RHP ∙ 1969—71
Like so many skilled pitchers, Wally Bunker’s career ping-ponged back and forth between excellence and arm trouble. Barely out of high school, he was a teenage phenom with the Orioles in 1964 when he won 19 games at the age of 19. His sinker was vicious—Mickey Mantle said it was the type of pitch you could break your back on. But in September of that year, something went very wrong in his shoulder. He later said it felt like someone “had shot me…with a .22 rifle.”[i] He fought through it for another five seasons with Baltimore, his innings diminishing each year. He only managed to throw 71 innings in 1968, but he was looking stronger than he had since his sensational rookie year, so the Royals took a chance and snapped him up in the expansion draft. (Two other players the Royals selected from Baltimore in that draft, Mike Fiore and Moe Drabowsky, are close by Bunker on this list. John Schuerholz had come to the Royals front office from Baltimore and may have given the team an edge on evaluating the Baltimore talent. Too bad they passed on Jim Palmer though!)
Bunker’s brief resurgence in ’68 proved to be the real deal. He had new life in his right wing, and pitched himself into starting the franchise opening game on April 8, 1969. The arm held up all year, and he put together a team MVP performance for the first-year Royals. With the return of his full-strength fast ball that he could make either sink or “rise,” the newbies were actually a winning team when Bunker started (16-15, as opposed to 53-78 with anyone else starting). His renewed health and excellent season fueled excitement about what he might do for an encore in ’70. GM Cedric Tallis said, “He could be one of the best in the game.”[ii] “’This is the first time in five years,’ (Bunker) said with a smile, ‘that I haven’t had to worry about arm trouble.’”[iii] He stayed in KC for the off-season and worked for the team in ticket sales.
New manager Charlie Metro ordered Bunker to cut his long hair before naming him the 1970 Opening Day starter. But the shoulder woes came back, and Bunker got roughed up, taking the loss in all five of his first starts. He shifted to the bullpen and continued to struggle, and then shut it down for most of June and July. Some strength came back and Bunker put together some good outings in August and September. In hindsight, it may not have been the wisest decision to allow Bunker to throw 73 innings in his nine starts at the end of the year, but at the time, everyone was just happy to see him pitching well again. But it turned out the end of ’70 was his last hurrah. After just seven appearances early in ‘71, he headed down to Omaha and unsuccessfully tried to pitch out of the pain. He headed back to Omaha again in ’72, but gave in to reality after just six games. He had thrown his last pitch in the majors at the age of 26, but not before helping the Royals franchise get off to a respectable start in their inaugural season.
[i] Klingman, Mike. “Catching Up With…former Oriole Wally Bunker.” http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/sports/thetoydepartment/2009/07/catching_up_with_former_oriole_2.html (July, 2009).
[ii] Bordman, Sid. “Vacancy Sign in Royal Bullpen; Lefty Warden Says He’ll Fill It.” The Sporting News (January 17, 1970): p. 41.
[iii] Bordman, Sid. “Metro the Captain Bligh of Baseball.” The Sporting News (January 24, 1970): p. 40.