Catching Up With ... former Oriole Wally Bunker
Each Tuesday in The Toy Department, veteran Baltimore Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's happening in his/her life in a segment called, "Catching Up With ... " Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ... "
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."
1968 Baltimore Sun file photo by Paul Hutchins
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 artist 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 currently completing a children’s book, which he illustrated himself.
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 rhyme and due out next spring. Its publication, Bunker said, will give him "the same high" as did 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, juiced the Orioles’ flagging staff and – one year out of high school – led the club to a third-place finish, two games behind New York.
Baltimore fans embraced their new-found ace. In June, prior to 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, with wife Kathy, in 1986. (AP photo)
Bunker thanked the crowd, then pitched the Orioles into first place with a 6-1 victory over league-leading Chicago. 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. "That was the beginning of the end."
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.