In July of 1958, Jim Bunning walked into Fenway Park and did what was seemingly impossible — he threw a no-hitter against Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox.
Some say that Ted Williams was the greatest hitter ever (I’m one of those). People who watched Williams play say that he could pick up the spin of a baseball when it rolled off the pitcher’s fingers. Bunning’s side-arm delivery made it tough for hitters — Williams included — to see that ball rotation. According to Williams himself, Bunning was the only pitcher to strike him out three times in a single game.
Bunning (known then to his fellow pitchers as the “Lizard” because of the way he slithered in and won ballgames) and “Teddy Ballgame” were fierce competitors. In 1957, Bunning had won 20 games and Williams had narrowly missed a second .400 season. On that hot Boston evening in 1958, Bunning won the battle, allowing three base runners, but no hits. He had to face Williams for the final out.
After baseball, the two Hall of Famers found common ground in Republican politics and became fast friends. When Williams was in the bottom of his personal ninth, Bunning visited him in Florida. They spent the day together talking politics and baseball.
Before they parted company for the final time, Williams revealed that, on the night of the Bunning’s Fenway triumph, the Red Sox bench had been picking up the catcher’s pitch signs. That night, Ted Williams and the rest of the Boston batters had known every pitch that Bunning had tossed at them and they still couldn’t hit him.
In baseball, fierce competition gains respect. In politics … well … not so much.
Jim Bunning was first elected to the United States Congress in 1986 to represent Kentucky’s Fourth Congressional District. He didn’t win because he was warm and fuzzy. Bunning didn’t always tell voters what they wanted to hear.
In an era when elected officials had a tendency to shift directions according to the cross-tabs of the latest public opinion poll, Bunning always stood on his own ground.
Like in baseball, Bunning earned a reputation in politics for throwing high and tight. He was not afraid to tell the leadership of his own party when he thought they were wrong. His battles with the Senate GOP leadership are just the latest examples of Bunning’s ability to throw a political brush-back pitch.
In his first term in Congress, because of loans being made to countries with non-market economies, Bunning bucked President Reagan and fought the reauthorization of the World Bank. Despite a personal call from the Gipper himself asking him to relent, Bunning held his ground.
In recent years, while others fawned at the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, Bunning declared that the Emperor had no clothes. Bunning’s relentless questioning of Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke over the past 20 years has provided more C-SPAN highlight footage than an ESPN Espy awards program.
Bunning’s hard-nosed tactics didn’t always win Bunning all-star bids. Ted Williams respected Jim Bunning’s competitive nature. Many politicians often take their politics far too personal.
It’s tough for pitchers to give up the ball.
This week current and former staff held a retirement party for Jim Bunning. Most at the dinner never expected the day to actually arrive. As in baseball, we all expected the Lizard to slither in and somehow win just one more race.
Unfortunately for Bunning, near the end of his second term, the Senate GOP leadership wouldn’t dive for fly balls in the 9th to keep him in the game.
When Bunning announced that he was not running for a third term in the Senate, he did so with a simple press release. There was no big press conference or Senate floor speech. Pitchers hate to give up the ball, but Jim Bunning did so on his own terms.
In his storied baseball career, Jim Bunning hit 187 batters. The only modern-day pitchers to plunk more batters are Randy Johnson and Tim Wakefield. Ben Bernanke and the Senate GOP leadership may not miss that style of political play, but I sure will.
Rick Robinson is the author of political thrillers which can be purchased on Amazon and at book stores everywhere. His latest novel, Manifest Destiny has won seven writing awards, including Best Fiction at the Paris Book Festival.