This season, we watched Aaron Nola hold steady as his team rose to first place before collapsing around him. His 2.37 ERA, 3.86 SO/W, and 10.5 WAR in 33 starts got him national attention, allowing him to finish third in NL Cy Young voting and even get a few points on the NL MVP ballot.
Fifty-one years ago in 1967, Jim Bunning did the same thing, becoming the first Phillies pitcher ever to receive both Cy Young and MVP votes in the same season, the Cy Young Award having been instituted in 1956. Having thrown his first big league pitch in 1955, Bunning had been an all-star seven times and received MVP votes four times prior. So recognition wasn’t new for him, just the names of the awards.
One award for which Bunning was never nominated was “Most Pleasant.” He was, in general, not known for his rosy demeanor or frolicking to the park surrounded by butterflies. Mickey Mantle said Bunning was the only pitcher who ever made him want to charge the mound (1). The year following his Cy Young/MVP nominations in 1968, Bunning would lead a group called “Athletes for Nixon,” calling the former president “an impressive guy, if you didn’t know his private side.” (2) Asked about facing Bunning as a right-handed hitter, Joe Torre could only ramble like a trauma victim. (3)
“It was frightening. Damn, it was tough. You really had to have a meeting with yourself to stay in there.”
“Mean” was how many players described him. As Bunning aged into his post-baseball political career, this personality trait became known as “curmudgeonly.” Other adjectives are probably more accurate.
The Republican senator from Kentucky led a 2004 re-election campaign that was bizarre (He made unbacked claims that his wife had been beaten up by his opponent’s staffers at a picnic), ignorant (He once said that same opponent looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons), and lazy (According to the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia at the time, it was “...one of the least impressive campaigns for an incumbent in the country this year,” leading to concerns about Bunning’s mental state).
None of this was enough to cost him the election. Once in office, the stories continued. This 2010 anecdote occurred after Bunning had voted in opposition of a 30-day healthcare extension for the unemployed and was attempting to pass a news crew and reach a senators-only elevator:
According to ABC, when one of its producers saw Bunning leaving his office, the senator said “I’m not talking to anybody.” He then “walked toward the elevator and shot the middle finger over his head.”
Musing that chief justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg could die “within the year” in 2009 (4), telling reporters he didn’t read newspapers and got all his information from FOX News, complaining that his job was causing him to miss a basketball game, losing the support of his colleagues, even the ones in his own party; these were the acts that got him ranked by Time Magazine as one of the worst five senators in the country: “In addition to being hostile to staff members on the Hill and occasionally even other Senators, Bunning shows little interest in policy unless it involves baseball, according to congressional experts and colleagues,” Time wrote in April 2006.
Rewind several decades from this miserable political career, however, and Bunning was not yet a cranky antagonist, throwing middle fingers around the corridors of power, but rather just a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, having a hell of a year.
But he was still pretty mean.
1967 is a year easily glossed over in Phillies lore, as it is not marked by anything spectacular, occurring in the era between the 1964 collapse and the Mike Schmidt golden years of the mid seventies to early eighties. The team boasted talented players, some of the best in the National League, in fact, but got absolutely shredded by injury. Bill White tore his Achilles tendon playing paddle ball after a thunderous 1966 season (5). Dick Groat was nearing the end of his career and suffered from a wonky ankle. Chris Short’s knee and back caused him to miss a month early in the season.
Every malady contributed to the underwhelming 1967 Phillies, and just when things were getting back on track in August with a pair of eight-game winning streaks, Dick Allen tried to get his old 1950 Ford to start in the rain:
“The car was on a hill, with the front wheels wedged against the curb. To move it, I had to shove it from the front. I gave it a push, but when I did my foot slipped on the wet ground. I felt my hand rip right through the headlight. When I pulled out my hand, it looked like it had been blown off by a land mine. Blood was spurting everywhere. Underneath the blood, my hand looked like a bowl of spaghetti.”
—Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen, by Dick Allen and Tim Whitaker (6)
It was a bumpy, blood-soaked year in Philadelphia baseball, but Bunning managed to thrive amid the turmoil. He started 1967 by getting a $70,000 payday from Phillies general manager John Quinn; something most historians agree was not an easy deal to strike. Quinn, a premiere judge of baseball talent, still, according to Bunning’s biography by Frank Dolson, “drank a lot and could get belligerent.” The negotiations were said to have been distinguished by Bunning’s ability to get up and leave the room if Quinn entered too rambunctious a state (7).
His finances secured, the 35-year-old Bunning entered the season assuming that this lucrative deal was the last he would receive from the Phillies. And he was right.
Bunning was the Phillies’ opening day starter, and he gave them six innings in a 4-2 loss to the Cubs to begin the team’s displeasing first half. In his next start, he threw the first of 16 complete games on the year, tied for his career best with the previous season, but in his next two appearances, he couldn’t get out of the third inning.
