LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher who parlayed his sports fame into a political career as an uncompromising advocate for conservative causes, has died. He was 85.
Bunning’s family said the ex-senator and baseball great died late Friday of complications from a stroke suffered last October. Bunning was the patriarch of a large family that included his wife, Mary, and their nine children, 35 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
“The family is deeply grateful for the love and prayers of Jim’s friends and supporters,” his family said in a statement. “While he was a public servant with a Hall of Fame career, his legacy to us is that of a beloved husband, caring father and supportive grandfather.”
Bunning won 224 games in a workman-like 17-year major-league career, mostly with the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies. The big right-hander, known for his intimidating mound presence, pitched the first perfect game in modern National League history and became the first pitcher after 1900 to throw no-hitters in both the American and National Leagues.
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said Saturday that Bunning “led an extraordinary life in the national pastime and in public service.”
Bunning’s success in baseball carried over into politics, as the Kentucky Republican served stints on a city council and in the state Senate before a nearly quarter-century career in Congress.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his longtime colleague from Kentucky, remembered Bunning for his “long and storied life.”
“From his days in the major leagues to his years as my colleague in the Senate — and the many points in between, from the City Council to the House of Representatives — Jim rarely shied away from a new adventure,” McConnell said in a statement.
“This Hall of Famer will long be remembered for many things, including a perfect game, a larger-than-life personality, a passion for Kentucky and a loving family,” he added.
Bunning’s son, David, a federal judge, said in a tweet: “Heaven got its No 1 starter today. Our lives & the nation are better off because of your love & dedication to family.”
Known as a no-nonsense pitcher who threw hard and knocked batters down when necessary, Bunning belonged to a rare group of major league pitchers to throw a perfect game in the modern era. He became the first pitcher since Cy Young to record 100 wins and 1,000 strikeouts in both the American and National Leagues.
When he retired, his 2,855 strikeouts were second in baseball history to Walter Johnson.
“Jim was an incredible competitor and was determined to maximize his ability and make the most of everything he did in life,” Phillies Chairman David Montgomery said Saturday. “He clearly succeeded in doing so.”
Bunning retired from baseball in 1971, then took his hard-nosed approach to politics.
“He was a great American. He was a great Senator, and I know that anyone that knows anything about baseball is going to miss him,” said fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro.
Bunning served 12 years in the U.S. House, followed by two terms in the Senate. He was a fierce protector of state interests such as tobacco, coal and its military bases.
His ornery nature prompted Republican leaders to push him to retire as a senator. As his political party soured on him, Bunning pushed back. At one point, he threatened to sue the party’s national campaign arm if it backed a primary challenger.
But in July 2009 he dropped his re-election bid, accusing his GOP colleagues of doing “everything in their power to dry up my fundraising.”
Republican Rand Paul rode a tea party wave to win Bunning’s seat in 2010.
Bunning’s competitive side was evident during his political career. In February 2010, he single-handedly held up a $10 billion spending bill in Congress because it would add to the deficit.
“The main qualities it takes for professional athletes and politicians is to have a very thick hide, a thick skin, and to be able to meet and greet people,” he said in July 2000.
Longtime U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, R-Kentucky, said Bunning was “an indomitable force on the pitcher’s mound” and a “stalwart champion” for Kentucky as a congressman and senator.
“He was bold and headstrong, but also fiercely loyal — a combination that made him effective in every endeavor he undertook,” Rogers said. “Jim left an indelible mark on our state, on our nation — and his legacy will endure for generations.”
Bunning also used his political status to speak out about the game he loved.
He declared that athletes who use steroids should be kept out of the Baseball Hall of Fame and have their records nullified. He co-authored legislation calling for stiff punishment for professional athletes caught using steroids. The proposal, which sought a lifetime ban for a third positive test, would have applied to baseball, football, basketball and hockey players.
Bunning grew up in the northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati and started in minor league baseball in 1950. He made it into the majors six years later.
While spending most of his career with the Tigers and Phillies, the nine-time All-Star selection also had stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers.
His career highlights included a no-hitter for the Tigers in 1958 and a perfect game for the Phillies on Father’s Day in 1964. Bunning went 20-8 with Detroit in 1957, his only 20-win season, but won 19 games four times, showing his consistency.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.
He also was a leading figure in the founding of the baseball players’ union. Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark said baseball players “past, present and future will forever owe Jim a debt of gratitude” for his work on behalf of the union.
Following his baseball career, Bunning managed five seasons in the Phillies minor league system, became a player agent and was a stock broker.
Bunning won a seat on the Fort Thomas City Council in 1977 and entered the Kentucky Senate two years later. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1983 but then won his House seat in 1986. In 1998, Bunning was elected to the U.S. Senate, taking the seat of the retiring Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford. He narrowly defeated Democrat Scotty Baesler.