By The Numbers: Jim Bunning

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“By the Numbers” looks at a current or former Tiger who wore each uniform number, to catch up on earlier installments, click the “By the Numbers” tag at the top of this page.

The number 14 has been worn by four different All-Stars for the Tigers, one former Number One overall draft pick, and by many lesser, non-descript players. In my search to find the one I would profile, I encountered some fond memories, some recent and some older. It would have been easy to profile the most recent No. 14, but that wound is still a little too fresh for me right now.

Further complicating the matter for me is my personal dislike for one of these men. Not the ballplayer mind you, but the man after his playing days were done. Nevertheless, his career on the field was one that should be recognized. So with apologies to Schoolboy Rowe (P, 1933-42), Hoot Evers (OF, 1941-52), Dave Bergman (1B, 1984-92), Matt Anderson (P, 1998-2003), and of course, Placido Polanco (2B, 2005-2009), here is Jim Bunning.

Jim Bunning was signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1950 as an amateur free agent following his brief collegiate career at Xavier University. He spent the better part of the next seven seasons toiling in the minor leagues without much success. His career minor league numbers were 55-66 over 170 games and better than 1000 innings.

Nevertheless, after spending brief amounts of time with the Tigers in 1955 and ’56, Bunning was placed into the Tigers rotation in 1957. The Tigers thought his excellent curve ball and “sneaky” fastball would translate well in the big leagues. They were right, and Bunning responded beautifully.

Throughout his first six years of professional baseball, Bunning had suffered control problems, walking more than 4.5 batters per nine innings to that point. Staring in 1957, Bunning would cut that number in half, and never again in his career would he walk more than 3.2 batters per nine innings. Call it maturity of a young pitcher or a tweak in his delivery, Bunning went from wild to one of the better control artists in the game, seemingly overnight. He improved so much that he eventually would lead the National League is fewest BB/9 in 1964.

The 1957 Tigers won only 76 games, but Bunning tied (with Chicago’s Billy Pierce) for the league lead in wins in his first full season, going 20-8. Though he made seven fewer starts than Early Wynn made that year, Bunning still bested Wynn for most innings pitched with an AL high 267.1. He posted the third best ERA, second most strikeouts, and second lowest WHIP that season as well.

Over the next two seasons, the Tigers would remain a roughly .500 club, and Bunning came back down to earth a bit. While his ERA rose and his won-loss percentage fell, Bunning continued to strike out batters. He finished just two K’s behind Wynn again in 1958, but lead the league in 1959 with 201 strikeouts. A feat he would duplicate the next season as well, and with the exact same total.

The crowning moment of Bunning’s Tigers career came on July 20, 1958. The Tigers were facing the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park and Bunning drew the start in the first game of a double-header. Only three Boston batters reached base, on two walks and a hit by pitch. Bunning struck out 12 in his first career no-hitter. In 1959, Bunning again entered the area of legend when he struck out the side on nine pitches in the ninth inning of a game on August 2. He became just the tenth pitcher to accomplish that feat.

By 1960, the Tigers had fallen to the bottom of the standings and Bunning suffered the consequences. Though he lead the league in strikeouts and adjusted ERA, he posted an 11-14 record, despite his sparkling 2.78 ERA. Despite the Tigers poor season, Bunning garnered an MVP vote that year.

The Tigers won 30 more games the next year, going 101-61 in 1961, but still finished eight games behind the Yankees. Bunning won 17 of those games and was named to his third all-star team, he would be an all-star in each of the next three seasons as well. He remained near the top of the leader boards in wins and strikeouts for each of the next two seasons, winning 19 games in 1962.

After a disappointing 1963 season, Bunning was traded to the Phillies, ending his Tigers career. His career enjoyed the National League, even at an advancing age. In his first three years in Philadelphia, Bunning won 19 games in each season. His workload increased, as did his strikeout totals. In 1967, Bunning posted his fourth straight sub-3.00 ERA season and was runner up in the Cy Young voting. After never working more than 268 innings in Detroit, Bunning didn’t work fewer than 284 in any of his first four years in Philadelphia.

Bunning also enjoyed his greatest success in 1964 when he threw a perfect game for the Phillies. In doing so, Bunning became just the fourth pitcher ever to throw a perfect game and at least one other no-hitter, joining Sandy Koufax, Addie Joss, and Cy Young. Since then, Randy Johnson and Mark Buerhle have also done it.

Unfortunately, by age 36, he was essentially done as an effective (and durable) pitcher. He hung around for a few more years, bouncing from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to the Dodgers and back to the Phillies.

When he retired following the 1971 season, his total of 2855 strikeouts ranked him second all-time behind only Walter Johnson. Over his nine seasons in Detroit, Bunning posted a 118-87 record and 3.45 ERA. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1996. In 2001, his number 14 was retired by the Phillies.

(Warning- the remaining part of this post is political in nature, if this offends you, stop reading now)

Following his career, Bunning entered the political world and currently serves as a US Senator (R- Ky). He is widely recognized as one of, if not the most, conservative members of the senate. He has had a history of erratic behavior in recent years and is not expected to seek re-election this fall. Last month, he drew the ire of the nation when he single-handedly blocked an unemployment extension, and by doing so millions of out of work Americans are now without benefits.

By all accounts, Bunning is smug and arrogant, and he spends as little time as possible actually voting on congressional issues, except the most recent of course. By much of the rust belt, he is going to be blamed when even more people lose their homes. But for 17 years, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. And that’s why he makes this list.

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