MARCH 1, 1965
Twenty-five years ago it was inconceivable. Jim Bunning a politician? Jim Bunning on the campaign trail schmoozing with strangers, smooth-talking the media, smooching babies? Fat chance. The Hall of Fame pitcher (far left, with Bo Belinsky) a polished Capitol Hill veteran? "Never dreamed of it," the Republican junior senator from Kentucky says. "I was shy. I didn't know how to handle the media. I had to force myself to become more outgoing."
It wasn't easy. In his early days of campaigning Bunning was so terrified of going door-to-door that he insisted on having his wife, Mary, at his side. Bunning had stumbled into politics in 1977 after friends suggested he run for a modest city council post in Fort Thomas, Ky. With his dream of becoming a major league manager going nowhere—he had spent five years managing in the minors—Bunning felt it was time to give public service a shot. Two years after winning that council seat, Bunning was elected to the state senate. Nine years after entering politics he was a U.S. representative, and in 1998 he won his seat in the Senate.
A staunch conservative (he called Bill Clinton "the most corrupt, the most amoral, the most despicable person I've ever seen in the presidency," and that was before Monica Lewinsky), Bunning is now ready to go to bat for a Republican president. "I'm astounded by what we can accomplish," says the distinguished gentleman, 69, who sponsored the 1995 legislation that raised earnings limits for senior citizens collecting social security. Bunning credits Mary, with whom he has nine children and 35 grandchildren, for his successful transition to politics. "She has been my strongest and best asset," he says.
Bunning baffled major league hitters for 17 years, most notably with the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies, using an unorthodox sidearm motion. Although never a power pitcher, when he retired in 1971 Bunning was second to Washington Senator Walter Johnson with 2,855 career strikeouts. Still a fan—he roots hard for his Phillies, for whom he pitched a perfect game in '64—his voice sours when he speaks of baseball's looming labor showdown. "It took four years for the game to come back," says Bunning, who in '94 spoke out against the league's antitrust exemption. "Baseball can't afford another strike. It would absolutely kill the game."
Bunning, meanwhile, is already gearing up for reelection in 2004. "There's a governor from Kentucky [Paul Patton, a Democrat] who wants to run against me," says Bunning, always a fierce competitor. "I don't want him in the Senate, so I'm going to run against him."