This was not a regular occurrence for Bunning, who through personal philosophy and baseball culture at the time, did not typically want to leave a ball game before the last pitch. He would lead all of baseball in innings pitched in 1967, with 302.1, as well in starts (40), batters faced (1,216), shut-outs (He had a six-way tie for the lead with six), and strikeouts (253). He also hit 13 batters, enough to be the NL leader in that category, as well. This was not an anomaly for Bunning, baseball’s all-time leader in pettiness, who hit seven batsmen in his career after giving up a home run to the previous hitter, the most for any pitcher, ever.
Bunning had only nailed one hitter with a pitch by May 10 of his 1967 campaign (It was poor Felix Milan on April 30, a 23-year-old known for holding his bat very high on the knob) (8), when he would inadvertently help make a different kind of history by giving up the only inside-the-park home run of Hank Aaron’s career (9). He stabilized around mid-season and his ERA dipped under 3.00, never to be seen above the mark again.
Near the end of the season, as the Phillies crawled into second place but still remained 11 games behind the Cardinals, Bunning’s endurance only grew. He threw ten innings against the Mets on August 15, striking out ten and allowing only two runs on six hits. On September 24, he bested that performance, throwing all 10.2 innings of a game against the Astros, which Houston won on a walk-off Chuck Harrison RBI single, despite Bunning only allowing six hits all day. This was a legit, white knuckle pitchers’ duel, as Houston’s Mike Cuellar also went the distance, pitching all 11 frames for the Astros. The 1-0 loss was the fifth of Bunning’s frustrating season and the third in his last four starts.
By the end of the year, the 1967 Phillies were not so different from their 2018 counterparts, finishing 82-80, 19.5 games behind the first place Cardinals, with the Giants, Cubs, and Reds between them. When the MVP votes were tallied, Orlando Cepeda of the Cardinals was on top with 280 points, his teammate Tim McCarver behind him with 136. Some names you’d expect to see came next: Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Ron Santo. Bunning’s teammate Dick Allen got nine points.
Down in 22nd place was Bunning, with all five of his points, clawing his way onto the scoreboard. He was one of only three pitchers on the Cy Young list, however, though like the MVP voting, in which Cepeda had been the unanimous choice at No. 1, there was a clear winner in the Giants’ Mike McCormick, who received 18 first place Cy Young votes. Bunning and fellow runner-up Fergie Jenkins—the Cubs pitcher Bunning had faced on opening day—got one first place vote each.
Let’s look at some numbers.
- Jim Bunning, 1967: 2.29 ERA, 253 SO, 73 BB, 3.47 SO/W, 7.5 SO/9, 7.8 WAR, 302.1 IP
- Aaron Nola, 2018: 2.37 ERA, 224 SO, 58 BB, 3.86 SO/W, 9.5 SO/9, 10.5 WAR, 212.1 IP
Both Bunning and Nola got a lot of nothing from their offense. Bunning’s 1-0 L’s had piled up by the end of the season, and the Phillies lost 14 games in which Bunning had pitched and given up four or fewer runs.
The 2018 Phillies lost 11 games in which Aaron Nola was the starter. In only three of those games did they score more than two runs. In six of them, they only scored one. It’s a symptom typical of teams stricken by injury, bad luck, and inconsistency, as both pitchers experienced during successful individual years. You can’t carry a whole team in 33 starts, or even 40.
As he had foreseen, Bunning’s Phillies career soon ended. In December, the Phillies sent him to Pittsburgh in exchange for Woodie Fryman, Bill Laxton, Don Money, and prospect Harold Clem. 1967 was the last time he’d receive award votes of any kind. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 and passed away in May 2017.
Obviously, the sport Nola plays today is a different one than Bunning played, both in their personal styles and the culture surrounding them. Pitchers in the modern era receive MVP votes as more of a gesture, while the annual debate is held over whether or not their season was good enough to garner them a prize beyond merely the Cy Young. Bunning’s time seems marked by a more brutal honesty. And even if he’d won, he probably would have just found somebody to throw his awards at.
- Jim Bunning, by Frank Dolson, p. 121
- Dolson, p. 104
- Dolson, p. 120
- The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, edited by Mel Marmer, Bill Nowlin, Clem Comly, James Forr, Russ Lake, Len Levin, p. 63
- SABR article, “Bill White,” by Warren Corbett
- Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen, by Dick Allen and Tim Whitaker
- Dolson, p. 126
- Major League Baseball in the 1970s: A Modern Game Emerges, by Joseph G. Preston, p. 33
- The Phillies Experience: A Year-by-Year Chronicle of the Philadelphia Phillies, by Tyler Kepner, p. 120