Travels With Stu: Just How Much Is Jim Bunning Worth?

Posted July 30, 2003 at 3:03pm

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — A weekend in the quaint upstate New York village Cooperstown sounded like a perfect break from the nation’s capital, especially since it coincided with the induction of two new members into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Yes, I knew I’d encounter a few politicians, but mostly I’d see fans and a few baseball stars. [IMGCAP(1)]

Maybe that’s why I was so surprised, as I walked down Main Street on Saturday morning, to see a flier announcing that Sen. Jim Bunning would be signing autographs in exchange for cash at Collector’s World, which operates in a small room under the Cooperstown Candle Factory.

Bunning, of course, is not only a terrific former Major League pitcher (best remembered from his days with the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies) and a Hall of Famer. He is also the junior Senator from Kentucky and a proud conservative Republican. The price of his signature depends on the item being signed — $30 for putting it on a baseball or a photograph, or $50 for the Senator’s John Hancock on a bat or a uniform.

What next, I thought. Is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) going to be selling his signature or Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) hers? And if they are, where would they sell them (county fairs, Connecticut and K?) and what would someone pay for them? Could the relatively unknown Sen. Mike Enzi get anything for his, or would the Wyoming Republican have to give his away?

Anyway, I had to see Bunning in the act.

As I descended the stairs to ask the Senator about his autograph sessions, I passed a long line that stretched outside and down the block. In a basement room, I found a casually dressed Bunning, flanked by former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver on his right and former Cleveland Indians fireballer Bob Feller to his left.

Feller seemed to be getting most of the action, but Bunning, who pitched a no-hitter in each league, was getting his share.

Bunning, far more affable than his reputation suggests, told me that he does a few signings a year and that all of the money he collects goes to the Jim Bunning Foundation, a nonprofit organization that distributes funds to other nonprofits.

Collector’s World owner Ed Tripp confirmed Bunning’s information. While Tripp pays his other signers (including Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra) directly, Bunning’s check is made out to his foundation.

Do any of these people asking for his autograph know that Bunning is a U.S. Senator? Apparently so, since Tripp told me that when Bunning was signing autographs at a baseball show in Kansas City last year “about 20 percent of the requests were for him to sign ‘Senator Jim Bunning.’”

Actually, I suspect that Bunning’s Senate status has increased the value of his autograph.

While the Senator (not to be confused with Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, who was a member of the Washington Senators before the franchise moved to Minnesota) asks $30 for his autograph on a baseball, former Milwaukee Braves hurler Warren Spahn asks only $20.

Spahn also is a member of the Hall of Fame, but, unlike Bunning, he was voted in by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Bunning was selected by the Committee on Baseball Veterans, which takes a second look at candidates for the Hall of Fame who have been passed over by the BBWAA.

Spahn, who as far as I know was never elected to the U.S. Senate, had 363 wins (more than any other left-hander in history) to Bunning’s 224. Spahn’s lifetime earned run average was 3.09 to Bunning’s 3.27. Spahn had 63 shutouts to 40 for Bunning. Spahn won 20 games 13 times (including twice when he was over 40 years old), while Bunning won 20 just once.

Bunning’s overall stats are better in only two areas — walks and strikeouts. He had a better walk-to-strikeout ratio than Spahn, as well as more lifetime strikeouts (even though the Senator pitched 1,500 fewer innings).

Baseball guru Bill James rated Spahn the second greatest left-handed pitcher in the history of the game in his 1985 book, “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.”

So, 30 bucks for Bunning and just 20 bucks for Spahn? Be serious.

Could Bunning’s $10 premium over Spahn reflect the “value” of being a Senator to autograph seekers? Or is Spahn simply undervalued because he threw his last pitch in 1965?

Southpaw Steve Carlton of St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies fame, who last pitched in 1988, gets $35 for his autograph, $15 more than Spahn and a lousy $5 more than Bunning. Yet Carlton had 329 wins, a 3.22 ERA, 55 shutouts and 4,136 strikeouts.

If Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is any indication, a Senator’s signature is worth some cash. Clinton’s book, “Living History,” sells for $28 retail, but if you buy an autographed copy of the book from her Web site, it’ll cost you $150 — a premium of 122 bucks for her signature. And she hasn’t pitched a single inning.

In any case, Bunning is favored to win another Senate term in 2004. Kentucky is trending Republican, the Democrats may well lose the governorship this November, and Bunning may not even draw a top-tier opponent. For the Senator, that’s probably more important than the street value of his autograph on a bat.


Rothenberg Political Report