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Jim Bunning (R., Ky.)
Steve Wulf
February 23, 1987
Close your eyes—whap!—and you can hear—whap!—batting practice—whap!—in Connie Mack Stadium. Open them, though, and you're not in Philadelphia in 1964, but in Washington, D.C., the House of Representatives, in 1987, and the sound you hear is the sergeant at arms banging his mace, trying to restore order to the first session of the 100th Congress of the United States of America.
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February 23, 1987

Jim Bunning (r., Ky.)

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Close your eyes—whap!—and you can hear—whap!—batting practice—whap!—in Connie Mack Stadium. Open them, though, and you're not in Philadelphia in 1964, but in Washington, D.C., the House of Representatives, in 1987, and the sound you hear is the sergeant at arms banging his mace, trying to restore order to the first session of the 100th Congress of the United States of America.

It is a little like the first day of spring training, as children scurry about while the players greet each other heartily after the off-season. The clerk is taking a roll-call vote for the election of the speaker of the House, and when he calls out, "Bunning," the distinguished gentleman sitting on the Republican side of the House says, "Michel," just loud enough to be heard above the din. Let the record show that Mr. Bunning, renowned in his pitching days for a follow-through that sent him lunging off the mound, does not fall off his seat after casting his vote.

The roll call goes on and on—past Connie Mack III (R., Fla.), a grandson of the original—and nearly half an hour later it is completed. In a foregone conclusion, the choice of the majority-party Democrats, the Honorable Jim Wright of Texas, is elected speaker by a 254-173 margin over his Republican opponent, the Honorable Robert Michel of Illinois. After speeches by both Representative Michel and Representative Wright, the members of the 100th Congress rise to take the oath of office.

Raising the right hand that won 224 major league games, that pitched a no-hitter in one league and a perfect game in the other, that once made him the No. 2 strikeout pitcher of all time, the Honorable Jim Bunning of Kentucky solemnly swears that he will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office he is about to assume. "So help me God," he says.

Then Bunning embraces fellow freshman Republican Jay Rhodes of Arizona, and now, all of a sudden, Gus Triandos is going out to the mound to put his arm around Bunning on that day in 1964. While Bunning is getting lost in the congressional camaraderie down on the floor, you get lost in the memories of that perfect game on Fathers Day, of the ill-fated ending to that year, of all the 19-win seasons and the 1-0 losses, and—talk about prolific winners—of those nine children of his. You see him plunging off the side of the mound, putting everything he had into every pitch, falling, falling...and somehow landing in the House of Representatives.

He was elected last November as a conservative Republican from the overwhelmingly Democratic Fourth District in Kentucky, and he won rather easily. How Jim Bunning, pitcher, came to be Jim Bunning, congressman, is a pretty good story, with episodes of grit and family and betrayal and luck. "An accident, really," says Bunning. "I never set out to be a politician." His wife and childhood sweetheart, Mary, calls it "God's little plan for Jim." But mostly, his is a story of a man determined to do something very difficult: change.

Bunning has always been smart, diligent and tremendously competitive, but his warmth was felt only by his family and friends at home in Fort Thomas, Ky. Asked if she ever thought her father would become a politician, Barbara, 34, the eldest child, says, "No, not really. He was always shy around people." Bunning himself says, "Boy, was I a hard guy."

That coolness toward outsiders may well have cost him the 21 additional votes he needed to make the Baseball Hall of Fame last month. Given the current entrance requirements, Bunning deserves to be in Cooperstown. Catfish Hunter had the same number of victories (224) and virtually the same ERA (3.26 for Hunter, 3.27 for Bunning), and he made it rather easily. Had Bunning won just four more games, the ones that would have turned his four 19-win seasons into 20-win seasons, or had he been as nice to reporters as Hunter was, he probably would have won that election, too.

But what the heck, he's in a different sanctum now, the one the late speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, called, "the highest theater anyone plays in upon this Earth today." There are 198 men in the Hall of Fame, but only one other major leaguer, pitcher Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell, has ever had a vote under the Capitol dome. The man to whom Bunning once stood second on the strikeout list, Walter Johnson, couldn't get into the House, though he tried. (Shortly after he announced his intention to run in 1940, Johnson, a Republican pig farmer, was asked his thoughts on the major issues. "I plan to study up on them things," said the Big Train.)

This year Bunning and rookie congressman Tom McMillen, the Maryland Democrat who played 11 years in the NBA, (page 70) joined representatives Jack Kemp (Buffalo Bills) and Mo Udall (the old ABL Denver Nuggets) and Senator Bill Bradley (New York Knicks) in the Jock Caucus, as Udall has come to call the collective of five former pro athletes now serving in Congress. "I like having jocks on the Hill, no matter their political persuasion," says Kemp. "We tend to be problem solvers, and we don't moan or groan about defeats." Mizell, who now works in the Office of Governmental and Public Affairs for the Department of Agriculture, says, "I used to look at it like this: After I was elected to Congress, I thought of my constituency in the same way I thought of the fans in St. Louis and Pittsburgh who watched me pitch. They expected, and I tried to give them, my best. There's another similarity between Congress and sports. The cloakroom is quite a bit like the clubhouse."

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