As we marvel at the dizzying strikeout totals put up by the current Tiger rotation, it’s appropriate to look back at a pitcher who knew a lot about striking batters out, and who was a star in an era when more and more K’s were being written into scorecards.
Did you know that when Jim Bunning retired from baseball after the 1971 off-season, he was second all-time in strikeouts? It’s true, only the great Walter Johnson had fanned more batters than Bunning, who spent the first half of his career in a Detroit uniform.
The lean right-hander helped usher in a new era of swings and misses. In the 1960s and 1970s, major league batters started to strike out far more often than they ever had. Bunning, a three-time strikeout king, was one of the first pitchers who became known for whiffing batters at an alarming rate. The reason was simple – Bunning had a freaky way of pitching.
As a boy growing up in Kentucky, Bunning loved the outdoors. He spent hour after hour stomping through the woods near his home. It was perhaps due to his pastime of tossing rocks that little Jimmy formed the habit of 3/4 sidearming the baseball when he took up the game and became a pitcher. Bunning whipped the baseball toward the plate on an angle, slinging his right arm around his body, which made it hard for opposing batters to pick up the ball. This was especially tough on right-handed batters, who had to try to focus on the sphere after Bunning’s arm jumped out at them from the side. Righties hit just .230 off Bunning and struck out four times for every one walk he issued.
Johnson had also used a sidearm delivery of sorts, but not one as pronounced as Bunning’s. But unlike Johnson, Bunning did not possess a naturally hard fastball. His speed pitch topped out at about 93 miles per hour. But a Detroit scout wrote in his report that the pitcher possessed “a confusing delivery and a sneaky fast ball.” It was that strange pitching motion and sneaky style that led Bunning to accomplish some amazing things that had been done rarely or not for a long time in baseball.
In 1958, Bunning threw a no-hitter at Fenway Park in Boston, becoming the first visiting hurler to do that in 32 years. On a Sunday afternoon, Bunning took just a shade over two hours to stymie the Bosox, striking out 12 batters. “Bunning doesn’t fool around, he gets right to business and makes you be on your toes in the box,” Boston infielder Billy Consolo said.
In 1959, in a game against the Red Sox at Briggs Stadium, Bunning came in to pitch relief in a tight game in the 9th inning. Knowing he would only pitch maybe that one inning, Kentucky Jim let loose: he struck out all three batters he faced on the minimum of nine pitches. That was the year he first paced the American League with strikeouts, and he topped the circuit again in 1960.
Over an 11-year stretch from 1957-1967, Bunning averaged 212 K’s a season, an unheard of total for that era. Ever since the 1920s, strikeout rates had started to steadily climb, but usually the league leader for pitchers would tally 170 or so strikeouts. Armed with his unusual delivery and pinpoint control of his fastball and slider, Bunning was a new breed of pitcher, joining Camilo Pascual of the Twins and Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers, who regularly topped the 200 and 250-mark in K’s in the late 1950s and into the 1960s.
After his trade to the Phillies after the ’63 season, Bunning just kept rolling along. The National League had not seen his sidearm slider and fastball, and the tall, lanky pitcher soon established his dominance. In his first start in the NL, he struck out 11 Mets on his way to a victory; his second start was a shutout against the Cubs; in his 7th start, the 32-year old tossed a one-hitter against the Colt .45s; and just over a month later he fired a perfect game against the beleaguered Mets on Father’s Day. The dad of seven at the time, Bunning had fathered just the 7th perfect game in baseball history. Fittingly, the final two outs were recorded by strikeout. It was the first perfect game tossed in the National League in more than eight decades.
Though he didn’t spend his entire career with the Bengals, Jim Bunning was one of the most talented and unique pitchers of his era, aided by his devastating sidearm delivery. He went on to serve his home state in the U.S. Congress for many years, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.