Bunning's 1964 perfect game set Phillies standard

Jim Bunning strikes out pinch-hitter John Stephenson to finish his perfect game. Bunning, too, was a first-year Phillie.
Jim Bunning strikes out pinch-hitter John Stephenson to finish his perfect game. Bunning, too, was a first-year Phillie.
Posted: May 30, 2010

As Roy Halladay probably knows, the last Phillie to throw a perfect game ended up in the Hall of Fame and the U.S. Senate.

It's too early to predict what the future holds for the bearded righthander, who Saturday night became just the second Phillie and 20th big-league pitcher to achieve perfection.

But if he's anything like Jim Bunning, the perfect game might change his life forever.

Immediately after Bunning's perfect game against the Mets in the opener of a Shea Stadium doubleheader on Father's Day, June 21, 1964, the pitcher appeared on national TV. His recognizability quotient shot through the dugout roof. He got commercials, endorsements, countless interview requests.

Bunning stayed in baseball in the years after his 1971 retirement, as a minor-league manager and a player agent. But in 1977, he was elected to the City Council in Fort Thomas, Ky. Then came the state Senate, the U.S. House, and, in 1998, his U.S. Senate seat. A Republican, he will step down when his term expires after this year.

In 1996, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And in the lead of nearly every story reporting on that honor was a mention of his perfect game.

In a 1989 interview with The Inquirer, Bunning acknowledged that much of his reputation was built on that sultry afternoon in New York.

Within hours of the final out, he was negotiating to appear on that night's Ed Sullivan Show. He agreed to $1,000.

"We added a pool and bathhouse to our house in Kentucky," Bunning said in that interview.

He estimated that additional commercial opportunities generated by the perfect game added $15,000 to his $30,000 salary in 1964.

Bunning's perfecto - the first in the National League since 1890 - came when baseball was still the king of sports. On the Sullivan show, his bow from the audience overshadowed one by Ken Venturi, who that day had won the U.S. Open.

"He shook my hand," Bunning said, "and said, 'I finally do something to get my picture on the front page of sports sections everywhere, and you have to come along and knock me off.' "

While it appeared that neither Halladay nor his teammates openly discussed the opportunity for perfection as it unfolded in Miami, Bunning did so as early as the sixth inning.

After he retired the first 15 Mets, Bunning decided the time was right to shatter the silence - and baseball tradition.

"C'mon," he shouted from the bench, "let's get that perfect game."

"In a game like that, the pressure not only builds on the pitcher but on the fielders as well," Bunning explained. "I was just trying to relieve it by talking."

Unlike Halladay, Bunning had previously thrown a no-hitter - an experience, he said, that helped him that Sunday in New York.

On July 20, 1958, then with the Detroit Tigers, he no-hit the Boston Red Sox, getting slugger Ted Williams for the final out.

When he got into the clubhouse after the game, "I nearly fell over," he said. "I was drained, totally exhausted from the effort. But my awareness against the Mets was just so great. I knew exactly what was happening, and I was in complete control out there."

Actually, Bunning was in control for most of that '64 season. Like Halladay, he was in his first year with the Phils, and pitched in oppressive heat and humidity.

"I loved the heat," Bunning said. "I knew I was in better shape than the other pitchers."

But, unlike Halladay's, which came at night against a good Marlins team, Bunning's was in the afternoon, and Casey Stengel's third-year Mets were dreadful.

He had arisen early that day in his New York hotel, went to Mass, had breakfast, and drove to Shea Stadium, where, just across the street, the World's Fair was in full swing.

Bunning greeted his wife, Mary, and oldest daughter, Barbara, who had driven up from their in-season home in Cherry Hill.

His pitching opponent, Tracy Stallard, who had surrendered Roger Maris' historic 61st home run three years earlier, was about to become a footnote in baseball history again.

When Bunning began warming up with catcher Gus Triandos, he "realized right away that I had exceptional stuff."

But in the first inning, he hung a couple of sliders to Mets leadoff hitter Jim Hickman, who fouled them off.

"I said to Gus, 'If they aren't hitting those pitches, we could be in for one heck of a day.' " Bunning said.

After four more innings and one tremendous play by second baseman Tony Taylor on Jesse Gonder's smash, Phils manager Gene Mauch was feeling that same way.

"He was silly on the mound whenever I went out to talk to him," Triandos, who is 79 and living in California, said in 1989. "He was jabbering like a magpie. In the ninth inning, he told me to tell him a joke. I couldn't think of anything. All I could do was laugh."

In the seventh, the only scare was provided by Ron Hunt, whose smash to third was fielded cleanly by Dick Allen. With two outs in the eighth, Bunning, who had been ahead of almost every hitter (only 21 of his 90 pitches were called balls), ran a full count to Mets outfielder Bob Taylor.

A slider froze him, and umpire Ed Sudol called the pitch a third strike.

"It was there," Bunning said.

Up by 6-0 in the ninth, Bunning got Charley Smith to foul out to shortstop Bobby Wine. Then pinch-hitter George Altman, who gave him trouble, came to bat.

The burly outfielder smacked his first pitch hard toward right. But it curved foul, and Bunning was ahead of him, 0-1. Altman fouled back the next pitch and swung at and missed the following one. Two outs.

At that point, in the minds of both Bunning and pinch-hitter John Stephenson, a catcher batting .047, the perfect game was a foregone conclusion.

"I knew that Stephenson couldn't hit my curveball if I had gone up there and told him it was coming," Bunning said. "So that was all he was going to see."

Stephenson said in 1989 that he had known Bunning had his number.

"I must have faced him 18 or 20 times in my career, and I never did get a hit off him," Stephenson said. "He always pitched me on the outside of the plate, and I just couldn't hit it."

With the count 2-2 after four curves, Stephenson tried to outguess Bunning.

"I thought I might get a fastball," he said, "but he threw me another curve, and I missed."

It was 3:19 p.m.

The normally low-key Bunning slammed his right fist triumphantly into his glove and acknowledged the tumultuous tribute from his teammates and the 32,026 New York fans who had stood and cheered on every pitch in the ninth inning.

"I knew what I had done," Bunning said.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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