- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

Ken Venturi, who had won the U.S. Open by surviving 36 holes in scorching heat the previous day at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club, was scheduled to take a bow on Ed Sullivan’s popular Sunday night variety show in New York when an aide rushed up to the host during rehearsals and panted, “Jim Bunning just pitched a perfect game for the Phillies against the Mets at Shea Stadium.”

“Get him,” Sullivan commanded.

The aide blinked. “But we already have Venturi as a sports guest.”

Sullivan, a former sports columnist, had a nose for news. “Bump Venturi and get Bunning,” he said.

Thus Bunning, now a Republican senator from Kentucky, achieved nationwide recognition in an era long before cable TV and ESPN. The date was June21, 1964 — 40 years ago today — and on this Father’s Day he was delivering a gift of his own to baseball fans around the globe: the first National League perfecto since 1880.

Since then, perfect games have become more frequent if still extremely rare. Of the 17 that punctuate baseball history, Randy Johnson’s masterpiece for the Arizona Diamondbacks last month was the ninth since 1964. By contrast, Bunning’s 6-0 gem was the first since Don Larsen’s for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series and the first in regular-season play since Charlie Robertson hurled one for the Chicago White Sox in 1922.

And how did Bunning celebrate? “I’m going to HoJo’s,” he told teammates after being informed that his perfect game was the first in the National League since John Montgomery Ward’s literally underhanded effort 84 years earlier. “I wanted to go to Toots Shor’s, but it was closed. So Howard Johnson’s is it.”

Bunning pitched a no-hitter for the Detroit Tigers in 1958, his fourth major league season. Detroit traded him to Philadelphia after an off year (12-13) in 1963, and now the 32-year-old right-hander was trying to help the Phillies win their first pennant since 1950.

Coming into the game, Bunning had a 6-2 record and was benefiting from a favorable omen. As Phillies broadcaster Richie Ashburn noted, this dad of seven (and eventually nine) was starting on Father’s Day against a childless mound opponent (Tracy Stallard, the same luckless fellow who yielded Roger Maris’ historic 61st home run three years earlier).

Some 32,000 were in the stands at the Mets’ new stadium in Flushing when Bunning took the mound with a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first. “It was a nice hot day,” he recalled in the book “Perfect” by James Buckley Jr. “Against Jim Hickman leading off for the Mets, I got away with some pitches that should have been hit. But he fouled them off.”

Said Hickman: “Then he stood out there on the mound and laughed at me. After that, I didn’t see a good pitch to hit all day.”

Neither did his overwhelmed teammates. The Mets would lose 109 games in Casey Stengel’s last full season as manager, and the 74-year-old former genius often took catnaps on the bench. On this day, his players might as well have joined him.

As the game wore on, Bunning found his fastball, curve and slider working consistently. In the fifth inning, however, Mets catcher Jesse Gonder smashed a changeup between first and second that would have been a hit if second baseman Tony Taylor hadn’t dived to his right, knocked the ball down and thrown out the slow Gonder by a step. Said Bunning: “I didn’t throw any more of those.”

During no-hit bids, teammates usually keep quiet on the bench for fear of jinxing the pitcher, but on this day Bunning was constantly reminding everyone that he had a perfect game going — “jabbering like a magpie,” according to catcher Gus Triandos, who accompanied him from Detroit to Philadelphia in the trade.

Said manager Gene Mauch: “He was coming back to the bench after each inning and counting down the outs: ‘Nine more, six more …’”

And then it was the bottom of the ninth, and there were just three more.

“It was kind of strange because everybody was standing up,” Bunning said. “It was a little distracting to start with, but I was pretty intent on getting it done so it didn’t bother me for long.”

Charley Smith popped to first, and pinch hitter George Altman struck out. Then, with the crowd holding its collective breath, Bunning called Triandos to the mound.

“He wanted me to tell him a joke, but I couldn’t think of anything,” the big catcher said. “So I just told him to go get this next guy.”

Another pinch hitter, John Stephenson, stepped in with a .174 batting average. Bunning got him in an 0-2 hole with two curveballs. Two balls followed before another curve claimed Stephenson as Bunning’s 10th strikeout victim, and pandemonium erupted. He fanned six of the final nine Mets.

“Venturi and I became friends, but I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for knocking him off the Sullivan show,” Bunning said recently.

The perfect game was the high spot of an ultimately disappointing season for the Phillies’ infamous “Fizz Kids,” who blew a 6-game lead with 12 to play by losing six of their final 10 and the pennant. Bunning, who retired in 1971 with 224 victories, ultimately was elected to Congress in 1986, the Baseball Hall of Fame belatedly in 1996 and the Senate in 2000.

Today Bunning is reminded constantly of his monumental Father’s Day four decades ago at Shea Stadium. And in Washington, he told author Buckley with tongue tucked firmly in cheek, “I have a lot of perfect days up here.”

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