The Year Of The Card–Wally Bunker, 1969

So much of baseball is about timing. Batters stand in the on-deck circle, watching the pitcher like a hawk, trying to time his motion. Pitchers throw off-speed stuff, or in more entertaining cases, develop some sort of Johnny Cueto-esque shimmy, to disrupt the batter’s timing. And of course, some players show up at the wrong time to become a star. Besides the obvious examples of Negro Leagues players before Jackie Robinson, there are numerous names who could have become household ones with a different style of play, different coaching, or better medical treatments. One of the players in that last category is Wally Bunker, who could have been much more than the answer to a Royals trivia question.

Wallace Edward Bunker was born on January 25, 1945, in Seattle. After his family moved south down the coast, he graduated from Capuchino High School in San Bruno, California. Following an 11-1 junior year and 5-1 senior season, Bunker was considered one of the top high school pitchers in the country. In those pre-draft days, amateur free agents went to the highest bidder. In Bunker’s case, that was the Baltimore Orioles, who handed the youngster a reported $70,000 bonus, which would be about $600,000 in 2022 dollars.

Bunker proceeded to post a 10-1 record that summer for Class Stockton (California) in his first taste of professional baseball. That earned him a September callup, with Bunker debuting in the majors on the 29th. It was a game to forget, as he was rocked for 10 hits and six runs in four innings.

But Bunker would follow that up with a sensational full rookie season. Bunker needed to be on the roster for the full season or the Orioles would risk losing him in the First-Year Player Draft, which was similar in concept to the Rule 5 draft most fans are familiar with now (see https://sabr.org/journal/article/the-real-first-year-player-draft/ for more info). But Baltimore, with a solid team in 1963 and designs on a pennant in 1964, was not about to give valuable innings to an untested rookie trying to learn at the big-league level.

Injuries finally forced manager Hank Bauer’s hand, and Bunker made his first appearance–not just start, appearance–on May 5. It went pretty well; only a seeing-eye single kept Bunker from no-hitting the Washington Senators in a complete game 2-1 win. Bunker followed that up with five more wins, then a six-game winning streak after a couple of losses. By the end of the season, Bunker boasted a 19-5 record and a sparkling 2.69 ERA, numbers that got him a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting (although he was a landslide loser to Tony Oliva).

Unfortunately, Bunker also had a sore shoulder by the end of the season, an injury he would later blame on the cold weather in Cleveland during his penultimate appearance of the season. Although Bunker would remain in the majors for all of 1965 and 1966, he could not duplicate the success of his rookie season. Pitching through pain with the occasional cortisone shot to help him, he posted a 20-14 mark with a 3.77 ERA over the two seasons. That’s not terrible, but the league-average ERA in those two seasons was 3.45. Still, Bunker did help the Orioles capture their first AL pennant in 1966 (the franchise had reached the World Series in 1944 when they were the St. Louis Browns) and then their first title. He tossed a shutout in Game Three, holding the Los Angeles Dodgers to six hits in a 1-0 win. That was part of a Series-record 33 ⅓ consecutive scoreless innings the Orioles’ staff posted; the Dodgers scored two runs in the first three innings of the Series and that was it.

The World Series shutout earned Bunker “Mayor For A Day” honors back in San Bruno, along with a luncheon and a motorcade through downtown. But despite an offseason comprised of those festivities and a lot of golf, Bunker’s arm still bothered him through the 1967 season, limiting him to 88 innings. By spring training 1968, the Orioles’ assembly line of talented young pitchers and Bunker’s continuing arm injuries put his roster spot at risk. Bunker was optioned to Class AAA Rochester (New York) at the start of the season. He pitched quite well there, with a 6-1 record and 2.70 ERA in 70 innings before being called back up in mid-June. He followed that with 71 quality innings for Baltimore (a 2.41 ERA), but that wasn’t enough to keep him on the protected list before the expansion draft. The Royals used the 25th pick in the draft to take him, the third Oriole out of four they would select.

If Bunker had come along today, it is inarguable he would have been shut down at the first sign of shoulder trouble he showed in 1965. And even if he had pitched through the pain, it’s highly likely that all the tools teams have at their disposal now to track pitchers’ motions would have noticed any change in mechanics, probably preventing elbow issues. As it was, Bunker was unfortunately left to work through it on his own. Thankfully, a former teammate, Mike McCormick (who would briefly be a Royal himself in 1971), gave Bunker a bottle of Indocin during the winter before the 1968 season. Indocin is an anti-inflammatory used to treat bursitis, and once Bunker started taking the pills during spring training, his arm problems went away. Who needs team doctors, anyway?

Bunker’s arm felt good enough for him to pitch in winter ball in Puerto Rico before the 1969 season, and his success there was a springboard into the Royals’ rotation for the 1969 season. A solid spring training put him in the top spot, and Bunker had the honor of throwing the first pitch in Royals history as KC faced the Twins at home on April 8. He held the Twins to five hits and two runs through the first five innings, although he was long gone from the game by the time the Royals won with a walkoff single in the 12th inning.

