May 27, 2017 / 9:11 PM / 3 months ago

Jim Bunning, Hall of Fame pitcher and U.S. senator, dead at 85

FILE PHOTO - Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), a Hall of Fame pitcher, smiles as he talks about progress made by Major League Baseball in dealing with steroids in Washington November 15, 2005.Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

(Reuters) - Jim Bunning, who showed much of the same combativeness as a U.S. congressman as he had during his Hall of Fame career as a deceptive pitcher in baseball's major leagues, died at the age of 85, his son said on Saturday.

"Heaven got its No 1 starter today. Our lives & the nation are better off because of your love & dedication to family," read a Twitter message from his son, David Bunning.

Bunning, who became the first Hall of Famer to serve in the U.S. Congress, representing Kentucky in the U.S. Senate and a Cincinnati-area district in the House of Representatives, led a "long and storied life," said Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader.

"From his days in the major leagues to his years as my colleague in the Senate ... Jim rarely shied away from a new adventure," McConnell, one of Kentucky's current senators, said in a statement.

A foe of abortion and gay marriage and a backer of tax cuts, gun rights and the Iraq war, the conservative Republican served in the House from 1987 to 1998, when he was first elected to the Senate.

After two terms, Bunning announced he would not seek re-election in 2010 due to difficulty raising funds. His erratic behaviour by that point had made him something of an embarrassment for Republican colleagues.

Bunning remained combative in his final year in office, single-handedly holding up an emergency appropriations bill for several days as a one-man protest against federal spending.

In a baseball career that covered much of the 1950s and 1960s, Bunning pitched no-hitters for both the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies, becoming the first pitcher to hurl such gems in both the American and National leagues.

While he won plenty of headlines as a baseball standout, the broad, tall and white-haired Bunning was more of a backup in Congress.

Time magazine, in April 2006, ranked Bunning as among the nation's "five worst senators," dubbing him "the underperformer" who was hostile to his staff and showed little interest in policy unless it involved baseball.

Still, Bunning had his moments on Capitol Hill.

As a member of the ethics committee, Bunning helped lead the charge against a House banking overdraft scandal in 1992 that contributed to Democrats losing control of the chamber two years later for the first time in four decades.

In 1993, five years before President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House on charges stemming from having an affair with an intern, Bunning drew attention when he denounced the then newly elected Democrat as "corrupt," "amoral" and "despicable."

In 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, he teamed up with Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California to win passage of legislation to arm airline pilots.

FILE PHOTO Former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jim Bunning throws out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 5 of Major League Baseball's World Series in Philadelphia, October 27, 2008.Ray Stubblebine/File Photo

Bunning won re-election to the Senate in 2004 in a bitter contest that raised questions about his mental health and strange behaviour.

At one point, Bunning said his opponent, Democratic state senator Daniel Mongiardo, looked like one of the sons of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and accused Mongiardo of passing on "horrible rumors" about Bunning's health.

Bunning also refused to give the news media advanced notice of his appearances, began to travel with a security guard and accused his opponent's staffers of having physically run into his wife at a campaign event, leaving her black and blue.

The Courier-Journal editorialised: "Is he, as he ages, just becoming a more concentrated version of himself: more arrogant, more prickly?"

"Or is his increased belligerence an indication of something worse? Has Senator Bunning drifted into a territory that indicates a serious health concern?"

On Election Day, Bunning, who once enjoyed a big lead in the polls, narrowly defeated Mongiardo, with 51 percent to 49 percent.

The following year, Bunning, who played baseball during an era marked by low wages and an open devotion to the game, introduced a bill to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs in pro sports.

Just hours before the Senate was expected to pass the measure, Major League Baseball and its players association announced an agreement to toughen drug tests and penalties.

"This is what I had hoped for all along, for the two private parties to come to an agreement on their own without Congress having do it for them," Bunning said, adding he hoped "they did it for the fans, parents and children, as well as the integrity of the game."

Bunning was born on Oct. 23, 1931, in Southgate, Kentucky. He entered the minor leagues in 1950 and made it to the major leagues six years later after graduating from Xavier University.

In 1957, Bunning became the only pitcher ever to strike out Ted Williams, considered one of baseball's greatest hitters, three times in one game.

He had a no-hitter for the Detroit Tigers in 1958, and in 1964 pitched a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies, having retired every batter in nine innings without giving up a hit or a walk. Only 23 major league pitchers have achieved the feat since 1904, according to Baseball Almanac.

Bunning also played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers.

He retired in 1971 with a lifetime record of 224 wins and 184 losses and a reputation of hitting batters who challenged him with an inside fastball. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.

Before being elected to Congress, Bunning worked as an investment broker and agent and served in the Kentucky state Senate. He and his wife Mary had nine children.

Reporting by Frank McGurty in New York; Editing by James Dalgleish and Marguerita Choy

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