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Jim Bunning, Hall of Fame pitcher and member of Congress, dies at 85

Jim Bunning, Hall of Fame pitcher and member of Congress, dies at 85
Jim Bunning in March 1966. (Associated Press)

Former Sen. Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher who parlayed his sports fame into a political career as an uncompromising advocate for conservative causes, has died. He was 85.

Bunning's death Friday was confirmed by Jon Deuser, who served as chief of staff when the Kentucky Republican was in the Senate. Deuser said Saturday he was notified about the death by Bunning's family.

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Bunning, who won 224 games in a 17-year career in the majors, mostly with the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies, pitched the first perfect game in modern National League history and became the first pitcher after 1900 to throw no-hitters in both the American and National Leagues. He also pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates and spent one season with the Dodgers.

Known as a no-nonsense pitcher who threw hard and knocked batters down when necessary, the big right-hander belonged to a rare group of major league pitchers to throw a perfect game in the modern era.

He retired from baseball in 1971 and then carried his success to politics.

Bunning served 12 years in the House of Representatives, followed by two terms in the Senate. He was a fierce protector of state interests such as tobacco, coal and its military bases. Bunning decided not to seek reelection to the Senate in 2010. Republican Rand Paul rode a tea party wave that year to win the seat.

His ornery nature prompted Republican leaders to push Bunning to retire as a senator. As his party soured on him, Bunning pushed back. At one point, he threatened to sue the party's national campaign arm if it backed a primary challenger. But in July 2009 he dropped his reelection bid, accusing his GOP colleagues of doing "everything in their power to dry up my fundraising."

Bunning suffered a stroke last fall. Deuser said Bunning was in hospice care when he died.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his longtime colleague from Kentucky, remembered Bunning on Saturday as someone who led a "long and storied life."

"From his days in the major leagues to his years as my colleague in the Senate — and the many points in between, from the City Council to the House of Representatives — Jim rarely shied away from a new adventure," McConnell said in a statement. "This Hall of Famer will long be remembered for many things, including a perfect game, a larger-than-life personality, a passion for Kentucky and a loving family."

Bunning's competitive side also was evident during his political career. In February 2010, he single-handedly held up a $10-billion spending bill in Congress because it would add to the deficit.

"The main qualities it takes for professional athletes and politicians is to have a very thick hide, a thick skin, and to be able to meet and greet people," he said in July 2000.

Bunning also used his political status to speak out about the game he loved.

He declared that athletes who use steroids should be kept out of the Baseball Hall of Fame and have their records nullified. He co-authored legislation calling for stiff punishment for professional athletes caught using steroids. The proposal, which sought a lifetime ban for a third positive test, would have applied to baseball, football, basketball and hockey players.

Bunning grew up in the northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati and started in minor league baseball in 1950. He made it into the majors with Detroit six years later.

His career highlights included a no-hitter for the Tigers in 1958 and a perfect game for the Phillies in 1964. Bunning went 20-8 with Detroit in 1957, his only 20-win season, but won 19 games four times.

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Bunning, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, was a leading figure in the founding of the baseball players union.

Bunning won a seat on the Fort Thomas City Council in 1977 and entered the state Senate two years later. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1983 but then won his House seat in 1986.

In 1998, Bunning was elected to the Senate, taking the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford. He defeated Democrat Scotty Baesler by a mere 6,766 votes.

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UPDATES:

1:35 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional information and background.

This article was originally published at 11:10 a.m.

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