But Bunker’s early season results were inconsistent, as he ended April with a 4.95 ERA and 0-2 mark. After a shift to the bullpen, a pulled hamstring sidelined him for almost three weeks. The time off and a tip from Royals first base coach Harry Dunlop were turning points in Bunker’s season. Dunlop had managed Bunker at Class A Stockton in 1963, and so was familiar with the pitcher’s ability. 

“Harry was my first manager in pro ball. He told me I was throwing a lot of garbage. Dunlop told me I was fooling around with a slider and change too much. He said I should start throwing the fastball more.”–Bunker, quoted by Joe McGuff, The Sporting News, June 21, 1969

Indeed, Bunker’s return to the rotation on May 30 was a strong effort against the Yankees, followed by seven June starts in which he went 3-2 with a 2.88 ERA in 56 ⅓ innings. With the Royals suffering through a miserable June (10-18), Bunker was a rare bright spot for the team.

He was not quite as successful in July, with a 1-4 mark, although a 3.98 ERA suggests that he pitched decently. He was hurt by a .350 BABIP; as an expansion team, the Royals’ defense left something to be desired. That was part of the reason they only went 11-18 for the month.

August was a bounce-back month for Bunker, although not so much for the Royals. The pitcher went 3-2 with a 3.92 ERA in 41 ⅓ innings. Kansas City posted a 10-17 mark, dropping to 26.5 games out of first at the end of the month. Such is life for an expansion team.

As summer turned to fall, both the Royals and Bunker posted their strongest month of the season. Bunker went 4-1 with a 2.29 ERA in 51 innings, while the Royals finished the season with a 17-15 mark in September and two games in October. That meant KC finished the year with a 69-93 record, solid enough for a first-year franchise. Bunker ended the year with a 12-11 mark, the only member of the rotation to have a winning record. He led the rotation with 222 ⅔ innings pitched and a 3.23 ERA, and his 130 strikeouts were second on the staff (yes, it was a different time). By bWAR, he was the team’s most valuable player, with a 4.2 mark that was well ahead of any position player.

Given those results, Bunker had reason to look forward to the 1970 season. He bought a house in Overland Park, moved his family to the growing suburb, worked out with some teammates over the winter, and even did some work in the Royals’ ticket sales office. As spring training began, he told Sid Bordman of The Sporting News, “This is the first time in five years I haven’t had to worry about arm trouble. This is the best I’ve felt for some time. I feel like I’ve got a job, so all I have to do is get ready.” 

Famous last words…Bunker’s shoulder issues returned early in the season. He mostly struggled; when he did pitch well, he got no run support. A demotion to the bullpen didn’t help; even a cortisone shot had limited success. Bunker lost his first seven decisions, and didn’t pick up his first win until September. He finished the year with an unsightly 2-11 record, with a 4.22 ERA that only got that low thanks to a solid last six weeks. That kept him in the rotation when 1971 started, but after six starts with less-than-stellar results, the Royals demoted him to Class AAA Omaha. A 4-10 record and 3.92 ERA were not promising. Bunker returned to Omaha at the start of the 1972 season, but after six starts and then a long stretch when he wasn’t used at all, Bunker decided it was time to retire. 

Even as a rookie, Bunker developed a reputation as a cool customer, a young man who wouldn’t get too high or too low, no matter what. So it was not really a surprise that he could walk away from the game at age 27 with no regrets, a step that many older athletes struggle with. Bunker and his family moved to Seattle, where he and his wife Kathy (the two were high school sweethearts although they attended different schools and were married following that 1964 season) opened their own business, selling refrigerator magnets with her own designs on them. Later on, they would move to South Carolina as part of an artist-in-residence program. Inspired by the wetlands and wildlife around them, the couple collaborated on two books for children. Eventually they moved to Idaho, where they reside today.

Had Bunker come along in today’s game, his arm would certainly have received better care and attention. He likely would have had a long and successful career. Then again, he played professional baseball for 10 seasons, has been married to the love of his life for almost 60 years, lives in a beautiful part of the country, and wrote a couple of children’s books. That is a quality life in my book.

Wally Bunker’s best games of 1969:
9/11 @ CAL: Limited Angels to one hit and two walks in 3-0 shutout.
6/3 vs. WSH: Struck out 10 in complete-game 5-3 win.
6/16 vs. OAK: Held A’s to four hits over 10 innings, striking out eight in 3-2 win.
9/16 vs. SEA: Scattered four hits, picked up four strikeouts, and drove in winning run in 2-1 complete game victory.
8/3 vs. CLE: Struck out four and only allowed four hits in 3-2 triumph.

About the card:
Of course, Topps didn’t have a chance to send photographers to a Royals’ spring training in 1968, so they had to make do with whatever pictures they did have of the expansion team players. Obviously they airbrushed the Orioles logo off Bunker’s hat, making him look like a co-rec softball player, although you can see they didn’t bother with the lettering on the jersey. Is that a large beer can behind him? 

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