BOZICH | Jim Bunning reminder of Hall of Famers who finished what they started
Jim Bunning's Hall of Fame statistics are a reminder that Bunning played in an baseball era when pitchers did they don't come close to doing today.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Johnny Cueto led the National League in complete games last season. Credit Cueto with six. If you suspect that was an anomaly, Chris Sale led the American League in the same category. Six.
This is how many times Jim Bunning started and also completed six or more games during his 17-season big-league career: 11.
He did it 14 times when he was 25, three seasons into the opening of his career with the Detroit Tigers and he was still doing it in 1967, when he was 35 and leading the pitching staff of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Time out. I just found a more dazzling number. In 1970, when Bunning was 38 and retiring big-league hitters with guile more than gas, he started 34 games and finished four with the Phillies.
In 2015, the National League complete games leaders were Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, the best of the best.
They had four.
Jim Bunning died Friday in Fort Thomas, Ky. He was 85 — and I’m certain there were days when Bunning was convinced that he could give somebody nine great innings.
Starting and finishing is what Jim Bunning did 151 times in a career that included a perfect game, a no-hitter, a 20-win season and a ceremony in Cooperstown.
I’m not here to discuss politics. The headline in Bunning’s New York Times obituary describes him as a “Hall of Fame pitcher and blunt-spoken senator.”
Bunning served in the Kentucky State Senate, the U.S House of Representatives and two terms in the U.S. Senate. He made an insulting comment about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that led Bunning to say he was sorry.
I interviewed him one time. It was for a freelance story for a New York newspaper about Bunning’s move from sports into politics. I quickly understood what Willie Mays or Ernie Banks saw when staring at Bunning’s icy glare and harsh sidearm delivery.
Bunning’s representative asked me to meet him in downtown Louisville at the Pendennis Club, a famously private spot that is not acclaimed for its embrace of reporters.
Uncertain if non-members were allowed at the club, I arrived 10 minutes early and waited for Bunning in the parking lot.
Didn’t see him. Kept looking. No sign. The time for the interview arrived. Nothing. Started pacing. No Bunning. Walked a lap around the building, looking for another entrance. Nothing. This was before the cellphone era. I had nobody to call.
Finally, 10 minutes after the interview was scheduled to begin, a steamed Bunning walked outside the building. I wasn’t certain if he was looking for me or leaving.
I tried to explain. Bunning went high and tight, waving me off with his right hand. We walked inside to a private room. He did the interview. He shared great stories. He closed the interview by encouraging me to never be late again. (But, I wasn’t late!)
I was neither upset not offended. Bunning was correct. I should have gone inside to find him. Besides, I’m a baseball guy who was fascinated by his stories about pitching against Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. Williams is the batter Bunning struck out for the final out of his no-hitter against Boston in 1958.
Bunning remains a reminder to me of a time when pitchers were not treated like greenhouse flowers with agents who must be consulted every time they warm up.
Mention the words pitch count or innings limit to Bunning and be prepared to get drilled in the ribs with one of his 93-mph fastballs.
You started. You finished. You took the baseball every four days. You did not consider the disabled list until a surgeon said it was mandatory — and even then it was negotiable.
Bunning started 30 or more games 11 straight seasons. He led the national League in starts with 41 and 40 in in 1966 and 1967 when he was 34 and 35. Twice he worked more than 300 innings in a season.
He pitched his final complete game on April 27, 1971, limiting Houston to four hits and one run. Jim Bunning was 39.
Big-league hitters were so mismatched against guys like Bunning, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax and Denny McClain that major league baseball lowered the mound to 10 inches from 15 in 1969.
There is another category with a string of black type in Bunning’s career — hit batsmen. From 1964 to 1967, Bunning led the National League in hit batters every season.
You want a measure of respect that opposing players had for Bunning. He played in the National League as well as in the American League before the designated hitter rule. Bunning threw inside but was also a target for opposing pitchers.
In 1,401 plate appearances, Bunning was hit once.
Opponents knew that Bunning was committed to his craft. He worked with Robin Roberts, Harvey Kuenn and other players to recruit Marvin Miller from the U.S. Steelworkers to form the Baseball Players Association, a powerful negotiating unit that turned professional sports upside down.
When Bunning won 20 games for the Tigers in 1957, he earned $8,500. The best pitchers in baseball make more than $8,500 per inning today.
Jim Bunning made a difference, always prepared to finish what he started.
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