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100 greatest Tigers #30: Jim Bunning

Jim Bunning won 100 games in both leagues.
Jim Bunning won 100 games in both leagues.
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Jim Bunning could have become the greatest pitcher in Tiger history. However, Detroit traded the righthander to the Phillies after the 1963 season. Bunning went on to another 106 games in the senior circuit. He finished his career second only to Walter Johnson in strikeouts. As a Tiger, Bunning won 118 games, led the league in wins once, strikeouts twice, and no-hit the Red Sox.

23-year-old Jim Bunning debuted for Detroit on July 20, 1955. He spent five and a half years in the minor leagues before the callup. The Orioles defeated Bunning 6-3 that day. The rookie surrendered six earned runs in 7.2 innings. He entered the eighth with a 3-2 lead, but could not hold it. He finished 1955 with a 3-5 record and 6.35 ERA in 15 games. Bunning appeared in 15 games the following season as well. However, he improved to 5-1 with a 3.71 ERA. Additionally, Bunning showed some ability in those two seasons as he struck out 71 batters in 104.1 innings.

Bunning put his gifts together in his first full season in the big leagues. He had a career year in 1957. The righty led the league with 20 wins and 267.1 innings pitched. The pitcher finished 20-8 with a 2.69 ERA, 14 complete games, a shutout, 182 strikeouts, and 1.070 WHIP. He made the first of seven All Star teams and finished ninth in the MVP vote. The Tigers had an ace.

The new ace took a minor statistical step backward in 1958. His record dropped to 14-12 and his ERA elevated to 3.52. Still, he finished with 10 complete games, 3 shutouts, and 177 strikeouts in 219.2 innings. On July 20, 1958, Bunning no-hit Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox. Six years later, the pitcher threw a perfect game against the New York Mets. Bunning victimized the Red Sox again in 1959. He did not throw a no-hitter. Instead, the righty entered the game in relief and promptly struck out the side on nine pitches. Those three Sox were not Bunning's only strikeout victims that season. The Tiger ace led the league with 201 en route to a 17 win season and an All Star appearance. He defended his strikeout crown in 1960 with another 201 whiffs.

The righthander received MVP votes for the second time in his career in 1960. From 1960-63, Bunning won 11, 17, 19, and 12 games. During this period, his ERA finished at 2.79, 3.19, 3.59, and 3.88. He finished 21st in the MVP vote in 1962 and made more three All Star teams before the trade. The Tigers seemed to have given up on Bunning after 1963. His ERA elevated to 3.88 and the win-loss record dipped to 12-13. The pitcher turned 31 and Detroit panicked at those numbers. However, he still managed 248.1 innings and 196 strikeouts. The Tigers shipped Bunning to Philadelphia with Gus Triandos for Don Demeter and Jack Hamilton. Demeter and Hamilton did little to help Detroit while Bunning cemeted his place in Cooperstown with the Phils.

Bunning absolutely dominated from 1964-1967. He won 19, 19, 19, and 17 games and threw a perfect game in this period. In 1967, the veteran finished 17-15 for a weak Philadelphia squad. He led the league in game starts (40), shutouts (6), innings (302.1), and strikeouts (253). On top of this, Bunning posted a 2.29 ERA and 1.039 WHIP. The Tigers missed the World Series by a game in 1967. Denny McLain missed significant time with an injury. The Bunning trade probably cost the Tigers the 1967 pennant.

The Phillies traded Bunning to Pittsburgh in December 1967. The righthander bounced around from 1968-1971 finishing his career back in the City of Brotherly Love. He became the first man to win 100 games in both leagues. Bunning won 106 games for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles and 118 games for Detroit. He struck out 2,855 batters, which is 17th all time. However, Bunning was second all time in 1971. The Veteran's Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1996. He retired from Congress in 2011 after 24 years in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.

Jim Bunning won 118 games for the Detroit Tigers and 224 big league games. Shortsighted Tiger management traded the ace in 1963, but Bunning had six fine seasons remaining in his right arm. The trade might have cost Detroit a pennant in 1967. Overall, Bunning posted a 3.45 ERA, 1.208 WHIP, 1,406 strikeouts, 16 shutouts, and threw a no-hitter to go along with the 118 wins in 1867.1 innings for the Tigers.