Any player/Any era: Wally Bunker

Posted: 24th March 2011 by Graham Womack in Wally Bunker

What he did: Here’s a name I didn’t know. I began research for this post with an idea: Find a hurler buried on a great team in the Year of the Pitcher, 1968, with the idea that even a good pitcher might be out of options on a team like the Tigers, Cardinals, or Dodgers but might thrive transported to a different era. That led me to Wally Bunker, who was effective when the Baltimore Orioles let him pitch in 1968, going 2-0 with a 2.41 ERA and a 1.028 WHIP, though he was essentially a non-factor and was closer to the end of his career than the beginning. This for someone who was all of 23 in 1968.

Bunker debuted in September 1963 as an 18-year-old just done with his first year in the minors. Known for a sharp sinker, he led the Orioles with 19 wins in 1964 but hurt himself in a late-season game, telling the Baltimore Sun in 2009, “I thought somebody had shot me in the shoulder with a .22 rifle. That was the beginning of the end.” He topped 200 innings just once more and was older than his years by 1968. Baltimore won 91 games, carried a 2.49 ERA, and offered little hope for Bunker. He went to the Kansas City Royals in the expansion draft for 1969 and had one more good year before retiring in 1971 at 26.

Bunker didn’t need an expansion draft. He needed an entirely different time than the one he played in– an era where he could be more ably handled as a young pitcher, afforded better medical care, and allowed to stay in the minors longer. There’s no time like the present, or even close to it, for this kind of thing.

Era he might have thrived in: As with Bob Feller or Sandy Koufax, we’re making Bunker an Atlanta Brave in the early 1990s, where with fellow young hurlers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz he might forge a Hall of Fame career.

Why: Maddux came to Atlanta as a free agent coming off a Cy Young year, though Glavine and Smoltz were very much products of their environments. Say what you will about Glavine having the talent to play hockey or Smoltz being a high-enough regarded prospect to be dealt by the Tigers for veteran Doyle Alexander straight up in 1987, but both Glavine and Smoltz and even Maddux became more successful pitchers as Braves. They likely owe much to what they learned in Atlanta, and one has to wonder if their cases for Cooperstown would be so strong had they played for lesser clubs– or in Bunker’s time.

The 1960s might have produced some awesome pitching numbers, but it was a terrible time to be a pitcher, particularly a young one, when heavy workloads, a longer season, and less-evolved medical care wrecked guys before their time. Koufax is a famous example, Denny McLain less so, and I doubt Bunker is remembered by too many modern fans. There are almost certainly others lost to baseball obscurity. I’m guessing it was a brutally competitive time for pitchers, too, when there was always the knowledge an ERA above 3.00 could mean a pink slip.

Bunker could breathe a little easier in Atlanta, and he’d also probably thrive in its farm system, which has produced more good if not great hurlers including Jason Schmidt, Jason Marquis, and Kevin Millwood. Bunker would have the chance to be something more than a name I only learned in writing this post.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

  1. Edward Moore says:

    Saw Bunker play a few times when he first came up. He was throwing two different fastballs, a riser and a hard sinker that broke almost straight down. He had a curve he changed speeds on and a slider that he spotted. He had better stuff than a young Jim Palmer.

  2. Douglas Heeren says:

    How about the worst pitchers ever? Joe Harris pitched for Boston(A.L.) 1905-07 and his career win-loss was 3-30. What I know about Wally Bunker is from playing baseball board games. A good on the ’66 fall classic is Black and Blue: The Golden Arm, The Robinson Boys and The 1966 World Series That Stunned America by Tom Adelman. The book is a few years old and can be bought on Amazon for about nothing.

  3. Alvy says:

    A great young pitcher that injuries kept from having the great career he was expected to have.

  4. Edward Moore says:

    Bunker may have had the best sinker of the 60′s. With the type of drop he had on the ball I’m thinking that the amount of pronation he was using might have been similar to that of a screwball, which is very destructive to the shoulder. Of course early in his career he threw off the higher mound which increased the torque on the arm angle. That being said, the 1990′s Braves might not have allowed him to throw that type of pitch which may have limited his success. But, I do agree that today’s medical care would have prevented him from the injury, or helped him heal and enjoy a longer career. Steve Busby had the same thing happen to him injury wise.