Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Book Review - Jim Bunning: Baseball and Beyond, by Frank Dolson

When I was about five years old, my mom decided to move our Phillies Sunday season tickets up to section 543 (we'd previously been in 330, from my grandfather's ticket plan. Sure, you never got rained on there, but Mom wanted to get a suntan if she was going to sit out at the games on weekends, plus we needed a third seat for my younger brother). During one of our first games that year, I looked out across Veterans Stadium, and I could see a yellow star with an S in the middle of it over one of the concourse entries in the 600 level.

"Mom," I asked, "What's that yellow star up there for?"

"Well," she told me, "That star shows where Willie Stargell hit a home run off of Jim Bunning. It was so high, they put a star in its place."

"Oh," I said. I knew who Willie Stargell was, even if he would retire after that year. "Who's Jim Bunning?"

"Remember what I told you about 1964? He was the reason we got there. And he was also the reason we didn't get there."

Jim Bunning: Baseball and Beyond by Frank Dolson

I'm not sure there's a single other name besides "Jim Bunning" that you can type into Google, and the first page that shows up is the page of a U.S. Senator, and the second page that shows up is a Baseball Hall of Fame biography.

While I may not agree with his political views, and while it's true that most of what I knew of him was that he was a no-smile, hard-working competitive player, I have to admit, this book really opened my eyes up to understand a lot more of his life. And honestly, I'm really glad I read it. I enjoyed it a lot -- there are a lot of really funny scenes interspersed all over the book where you'd least expect them, perhaps to echo Bunning's real personality.

It's true that this book may have been a little better as a first-person memoir rather than a third-person biography, and delved a little deeper into things, but if you're looking to hear the story of a guy who spent seven years in the minors before getting called up, then proceeded to win 100 games and notch 1000 strikeouts in both major leagues, as well as pitch a no-hitter in each league, the second a perfect game, and after a long and illustrious career settled down to try minor league managing, then being a player agent, a stock broker, a city councilman, state senator, and eventually get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and to the US Congress at about the same time... well, then you want to hear Jim Bunning's story.

I laughed at the stories of his mishaps with the Mud Hens, and of creative bed check duckers. I almost cried when reading about the second half of the 1964 season. I learned some new stuff about government and candidate campaigning. All in all, I found this book very entertaining. There were a few parts where it dragged on, notably in the story of him running for Kentucky governor in 1983, and during the part where he got fired from the Phillies farm system. There's definitely a bit of propoganda strewn around the book, both about the Phillies and about the Democrats. But there are enough parts that are overly engaging to make up for that, notably the story of his first no-hitter, where apparently the Red Sox actually were stealing signs and knew everything he was going to throw before he threw it, and it still didn't matter.

Plus, it had the best reference to my alma mater that I've found in a baseball book yet:
    "It was so known I used pine tar," Bunning said, "that when I was traded to the Pirates [general manager] Joe L. Brown had a study done so the pine tar we would possibly use was clear."
    Brown figured it would be difficult to accuse somebody of using something you couldn't see. "I got a guy from Carnegie Mellon to develop a pine tar that was white and had no smell," the retired general manager confirmed. "Jim wouldn't use it. He said, 'I'm doing all right with the black stuff.'"
    Bunning's version of the Great Pittsburgh Pine Tar Experiment differed somewhat. "Unfortunately," he remarked, "I didn't stay in Pittsburgh long enough for them to develop it."

So, yeah. This book will probably only really be interesting to Phillies phans or for people who are really interested in hearing rants about the Players' Union and such. But, it's definitely different from your typical baseball biography -- they don't usually include a second career in politics.

Oddly enough, in terms of other Phillies books, today Phlogger Tom G pointed out that Mike Schmidt has a book coming out next week. In related news, my father, who still lives in Philly, is really good at getting hints, because when I sent him an email saying, "Hey, did you see this? Mike Schmidt's going to be signing copies of his new book at the Rittenhouse Square Barnes&Noble in two weeks!" he wrote back, "So, you're saying you want an autographed Schmitty book as an early birthday present? I'll see what I can do."

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