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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.

Comments

As an 8 year old to get the most unexpected suprise of Wally's Shutout and Blair's Homer. To beat the mighty Dodgers. WOW! That was pretty much the scenerio of the whole '66 season. A complete team, picking each other up..."Birds on the Wing", ala Gordan Beard's great book!

I have a Wally Bunker bat hanging on my wall. I am so glad to hear he is doing well and is happy. He was one of my heros because he was so close to my age and he was such a great pitcher!

i remember his first game a weeknight one hitter vs. the nats in early may. his 2nd one hitter was against i think k.c. he was phenominal. and the 6 hitter against the dodgers with blair hitting the hr was the first w.s. game played in baltimore.

He was also the subject of a song in his rookie year, on the 1964 album, "Pennent Fever". I remember one of the lines proclaimed "Hey Wally, you're bigger than the bonus that you got". Great to hear he is doing well.

He was what former Oriole pitching coach Leo Mazzone DREAMED about. A master at low and away. He put it where you could not hit it. Watching todays pitching staffs you can appreciate how hard that is to do.

Anecdote: In 1963 Wally was a Senior at Capuchino High School in San Bruno, California--but he was physically a man. I was a sophomore catcher on the Frosh-Soph team and a 145 pound boy. For a reason I don’t recall the other catchers on the varsity were both out and I was asked to catch Wally in practice. I know that same pitch Mickey Mantle said could break his back. For me Wally's sinker was uncatchable and I could only catch his jumping fast ball about half the time. The regular catcher, Rich Dabney, was one of the toughest guys I ever knew on any field. For a short period of time in Baltimore, Wally was one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game. His career would have been Hall of Fame had his arm been looked after like they are today. Besides being a gifted athlete, he is a great guy.

I enjoyed reading the profile of Wally Bunker. I never saw him pitch but have come to know him in recent years. I count myself blessed to have met Wally, his wife, family and Pickles. I wish him continued love of life and happiness.

I knew Wally, but only when he was 14-15. I was bat boy, my father the coach for a VFW league team in San Bruno. Wally once threw a game where the other team gave up and went home after 7 innings - 21 strikeouts. I wonder if I or one of my brothers/sisters have that original scorebook around someplace in a box.

I remember Wally back in 1958. I was playing little league and the team we were playing brought in this big kid from San Bruno. It was Wally Bunker. I never forgot him because he threw this wicked side arm fastball that nobody could hit. He also hit the longest home run I had ever seen a few years later in Orange Avenue Park in South San Francisco. It didn't surprise me that he made his mark in the big leagues. It's too bad that his arm gave out. What a talent.

My dad was a teacher at Capuchino High School in the 1960's and I remember Wally pitching at Mills High in the early 60's and knew he was going to be big. Who knows what he would have become if his arm didn't out but his rookie season performance was no surprize to me. A class act!

I didn't know Wally as a player, but I did meet him about a year ago at his new home. What a gem of a guy. We had a great time talking baseball, and then he even threw it around a bit with my 8 year old son. You just can't imagine a nicer guy.

I am over 10 years younger than Wally, but because my name is Bunker, i heard his name all the time growing up. I have no idea if we were related, but something interesting happened while I was playing in a winter league after college. An Angels coach had me come in to relive a pitcher (i was a 3rd baseman). He told me I reminded him of Wally Bunker...I ended up hurting my arm and that was that. Wally I would love to get in touch with you, seems like you were part of my life.

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