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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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When Jim Joined Ralph

Long before “happy birthday to all the fathers out there” became what we love to quote on the third Sunday every June, a Mets-savvy person was likely to reflexively link Ralph Kiner and Father’s Day via the most impressive thing Jim Bunning ever did for public consumption. Bunning threw a perfect game on Father’s Day 1964. He opened the first game of the doubleheader in a style no National League pitcher had started any bill, twin or other, since 1880. Jim’s immediate reward was to be interviewed by Ralph. No trip to the studio for this tête-à-tête between future Hall of Famers. The old Pirate and the star Phillie chatted it up right there on the field. With the Mets having succumbed similarly (if not exactly) to Sandy Koufax two years earlier — and the Mets of 1964 not having grown into a juggernaut since 1962 — those who ran the Kiner’s Korner ship weren’t exactly taken aback by the circumstances.

“We had a routine because no-hitters were not unusual to the Mets,” producer Joe Gallagher related in Mark Rosenman’s and Howie Karpin’s charming 2016 book, Down on the Korner. “Our routine was that we would get the camera in position and Ralph would get in position and I would go get the pitcher.” As Gallagher told it, the pitcher wasn’t all that anxious to be on TV, at least not until he knew “what you’re gonna pay me.” Once convinced he’d be taken care of (and assured that the WOR feed would be simulcast in Philadelphia), Bunning played ball. Good thing, too, because as Gallagher negotiated with Bunning, “the fans were calling for him.” That’s the fans at Shea, mind you, for the game of Jim’s life was pitched in New York. Lest you think somebody’s memory was playing tricks on him a half-century after the fact, note how the Times wrote up the perfect game scene in the next day’s paper:

When Bunning struck out a rookie, John Stephenson, the 27th and last Met hitter, he received a standing ovation that lasted for many minutes. He was mobbed by his teammates, and when he went to the dugout, the crowd began calling, “We want Bunning! We want Bunning!”

He returned to the field to be interviewed behind home plate by Ralph Kiner on a television show. The crowd, still standing, gave him one of the biggest ovations ever heard in the Mets’ new stadium.

To that point, Shea Stadium had hosted only 33 baseball games and the Mets had won just twelve of them. The opportunity to applaud Met triumphs were few and far between. Yet it wasn’t hard for a sizable portion of the 32,026 who paid their way into the sparkling jewel of Flushing Meadows to put their hands together for a fella in a jersey that didn’t say Mets. They saw Jim Bunning, whatever the lettering on his shirt, pitch a perfect game. It was the epitome of something you didn’t see every day.

Applause for a great performance or a great player, on the other hand, was standard practice. I’m not old enough to remember Bunning’s perfect game of June 21, 1964, but I am old enough to remember a little appreciation and a little applause directed to visitors when merited — and I vividly recall Ralph, Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson vividly recalling that third Sunday in June. The mastery of Bunning. The futility of the Mets, right down to Johnny Stephenson’s last attempt to stave off the final zero. The interview that followed. And the warm reception at Shea.

For one game, Bunning, who died Friday at the age of 85, was as good as any pitcher had ever been. He was perfect, which is something almost no pitcher let alone any person has been able to say. By the judgment of the Veterans Committee, he wound up residing in the neighborhood of immortality. They put him in the Hall of Fame in 1996. That day at Shea more than three decades before certainly didn’t impede his eventual election. Applause can echo for a long time.

Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling have mentioned wistfully a couple of times lately the now ancient custom of appreciative applause for an opponent who earned it, whether by established reputation or breathtaking feat. They noticed Mike Trout showed up at Citi Field last weekend and the reception for him wasn’t anything like it was for Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Sandy Koufax at Shea or, for that matter, wherever they would alight for a few days while away from home. There aren’t too many players on that level in our modern midst, at least not too many we instinctively understand as on that level. Trout’s about as close as it gets on a going basis. He didn’t kill the Mets last Friday or Saturday, itself a cause for celebration. When he started clobbering Mets pitching in earnest on Sunday, he was just another dangerous Angel in a lineup packed Halo to Halo with them. If he got a particular rise out of the crowd, I couldn’t make it out from a distance.

The Mets haven’t been on the wrong end of a perfect game since 1964, though they did succumb to a couple of no-hitters at Citi Field in 2015. They elicited groans almost exclusively. Understandable in the age we live in, less so if you remember well an age or two before. Nobody wants to be the victim of perfection or near-perfection. Yet nine innings worth of perfection is pretty admirable. Had I been at Shea in June of 1964, I’d like to think I’d have applauded Bunning. I’d like to think I’d have applauded Chris Heston or Max Scherzer on their achievements had I been on hand for those games. I don’t know that I would have very heartily, but I’ve lived in this age for a while.

Ralph Kiner lived through many ages. We were blessed that several coincided with the birth, youth and maturation of our New York Mets. You didn’t grow up listening to Ralph without being reminded of his history with Pittsburgh, how he was the home run king of Forbes Field, that they had the first Kiner’s Korner and he was its sole attraction. Ralph talked regularly about Pittsburgh when the Mets were in Pittsburgh and he was in the broadcast booth. Saturday night at PNC Park, Howie Rose made sure to ease into some Ralph reminiscences: what Ralph thought about the surfeit of soot when he first got off the train there; how a sculpture of Ralph’s hands isn’t sufficient enough a tribute to him among the statues for other Pirate greats; what the dickens took the Bucs so long to retire Ralph’s No. 4. There were no great revelations within the reminiscing. It was enough that Ralph Kiner’s name came up during the course of a few pitches.

Sometimes we ask ourselves why we seek out game after game when the team we root is more a cause of angst than joy in a given season. An interlude like Howie talking Ralph is one of the better answers I’ve found.

6 comments to When Jim Joined Ralph

  • LeClerc

    Jim Bunning never won a Cy Young award.

    Then again, Sandy Koufax was never a two-term United States Senator.

  • eric1973

    Lindsey / Ralph / Bob would always say, when the Shea fans cheered the opposition, that they were the most knowledgeable fans in baseball.

    They were the classiest announcers, and I am proud to have started my fandom with them.

    There was nobody better.

  • Harvey Poris

    I was at Bunning’s perfecto and carefully kept score. Nine years later, Bunning was the manager of the Toledo Mud Hens and I went to a Mud Hen game and asked Bunning to sign the scorecard and ticket stub. He did, posed for a couple of pictures and chatted about the perfect game. He was very friendly despite Toledo being in last place. He said his goal was to be a major league manager. I guess fate had other things in store for him. RIP Jim.

  • Ken K. in NJ

    I remember watching the game on TV. The biggest memory for me was seeing the fans cheering the opposition and seeming to get a real kick out of it. I guess they were happy to root for a good team for a change.

    There were a couple of close pitches in the 9th inning that were called balls, and of course the fans booed. Great fun for all, to “switch sides” for a day.

  • Dave

    RIP, Bunning was a quality pitcher and while I didn’t agree with his politics, served his Kentucky constituents for many years.

    But this is a guy for whom many kept the “He belongs in Cooperstown” flame burning for years, and it finally worked. Good for him. But compare his lifetime stats to those of Jerry Koosman. Virtually identical, and I think Kooz was one of those guys who couldn’t even make it to the ballot a second time. Not taking anything away from anyone, but go figure.

  • sturock

    I went to perfect game with my dad, who was one of those fans cheering “We want Bunning.” I didn’t really understand it at the time– the Mets just lost, and I was eight years old– but now I get it and it’s a Father’s Day I will always treasure. And, yes, we kept the scorecard!