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Jim Bunning, Former U.S. Senator And Hall-Of-Fame Pitcher, Has Died

Senator Jim Bunning at a victory rally in Erlanger, Kentucky for U. S. Senate candidate Rand Paul.
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons
Senator Jim Bunning at a victory rally in Erlanger, Kentucky for U. S. Senate candidate Rand Paul.

Family, friends, former teammates and colleagues are paying tribute to Jim Bunning. The former U.S. Senator, Congressman and baseball Hall-of-Famer died Friday night. He was 85.

Bunning suffered a stroke in October at his home in Southgate, Kentucky. His son, David, tweeted about his father's death late Saturday morning:

By the time Jim Bunning decided to enter politics, he already had a distinguished baseball career behind him. Bunning pitched for four teams during his 17-year career, mainly for Detroit and Philadelphia.

He was the first pitcher to throw no-hitters in both the National and American leagues — the second one, on Father’s Day of 1964, was a perfect game, as Bunning’s Phillies blanked the New York Mets.

Bunning played baseball at a time when players’ salaries were not enough to make ends meet year-round, prompting him to find work in the financial sector during the off-season. It became a full-time pursuit when his baseball career ended in 1971, but it wasn’t long before Bunning, a Republican, began what would become an even longer political career.

First, Bunning became a city councilman in his native Northern Kentucky town of Southgate, then he moved on to the Kentucky Senate.

In 1986, Bunning was elected to the first of six terms representing Kentucky’s Fourth Congressional District on Capitol Hill. Then, with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford in 1998, Bunning pulled off the first of two narrow victories for that seat.

In his Major League Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1996, Bunning said baseball prepared him well for the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

“I developed a thick skin," he said. "If you’ve ever been booed by 40,000 people at one time, you know what I mean."

Bunning’s hard-nosed political style and fiscal conservatism combined to produce some showdowns with officials in the opposing party.

He came under the glare of the national spotlight as the lone opponent of a measure that would extend unemployment benefits to millions of people, many of them left jobless by the Great Recession. Bunning wanted the extension paid for up front instead of adding to the national debt. His proposal was put up for a vote but was ultimately defeated.

Faced with declining poll numbers and campaign fundraising struggles, Bunning announced in 2010 that he would not seek a third term in the Senate, and he threw his support to his eventual successor, Rand Paul.

“Words cannot express my gratitude to the people of Kentucky for giving me the distinct honor of serving them for 12 years in the House of Representatives and 12 years in the U.S. Senate," said Bunning in his farewell address on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered condolences to the Bunning family in a statement issued Saturday afternoon:
"Senator Jim Bunning led a 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. 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. Elaine and I offer our sincere condolences to Mary and the entire Bunning family.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville also released a statement Saturday, saying he respected the late senator despite their political differences.
"Sad to hear of the passing of Senator Jim Bunning. My thoughts are with his family during this difficult time. When we served together, even though we had different thoughts on many things, I always respected him for speaking his mind. He'll now get to pitch no-hitters forever on his field of dreams."
In his statement, Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington called Bunning a "true legend."
“After a remarkable career in baseball, Jim Bunning could have gone anywhere and done anything. He chose to come home to Kentucky where he dedicated his life to his family and to public service. Throughout his entire career he remained a principled conservative and unrelenting fighter for the causes he believed in and for the people of the Commonwealth. Today, Carol and I are thinking of and praying for his amazing wife Mary, their wonderful children and many grandchildren.”
Other Kentucky politicians offered condolences via Twitter on Saturday, including Gov. Matt Bevin, who called Bunning "a champion of conservatism."

"His absence will be felt in the years to come, but we are thankful for what he left behind: an incredible legacy of hard work, determination, and selflessness," Bevin wrote.

Republican U.S. Rep. James Comer said this on Twitter:


Republican state Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer said in an interview Saturday that Bunning had "an intellect that engendered loyalty from people all across this state."

"There are candidates up and down the ballot who now benefit from what Jim Bunning built in the Fourth Congressional district in Northern Kentucky," Thayer said. "That’s because Jim Bunning cared about more than his own victory. He wanted to build a party organization from top to bottom that benefited candidates from magistrate to president of the United States."

Rick Robinson, Bunning's legislative director after he was first elected in 1986, said in an interview Saturday that his former boss held his staff to a high standard.

"Working for Jim Bunning was easy as long as you gave 150 percent, anticipated his every move and dove for hot grounders up the middle and were fiercely loyal," he said. “In Philadelphia he was as deity. People would almost throw rose petals at his feet for what he did for the Philadelphia Phillies. And I always thought that’s such a contrast because in Northern Kentucky for us, gosh, he was just Jim.”

Bunning’s survivors include his wife, Mary, their nine children and numerous grandchildren.

Ryland Barton contributed reporting for this story. 

This story has been updated. 

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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