Jim Bunning, RIP

Today’s Washington Post features three obituaries — one for Zbigniew Brzezinski (written by long-time Post foreign policy writer Jim Hoagland), one for Gregg Allman, and one for Jim Bunning. The headline in the paper edition for Brzezinski’s obit reads: “Combative adviser helped shape Carter’s foreign policy.” We’ll leave it there.

The paper edition headline for Allman’s obit reads: “Southern rock pioneer led Allman Brothers Band.” Scott is our music expert but for what it’s worth, I consider the Allman Brothers Band (as originally constituted) to be unsurpassed among American rock bands, southern or not.

It’s Bunning I want to focus on, though. Like Brzezninski, the Post finds Bunning combative. The paper edition headline for his obit reads “Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, ex-U.S. senator known for combative style.”

Enter “Bunning” into our Power Line search feature and you will find plenty of entries about his pitching days. Bunning never pitched in a World Series, the main subject of my baseball retrospectives, but he appeared in seven all-star games, another of my favorite topics.

Bunning worked a total of 18 innings in all-star games. He gave up only two earned runs, along with seven hits and one walk. He fanned 13 all stars.

Bunning took the long road to the Major Leagues. He was in the Minors for five seasons, and then split the next two between the Detroit Tigers and Triple A.

In 1957, his first full year with Detroit, he won 20 games. Bunning never reached that mark again, but won 19 four times. For his career, he won 224 games, divided almost evenly between the American and National League. When he retired from baseball in 1971, Bunning ranked second on the all-time strikeout list, behind only Walter Johnson.

Bunning is probably best remembered for pitching a perfect game on Father’s Day of 1964. At the time, he had seven children.

Bunning was a mean hombre on the mound. He belonged to the Don Drysdale, Vern Law, Bob Gibson school of pitchers who would knock down any batter who crowded the plate. Three of these four are in the Hall of Fame, so there must have been something to the idea.

Bunning’s baseball combativeness wasn’t directed solely at batters, though. He also ornery with owners, helping to found the players’ union.

As with baseball, Bunning took the long road to the U.S. Senate. Unlike many celebrity politicians, he started at the bottom. First, Bunning was elected city councilman; then he became a state Senator. He lost the Kentucky governor’s race in 1983, but was elected to the U.S. House in 1986. After six terms, he was elected to the Senate, where he served two terms.

Bunning’s approach to Congress mirrored his approach to baseball, though it must be said that he was less effective on Capitol Hill than on the mound. One colleague, a Democrat, said of Bunning: “He’s a good guy, very principled, but a tough hombre.” “He’s not out there to make friends,” the colleague added. Never had been.

Mitch McConnell and other Republican colleagues pressured Bunning to step down in 2010. They probably weren’t expecting that Rand Paul would succeed him.

Bunning’s response to criticism from fellow Republicans like McConnell was pointed:

When you’ve dealt with Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Stan Musial (Bunning faced “Stan the Man” in two all-star games), the people I’m dealing with now are kind of down the scale.

One of Bunning’s last major acts as a Senator was to block $10 billion in funding for extended unemployment benefits. This struck many as heartless, but Bunning was a principled conservative, and the economic crisis that had led to the extension of benefits was beginning to recede. Bunning also opposed the TARP.

Republican leaders had feared that Bunning would lose the Kentucky Senate race in 2010. However, 2010 turned out to be the year of the Tea Party rebellion. Bunning was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool. I think there’s a good chance he would have been reelected that year.

As Bunning’s Senate career was drawing to a close, I wrote:

Bunning will soon be gone, but some of his feisty, no-nonsense conservative spirit will live on in his successor and a few other new Senators of that mindset.

It has. . .in a few.


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