On Father’s Day 1964, Philadelphia Phillies’ right-hander Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game against the New York Mets in Shea Stadium.
Bunning’s two-hour, 10-minute masterpiece – 90 pitches, 10 strike outs – during a double-header’s first game had special significance. At the time, Bunning and his wife, Mary Theis, had seven children. Eventually, the Bunnings, married 60 years, would have nine children, 35 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Few in baseball history have lived as rewarding a life as Bunning, who represented Kentucky as a U.S. representative from 1987 to 1999, and then as a two-term U.S. senator from 1999 until 2011. Bunning’s baseball achievements put him in the Hall of Fame. Along the way, Bunning racked up 224 wins, 2,855 strike outs and was chosen to participate in nine All-Star Games. The fire-balling righty led the league in strike outs three times, and when he retired Bunning ranked second among all-time strikeout leaders behind Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators.
In 1955, Bunning debuted with the Detroit Tigers, and in 1958, he threw a 3-0 no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. Bunning was then traded to the Phillies, his second stop in a career that also included brief stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Long after Bunning hung up his glove, he recalled in detail how he set down 27 consecutive Mets, the first National League perfect game since 1880. After attending Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and eating a hearty sausage and egg breakfast, Bunning headed out to Shea Stadium, where the temperature and humidity would hit 90 by game time.
Although Bunning said that he felt no better or no worse than usual as he warmed up, Phillies’ manager Gene Mauch disagreed. Mauch told Sport Magazine’s Larry Merchant, “We knew when he was warming up that this was something special. The way he was throwing so live and as high as he was. Not high with his pitches. High himself.”
For nine innings, Bunning was so relaxed that he rejected the long-standing baseball tradition which forbade pitchers to talk to teammates about no hitters in progress – considered a jinx. “Dive for the ball,” Bunning laughingly told his infielders. “Don’t let anything fall in.”
With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Bunning called catcher Gus Triandos to the mound and asked him to tell him a joke. Triandos shook his head in dismay and went back behind the plate. Bunning then struck out the last two Mets and pounded his glove as his teammates rushed to share his joy in his 6-0 win.
Bunning’s was the fifth perfect game in major-league history and the first in the regular season since the Chicago White Sox Charlie Robertson blanked the Detroit Tigers, 2-0.
Later, Bunning said about his flawless performance: “Everything has to come together, good control, outstanding plays from your teammates, a whole lot of good fortune on your side and a lot of bad luck for the other guys. A million things could go wrong, but on this one particular day of your life none of them do.”
But when Bunning looked back at his 1964 season, disappointment superseded his perfect game’s thrills. By September 20, the Phillies led by 6½-games with 12 to play. But then the wheels fell off. The Phils lost ten in a row; Bunning, overworked by Mauch, was charged with three losses. The St. Louis Cardinals eked out the pennant by a game over the Phils and the Cincinnati Reds.
Before he died at age 85, Bunning said, “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.”
In today’s era, Bunning’s consistency would be a marvel.