Bunker: Phenom At 19, Out Of The Game At 26

From The Toy Department Catching Up With ...

July 22, 2009|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Forty-five years ago, he was baseball's boy wonder, a pitching phenom who, as a teenager, nearly fetched the 1964 Orioles a pennant.

Then Wally Bunker was gone. Overnight, or so it seemed, he vanished, done in by a bum right arm that finished his career almost as quickly as it had begun. The Orioles' stopper at 19, he quit the game at 26.

Bitter? Not Bunker.

"No complaints," he said from his home in Ridgeland, S.C. "Playing baseball was magnificent, a dream come true. I was definitely really good, with a great sinker, but ... what can you do? I walked away in 1971, entered the real world and never touched a ball again."

Nowadays, the man whose 19-5 record made him the 1964 American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year lives with his wife in a beachfront house in an artists' colony. There, on the cusp of a coastal marsh teeming with alligators and blue herons, Bunker hones his crafts. He paints, makes pottery and is completing a children's book, which he illustrated.

That bum arm has made life rosy again.

His book, a fanciful tale of a young bird growing up in a swamp, is written in verse and is due out next spring. Its publication, Bunker said, will give him "the same high" he received from his first big league victory long ago over Washington, whose players rode the kid mercilessly much of the game.

"Moose Skowron, the first baseman, made a big deal of my being a rookie and tried hard to rattle me," Bunker said. "Around the sixth inning, he stopped yelling and told one of our coaches, 'Tell the kid he's OK.' "

Bunker shut out the Senators, allowing one hit. He won six straight decisions, bolstered the Orioles' flagging staff and - one year out of high school - led the club to a third-place finish, two games behind the New York Yankees.

Baltimore fans embraced their newfound ace. In June, before an Orioles game, Mayor Theodore McKeldin proclaimed the Memorial Stadium mound "Baltimore's Bunker Hill" and christened it with a handful of earth from the real site in Boston.

Bunker thanked the crowd, then pitched the Orioles into first place with a 6-1 victory over the league-leading Chicago White Sox. Soon after, he threw his second one-hitter and finished the year with a stellar 2.69 ERA and the league's best won-lost percentage.

"Looking back, yeah, it's amazing," said Bunker, 64. "But you don't realize that at the time. You just do it."

Success was short-lived. That September, while toiling on a cold night in Cleveland, Bunker winced in pain.

"I thought somebody had shot me in the shoulder with a .22 rifle," he said.

His arm was kaput. In each of the next two years, Bunker struggled to win 10 games. Though disabled much of 1966, he started Game 3 of the World Series and managed to shut out the Los Angeles Dodgers, 1-0. For old time's sake. He was all of 21.

"I had hot packs on my arm every inning to keep it loose," he said. "I was just happy the game didn't go longer."

Bunker hung on for five more years. Plucked in the 1969 expansion draft by Kansas City, he threw the first pitch in Royals history.

Married 45 years, he has a son, three grandchildren and no regrets.

"Life goes on," said Bunker, who, in his post-baseball life, became an accomplished pianist.

"I know about 5,000 songs," he said, "everything from 'Watermelon Man' to 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.' "

Just don't ask him to throw out the first pitch.

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