Jim Bunning was one of the established MLB pitchers when I started seriously watching baseball in 1961. Like Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts and Don Drysdale, Bunning was just one of those stars, who managed to win 17 games for the Tigers that year, and another 19 the following season, and that suggested to me that he was a good player.
Certainly he was a great baseball card to get, having thrown his first no-no in 1958, and whiffing three Red Sox on nine pitches in 1959, then moving on to the Phillies where he tossed a perfect game in 1964 (interestingly giving Tracy Stallard, the same guy who allowed Roger Maris his 61st dinger in 1961, yet another losing end of a trivia question).
Bunning, as we know, retired from baseball in 1971, and moved on to have a lengthy career as a politician, going to Congress in 1986, then moving to the Senate in 1998.
It was in 1997, as Bunning was preparing his campaign for that move to the Senate the following year, that I met and had a brief exchange with the ex-pitcher.
As it was, when I started CREATiVESPORTS in 1996, working a fantasy job became a second career for me, so while I was at it, I joined the wonderful Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), attending the organization's summer convention in Kansas City that year, then a year later in Louisville, home to Bunning.
SABR offers a lot of good stuff over its three-day summer fetes, and that year we saw an Iowa Cubs game, and I walked around the old streets of the town that was pivotal to the South during the Civil War. To easterners, that might not be too interesting since the war was largely fought in the east, but for a Californian, whose idea of war was either Viet Nam or Peoples Park, I found the lovely old part of the city, with cobblestone streets, oozing with some quiet charm.
Pee Wee Reese, who passed away not long after the convention, was on a player panel along with Carl Erskine one night, and the next, Bunning delivered the keynote address to the group.
Mind you, politics was already changing a lot. In fact, even before Ronald Reagan ran for office in California, former actor George Murphy was appointed to the US Senate. And, by 1996 Jesse Ventura had already completed his term as Mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and like Bunning's move to the Senate, things were gearing up for Ventura to challenge for the Governor's seat in his state.
At the time, there were gyrations around the presidential potential for 1998, although I don't think Bunning mentioned politics. But, when he finished his speech, the ex-hurler agreed to sign baseballs. Since I had a pretty good collection of Hall of Fame signed balls, I had brought one for Bunning to sign.
I went up to the podium, and waited my turn. And, before I continue, it is probably not much of a secret that my political beliefs, and those of the very conservative Bunning, would not be in synch. But as I handed my ball to him, I wistfully asked, "what do you think about the possibility of Jack Kemp winning the Republican nomination for President, and Bill Bradley winning the Democratic nod? Then the election would be between the NFL and the NBA?"
Bunning sized me up--long hair, ripped jeans, high top Cons--and dismissively said, "That's ridiculous: nothing like that could ever happen."
I will acknowledge that I do not think and observe like the rest of the world, but I am pretty realistic, and the question did not seem nearly as preposterous to me as Bunning seemed to take it. For a year later, Ventura, a former professional wrestler, did win the top job in the state of Minnesota.
Perhaps my curious prescience was a lot more on target than Bunning's cocky and rather self-righteous attitude? Interestingly, though I still have the ball Bunning signed, his signature has all but faded from it, and the truth for me is I don't really care.
The reason being that though my question might have seemed silly, I was onto something, and deserved at least an "I hadn't quite thought of that angle," and maybe even have elicited a chuckle. But, that little interchange made it clear to me I didn't really like the guy, no matter how many games he won or whatever else he did.
I have actually thought about that moment with Bunning more often than I wished over the 20 years since it occurred, especially as our politics have moved from at least somewhat concerted and thoughtful compared to the ignorance and that same self-righteousness driving both how we pick our leaders, and sadly, how the elected then "lead."
I do wonder if Bunning, who did pass away last week, ever flashed on our interchange and said to himself, "damn, that hippie in Louisville was right." In truth, I doubt that ever happened, but the possibility of such an "I told you so" does make me feel somewhat vindicated. But, I am indeed loathe to call the late pitcher much more than a small-minded human being at a time when we needed more.