Jim Bunning is the father of nine children, so it’s not surprising that the native of Southgate, Ky., would do something extraordinary — something that had never been accomplished before and has not been since — on Father’s Day. It was the defining moment of a Hall of Fame pitching career.
Bunning pitched a perfect game on Father’s Day — June 21, 1964 — while pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies and dealing against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.
With his wife, Mary, and a daughter, Barbara, in attendance, Bunning retired 27 straight Mets, the first perfect game during Major League Baseball’s regular season in 42 years.
"It was extra special because my wife and oldest daughter drove to New York from Philadelphia to see the game and they wouldn’t have come up if it wasn’t Father’s Day," said Bunning. "Of course, the 1964 World’s Fair was right across the street and I really think they came up for that."
If so, Bunning gave them something special, a Father’s Day gift that they would cherish and never forget, along with himself and the baseball world.
He was in his first year with the Phillies, traded to Philadelphia by the Detroit Tigers after a below-par 12-13 record in 1963.
But on Father’s Day, 1964, Bunning was 6-2 when he took the mound on a muggy day in the low 90s for the first game of a doubleheader against Casey Stengel’s Mets. His opponent was Tracy Stallard, already infamous for giving up Roger Maris’ 61st home run in 1961.
"I thought it might be a good day when I hung a couple of sliders to leadoff hitter Jim Hickman [and] he only fouled them back," said Bunning. And nobody knew it at the time, but second baseman Tony Taylor made the game’s biggest defensive play. He knocked down a line drive smashed by Mets catcher Jesse Gonder. Taylor knocked down the ball with one out in the fifth, scrambled after it when it dribbled a few feet away and threw from his knees to get Gonder at first base.
Jim Bunning throws out the first pitch before a game of the 2008 World Series between the Phillies and Rays.
Bunning said the pitch was a changeup, "The only one I threw the entire game and Tony made that spectacular play. Right then I said to myself, ‘This has the makings of something special.’ "
The Mets who could not get a hit, draw a walk or reach on an error were Jim Hickman, Ron Hunt, Ed Kranepool, Joe Christopher, Jesse Gonder, Hawk Taylor, Amado Samuel, Charley Smith, George Altman, Rod Kanehl, Tracy Stallard and John Stephenson. Stephenson was the last peg to fit into the perfect picture. On a 2-2 pitch he went down swinging. Bunning retired Smith on a foul pop to open the ninth and struck out Altman for the 26th out.
Earlier in the year, Bunning came close to a no-hitter and observed all the protocols for a pitcher who hasn’t given up a hit. He sat by himself in a corner of the dugout, talked to nobody. And nobody talked to him. No mentions of a possible no-no. But he didn’t get that no-hitter.
This time as the outs mounted, Bunning said he counted each out, "16, 17, 18 . . ." to himself. His catcher was Gus Triandos, who had caught a no-hitter thrown by Baltimore Orioles knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm against the New York Yankees in 1958. Triandos thus became the first catcher to catch no-hitters in both leagues. Triandos said as the game moved on and the Mets swung futilely at Bunning’s offerings, "He began chattering like a magpie. And before the ninth inning he called me to the mound and told me a joke."
The joke is lost to posterity, but not the game.
"I just did it to keep myself relaxed," said Bunning. "And maybe it would loosen up the team, too. I know one thing, the baseball felt about this big in my hand." He held his perfect game forefinger and perfect game thumb about an inch apart.
How perfect was this game? The Mets hit only four balls to the outfield, Bunning went to a three-ball count on two batters and he struck out 10. To get those 27 straight outs, he needed only 90 pitches and worked in the melting heat for 2 hours and 19 minutes.
And Bunning did something at the plate that no member of the Mets could do. He banged a double to score the last two runs of the 6-0 victory.
There were 32,026 in the stadium and Bunning once said, "If everybody who told me they were in Shea that day were actually there, the attendance would have been 320,260."
While Bunning was mesmerizing the Mets, an aging golfer named Ken Venturi was slogging down the fairways of Washington’s Congressional Country Club, playing 36 holes in the breath-taking heat on the final day of the US Open. He drank iced tea by the gallon and was seeing double as he trudged and staggered toward the finishing holes.
Bunning and Venturi later appeared together on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and while sitting together in the green room waiting to go on, Venturi jokingly told Bunning that he didn’t like him much because, "You knocked me off the front pages of the New York papers after I almost died. I had to be fed fluids intravenously."
But they both went down in history — Bunning as the only man to pitch a perfect game on Father’s Day and Venturi as the only man to nearly die winning the US Open on Father’s Day.