Rarely has a player made a larger immediate impact on a ball club than Bunning did that spring. The Phils were an up and coming team, fresh off an 87-win season in ‘63. Manager Gene Mauch confidently predicted 92 wins that season, a number he would live to regret. They were young, talented and enthusiastic and they had several talented hurlers.... Chris Short, Art Mahaffey, Ray Culp and Dennis Bennett. But in Bunning they finally had the Leader of the Pack, the wily veteran who would teach the youngsters how to win...and win they did!
Bunning made his presence known immediately, striking out the first 3 batters he saw in the National League, ironically against the same Mets that he would haunt all year. This was indeed a portent of things to come. With Bunning leading the way, this Phillies team, sparked by such youngsters as Johnny Callison, rookie Richie Allen and pitchers Short and Bennett showed that they were a team to be reckoned with by winning 10 of their first 12 games. They were playing effortlessly and Gus Triandos deemed it "The Year of the Blue Snow".... a rare astrological occurrence, equally as rare as a Phillie pennant.
It was against this backdrop that Bunning prepared to take the mound on Father's Day, June 21, 1964. How appropriate that Bunning, the father of nine children, would be hurling on Fathers Day. Bunning knew early on that he had something special going on and after the Phils scored four runs in the sixth to take a 6-0 lead Bunning began to focus on the Perfect Game.... and instant immortality. As a perfect sixth became a perfect seventh, Bunning began to chatter in the dugout, reminding everyone what was happening, as if anyone had to be told. He was breaking ALL baseball tradition by talking about a perfect game. The players nervously smiled and remained silent. The eighth was a blur and when it finally came down to the last hitter, pinch hitter, John Stephenson, Bunning professed later that he knew he could get Stephenson with curves...and with deuces running wild, 2 balls, 2 strikes, 2 outs.... another deuce, a swerving curveball proved more than Stephenson could handle, and Bunning had his perfect game.
Many old timers remember watching Bunning's performance on their black and white Motorola televisions that day, and were convinced that this perfect game was another sign that "The Year of the Blue Snow" was truly taking place before their very eyes. When Johnny Callison won the All-Star game with a home run, Phils fans winked and nodded and reminded themselves of the magic of this season. If the season was truly magic, then Bunning was the master magician, winning game after game through the middle of September. Truly, Bunning was having a season for the ages.
It is a well-known fact that Bunning finished the ‘64 season with a 19-8 record. What wasn't as well known was that exactly half of his losses, 4 in all, occurred during those last fateful and desperate 17 games, when a pennant won, became a pennant lost. Though none will ever forget the 10 game losing streak, many insiders contend the race really turned on a Wednesday night in Houston with only 17 games left to play. Bunning had just pitched a brilliant 10 inning 4-1 win over the Giants on Sunday when Mauch asked Bunning to pitch with two days rest against the Astros. Bunning, ever the warrior said yes, but his 17-4 record quickly became 17-5 as the Astros pounded a tired Bunning and won 6-5. Though the Phils would split their series in Los Angeles and Bunning would win his 18th with a 3-2 win on Sunday, September 20...it would be 12 days before the Phils would taste victory again.
During those last two weeks when the Phils would try in vain to end a losing streak that seemed almost surreal, Bunning would lose three times, twice to the Braves. He was pitching on grit and memory, a tired trooper, too proud to say enough and too talented not to try. In the end, when Bunning finished the season with a 10-0 shutout against the Reds for his 19th win, he was physically and emotionally spent. Never again would Bunning and this group of Phils gets this close again. Not that Bunning and Company didn't try. He won 19 games in ‘65 and ‘66 and 17 games in ‘67. In fact Gentleman Jim, like fine wine, seemed to be getting better as his ERA dropped every season. He was the consummate professional and exuded class till the day he retired.
When he was traded to the Pirates before the ‘68 season, Phils fans bid what they thought was farewell to a fine friend. Little did they know that Bunning had one more surprise in store for Phillie fandom. After his release in 1970 from the Dodgers, Bunning signed with the Phils and was the starting pitcher in the first game at Veterans Stadium. Not surprisingly, he won 4-1 and continued to pitch well enough for a poor team, to win 10 games. Bunning had one more year in him and retired after winning only five games in 1971. That he retired a Phillie, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a Phillie in 1996, was only appropriate. Though Bunning pitched for 4 teams, and won more games as a Tiger, he will forever be remembered as a Philadelphia Phillie.
Through leadership, talent and poise, Bunning had forever captured the hearts and minds of Phils fans everywhere...Gentleman Jim was truly Perfect in Every Way!
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