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Jim Bunning, former pitcher and senator, dies at 85

In Sunday’s Say Hey, Baseball we talk about Jim Bunning’s legacy, Will Little’s strike zone, and an important Carlos Zambrano moment.

2014 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

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Jim Bunning, who spent 17 years pitching mostly for the Tigers and the Phillies, died on Saturday at 85.

Bunning was an old school pitcher, and considering that he pitched from 1955 to 1971, he came by it honestly. Bunning is most remembered for two exceptional pitching performances: a no-hitter he threw with the Tigers on July 20, 1958, and a perfect game he threw with the Phillies on Father's Day in 1964. The perfect game was a big deal because there hadn't been one in the National League in 84 years. He's one of just seven pitchers to throw both a no-hitter and a perfect game. When he retired, he had a 3.27 ERA with 2,855 career strikeouts, which still ranks 17th on the all-time list. He made it to the Hall of Fame in 1996 through the Veterans Committee.

Although Bunning owns a perfect game, a no-hitter, and a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he made his lasting mark on baseball in 1966. He became central to baseball's labor movement when he helped install Marvin Miller as the MLB Players Association's leader, its first after being recognized as a union. Deadspin did a deep dive on this topic back in 2010, and the article talks about how Bunning helped Miller through the voting process. Miller would then literally change baseball forever, negotiating the first CBA, introducing arbitration, raising wages, and so, so much more. And without Bunning, that may not have happened.

After Bunning retired in 1971, his legacy began to get complicated. He executed a pretty stunning heel turn in 1972 when he was managing the Double-A Reading Phillies, immediately siding with ownership over the players in the MLBPA's first strike. He was completely out of baseball by 1977 when he started his stint in politics. He spent years rising through local and state government before he was elected to the Senate in a close race in 1998. He was reelected in another close race in 2004 that featured some incredibly bizarre behavior from Bunning (like refusing to appear in person at a debate and reading prepared statements via satellite link).

In 2006, Time named him one of America's worst senators. He retired in 2010, and his record of ultraconservative positions speaks for itself, including the time he tried to hold up a bill to extend unemployment benefits for thousands of Americans.

Regardless of his post-baseball career, Bunning was and is an important figure in the game, helping to build the MLBPA. Without Bunning, baseball might look a lot different.