Tim Sullivan of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote that former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, who died Friday, was “one of a kind.” I agree, but more than that he was an original. No one in politics in Kentucky or, for that matter, nationwide has been or ever will be like him.
My first encounter with Bunning was after I’d lost badly in a 1971 race for lieutenant governor (at that time, still elected separately.) I became focused on re-building my professional life and was soured on politics.
I got a call from Bunning, then a state senator whom I had never met. “Why are you not active anymore in politics?” he asked. He went on: “It does not make any difference what your answer is, you and I have a common interest and that is baseball, so I am coming to see you.” Then he hung up.
Later, in 1983, before a real two-party system in Kentucky, a group of us were meeting to find a viable Republican candidate for governor. I called Bunning who said he would run only if I managed his campaign. I did, and he was defeated by Martha Layne Collins.
I learned about the character of Jim Bunning during that campaign. He immediately developed a distrust for many members of the media. He was not a warm and fuzzy type. He would say what he believed and not what most people wanted to hear.
We became very close friends and he did not have very many. He was so full of integrity, that there was no gray in his life; it was either black or white — never gray.
He was the most competitive person I have ever met. Three things meant more to him than anything: his family, his church and baseball.
He had not been named to the Baseball Hall of Fame after 15 years by the baseball writers, though when he retired he was second in strikeouts to the famed Walter Johnson and had won 100 games in both leagues with a perfect game in one and a no-hitter in the other; while never pitching for a pennant winner. A prominent sportswriter told me the writers would have never elected him because he never developed relationships with most of them.
This wrong was corrected the first year that the old-timers committee of the Hall could vote on him. Probably his greatest thrill other than the birth of his nine children was the call he got from Ted Williams and others saying they were correcting a tragic wrong by voting him into the Hall of Fame.
When he called to tell me the news, his voice was filled with emotion unlike any I had heard from him. “I am glad those SOBs (the writers) did not vote me in, being voted in by the players means more anyway.” In his acceptance speech, he attacked ills in the game he loved that the commissioner and others were not addressing. The officials of Major League Baseball sat on the stage uncomfortable.
As a member of the Senate finance committee, he took on then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Other members would look at him as if he were nuts, as Greenspan was not to be questioned. Bunning was right, as the easy money policy of the Fed contributed to the Great Recession of 2008.
He and his wife Mary spent many years with my wife, Pat, and me in Florida between Christmas and New Year’s. For a U.S. senator and Baseball Hall of Famer (the only person to be both), and a person called “cantankerous” by many members of the press, he was warm and generous with his time when people approached him for autographs or a handshake.
Jim Bunning was the straightest arrow I ever met. After a bad stroke in October, he is in a better place as he never really recovered. May he rest in peace.
Jim Host, retired founder of a college sports marketing and management firm, is a former Kentucky secretary of commerce.