Jim Bunning’s Wild Pitch

Mar 16, 2010

By Gode Davis, staff columnist – March 16, 2010

According to the book Cooperstown, [1] which chronicles the exploits of men elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York; including, most notably, those who played what used to be called The National Pastime, Jim Bunning was “the consummate intelligent professional pitcher.” If anything he was consistent, in that he seldom missed a start.

His strikeout-to-walk ratio was superb during a stellar 17-year career. With excellent control and a devastating slider, thrown with a sweeping sidearm delivery that caused his knuckles to nearly scrape the ground on his follow-through, Bunning won 224 Major League games between 1955 and 1971. In 1957, he went 20-8 while pitching for the Detroit Tigers. That year, he led the American League in wins and tossed a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. A few seasons later, in 1964, he was nearly as good, going 19-8 with the Philadelphia Phillies and pitching a perfect game against the New York Mets on Father’s Day. He was a father too, as seven of his kids (out of an eventual nine) were there to watch. Baseball immortal Bunning was elected to the hallowed Hall in 1996.

By 1996, he’d served for a decade as a U.S. Congressman representing the 4th District of his native Kentucky. Elected to the U.S. Senate two years later, also as a Republican, the decision was close – a squeaker – as his margin was a mere 6,766 votes. Securing a second term in 2004, he won handily.

Enter the present. He’s 79 years old as of the first week of March in 2010 and is suddenly catapulted to fame once again, although he must feel ambivalent about the circumstances and ensuing consequences.

Generally, Bunning has served in the U.S. Senate as a moderate Conservative, occasionally prone to feisty eccentricities. But any preludes barely foreshadowed what’s transpired lately. In any case, the recent saga began during the last week of February. Republicans and Democrats “were gearing up for debate on a long-term spending bill.” They’d agreed to a stop-gap measure that would, among other things, extend unemployment benefits an additional 30 days while the harshest Recession since the 1930s lingered. “The measure quickly passed the House and was expected to do the same in the Senate until Bunning, who is retiring this year, voiced his objection to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s call for passage by unanimous consent. In the Senate, it may take 60 votes these days to pass virtually any piece of legislation, but it takes only one to stop a measure such as this,” explained Adele M. Stan in Alternet.org. [2]

Bunning’s one-man filibuster seemed like a wild pitch not only to the Democratic Senators, but also created consternation among many of his Republican colleagues. Unemployed Americans, a significant legion of the dispossessed, were predictably outraged.
Bunning claimed to have scuttled the bi-partisan bill because “it wasn’t paid for,” and wanted it to be funded out of unspent stimulus money that was reserved for other programs and projects. Because the unemployment extension package was an emergency measure, Senate leaders contended that it was exempt from the “pay-as-you-go” rules recently enacted by the Senate (which Senator Bunning also voted against). Bunning’s peculiar antics took a turn for the bizarre when in the aftermath of his one-man filibuster — he was seen to make a Dick Cheney-style obscene gesture at Jonathan Karl, a reporter-at-large for ABC News. Bunning has also complained publicly about having to sacrifice the luxury of watching a college basketball contest between the University of Kentucky and the University of South Carolina, which drew the notice of political satirist Jon Stewart on his Comedy Central late evening variety show. There was also a nasty, if also comical exchange between Karl and Bunning as the reporter attempted to pursue questioning in an elevator. “This elevator is just for Senators!” Bunning screamed. Technically, he was correct, but Bunning’s response seemed more like a balk, enough so that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs referred to Bunning’s behavior as “irrational” in a press conference convened the next day. [3]

Bunning’s callous disregard for the unemployment benefits of 400,000+ Americans didn’t go over well for anyone, even unfortunate Kentucky voters, who saw their claims expire because the bill wasn’t passed due to being “Bunning-bunted.” Because the bill also contained highway funding, the Department of Transportation furloughed 2,000 employees without pay, and some ongoing highway projects were temporarily halted.

Blaming Bunning seemed fair, but it wasn’t, not entirely. It seemed to this observer like a natural extension of Obama Era-Republican nay saying, an outgrowth of a calculated obstructionist strategy that has scuttled more than 291 pieces of proposed legislation in recent months. Mr. Bunning was merely playing this game of anti-Obama tat-for-tit a bit more persistently than his Conservative teammates on this occasion. It was only a continuation of a negative mindset taken “outside the strike zone.” U. S. Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) went so far as to issue his own “base-on-balls” to Mr. Bunning. In defending the one-man filibuster, Senator Kyl, the Republican Whip from Arizona, argued that unemployment benefits dissuade people from job-hunting “because people are being paid even though they’re not working.” Kyl added insult to injury when he further opined that unemployment insurance “doesn’t create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.”
It could be argued that Senator Kyl’s comments were much more callous, if less conspicuous, than the slider tossed by Senator Bunning, while also being somewhat disingenuous. Unemployment benefits are generally miniscule, enough so that they don’t even cover the cost of living.

It seems that Jim Bunning’s corker was thrown just like in his glory days – in front of a packed arena with everyone’s eyes glued to his every pitch.


1. Cooperstown, Publications International, Ltd., 2007

2. http://www.alternet.org/story/145861/, Alternet.org

3. Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC (March 3, 2010)

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