
Bunning also finished 22nd in the NL MVP balloting. While his vote share was fairly miniscule, his WAR was 8.0. Among the top-25 vote getters, only Roberto Clemente, Ron Santo and Hank Aaron – who finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively – had higher WAR. It’s safe to assume today’s voters would have given Bunning more love given the emphasis on sabermetrics.
5. A workhorse starter
Wins, strikeouts and no-hitters are glamorous, but quality starts, durability and being able to chew up innings are equally important for a starting pitcher. Jim Bunning did all of that.
“I am most proud of the fact I went through nearly 11 years without missing a start. They wrote my name down, and I went to the post,” Bunning is quoted saying on his page of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s website.
The proof is in the numbers. Bunning led his league twice in innings pitched. He also threw 219 or more innings every season between 1957 and ’67 including a whopping 314 in 1966. In both ’66 and ’67 he also led the NL in games started, a hallmark of a durable starter.
6. Strikeout machine
Bunning remains among the premier strikeout pitchers in baseball history. He currently ranks 17th in career strikeouts with 2,855, which puts him just behind fellow Hall of Famer John Smoltz. At the time of his retirement his total had him in second place all-time behind only Walter Johnson.
He led his league three times in strikeouts – 1959 and 1960 in the AL and the NL with a career-high 253 in 1967. He topped 200 strikeouts in six different seasons.
7. A little chin music
In his days as a Congressman, Jim Bunning was known to be a bit ornery. That might also have been the case when he was on the mound.
The 6-foot-3 righty was not afraid to let batters know they couldn’t crowd the plate as he led the NL in hit batters four years in a row (’64-’67). He hit double-digit batters in nine different seasons.
He ranks 13th all time in hit batters with 160, just ahead of fellow ultra-competitive fireballers Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan.
8. Serving up taters
Many strikeout pitchers, especially those who log a lot of innings, are susceptible to giving up home runs. Bunning was no exception.
He is tied for 22nd all time in home runs allowed with 372. He led the AL in two seasons in home runs allowed.
But he’s certainly not in bad company. Eleven Hall of Famers have given up more, including Catfish Hunter, Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton.
9. The Long Blue Line
One would have been hard-pressed to figure out in which sport Bunning would go on to excel based on his time at St. Xavier High School. The 1949 graduate wasn’t just a baseball star, having played four years of football and basketball along with his three on the diamond.
According to the St. Xavier athletics hall of fame website, the 1949 Xavier Prep described Bunning as "the star forward on this year's championship basketball team, and all-city end on the gridiron."
Bunning was elected into the St. X hall of fame in 1986.