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Forgotten Players from the 1969 Royals: Bill Butler and Wally Bunker

Bill Butler/Wally Bunker

Bill Butler

Before there was a Country Breakfast playing in Kansas City, the first Bill Butler was a Royal. William Franklin Butler, known as Bill, hailed from Herndon, Virginia. The Detroit Tigers had selected Butler in the 37th round of the very first amateur baseball draft in 1965. Looking back at that draft it’s amazing to see how many players eventually played for the Royals: Joe Keough, Bob Stinson, Amos Otis, Hal McRae, Marty Pattin, Tom Murphy, Gene Garber, Freddie Patek, Steve Renko and Bill Butler. The 1966 draft produced six players who eventually found their way into a Royals uniform, but nothing like the trio of Otis, McRae and Patek from 1965.

After being drafted by the Tigers, Butler began the familiar climb through the minors: Daytona Beach. Duluth. Rocky Mount. Montgomery. Those great small American cities that love and cherish their minor league baseball teams.

Despite never having an uninspiring 38-31 minor league record and never having pitched above AAA, the Royals liked what they saw in the left-handed Butler and made him their 11th selection, pick #22 overall. Despite his minor league record, Butler did sport a decent ERA of 3.00.

When Kansas City broke camp in 1969, the 22-year-old Butler was on the staff. Manager Joe Gordon wasted little time getting the rookie acclimated. In the Royals second game, Butler replaced Steve Jones with the Royals trailing the Twins by the score of 3 to 2 in the 8th inning. The first batter he faced was Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew. Butler got Killebrew on a fly ball to center, before giving up a single to Graig Nettles. From there he buckled down and retired 13 consecutive Twins, striking out six, before giving way to Moe Drabowsky in the 13th. The Royals had tied the game in the bottom of the 8th on a Joe Foy single and eventually won the game in the 17th on a Lou Piniella single. Tom Burgmeier got the win after having only pitched one third of an inning, but it was Butler’s five innings of one hit ball that gave the Royals a chance.

Butler also threw the first one-hitter in Royals history in a game on August 9th, 1969. There were only 5,075 fans on hand that Saturday afternoon in Cleveland to witness this game. Can you imagine only 5,000 fans in cavernous Cleveland Stadium? The place had a capacity of almost 75,000.

Mike Fiore gave Butler all the runs he needed when he cranked a solo home run in the top of the first into the empty right field seats. Light hitting Eddie Leon (career batting average of .236) nicked Butler for a single in the third inning and that was it for the Tribe. Butler did walk four batters as the Royals breezed to a 10 to 0 victory.

Butler finished his rookie campaign with a 9-10 mark. He made 29 starts and pitched 194 innings. He led the team with 156 strikeouts and 4 shutouts, both which were top ten in the American League. Topps named him one of their Rookie All-Star pitchers. The future looked very bright for Bill Butler. But as things sometimes go in baseball, a strong rookie season doesn’t always translate into later success. The Royals, of all clubs, know this well. Butler made 25 starts in 1970. His record slipped to 4 and 12, while his innings dropped to 140. He spent a few games in Omaha working out the kinks. 1971 was more of the same – 14 games in Kansas City and 13 in Omaha. For some reason, Butler could never get back to his 1969 numbers.

In July of 1972, the Royals gave up on Butler, selling him to Cleveland. He only appeared in six games for the Tribe in 1972. He spent the entire 1973 season at Cleveland’s AAA team in Oklahoma City, making 38 appearances. In October of 1973, the Tribe packaged him in a multi-player deal with the Minnesota Twins.

Butler spent the next four seasons shuttling between Minnesota and Tacoma, their AAA team. He made 55 appearances over those four seasons, going 9 and 11 over 201 innings. During the 1977 winter meetings, Minnesota sent him to the Dodgers for another pitcher, Rex Hudson, basically a swap of lottery tickets. Butler spent the entire 1978 season with the AAA Albuquerque Dukes before calling it a career at the age of 31.

Wally Bunker

The history of baseball is littered with “what if” stories. What if Mark Fidrych or Kerry Wood or Mark Prior or Steve Busby had not hurt their arms? What if Rick Ankiel had not gotten the yips? What if Bo Jackson had just stuck with baseball? What if Tony Conigliaro hadn’t gotten beaned? What if Dwight Gooden had just said no? What if Brien Taylor walked away from a fight? That’s part of the beauty and tragedy of this game we love so much.

Wally Bunker was one of those “what if” players. Bunker was a standout basketball and baseball player at Capuchino (CA.) High School. Professional scouts started looking at him as a 14-year old freshman. Bunker was a decent hitter, but had a smooth, easy delivery that he rode to a 16-2 record during his last two years of high school. In June of 1963, shortly after graduating from high school, Wally’s father, Thomas, negotiated a $75,000 contract with the Baltimore Orioles. Several teams were scared away by what they assumed would be a large bonus, but up to nine clubs were vying for Bunker’s gifted right arm.

Bunker, who grew up just a few miles from Candlestick Park, enjoyed his first stop close to home with the Class A Stockton Ports of the California League. The 18-year-old excelled in his first season, going 10 and 1 with a 2.55 ERA. The Orioles wanted to get a closer look at their phenom, so on the last day of the season, September 29, 1963, they had the youngster make his major league debut against the Detroit Tigers. On the mound for Detroit was another teenage phenom, 19-year old Denny McLain. Bunker took a 7-3 loss in that game, but Baltimore knew they had something special.

When spring training of 1964 rolled around, the Orioles had a hard decision to make. They either had to keep Bunker on the roster because of his bonus or risk losing him in the first-year minor league draft. Bunker had an excellent spring training, so the Orioles kept him on the roster to “mop up once in a while”, according to their manager Hank Bauer. As fate would have it, two of Baltimore’s top starters, Milt Pappas and Steve Barber, suffered early season injuries which forced the Bird’s hands.

Bauer gave Bunker his first start of the season on May 5th, hoping the rookie could give him five decent innings. Instead, Bunker needed just 99 pitches to steamroll the Washington Senators with a one hit, complete game victory, the Senators only hit coming on a 4th inning single. Bunker retired the last 17 Senators in a row.

From that point on, the summer of 1964 was the summer of Bunker. Nobody could beat the kid. He won his first six starts before Minnesota finally solved him on June 7th. After a second loss to Boston, he reeled off six more wins. He lost two games in August then closed the season with a 6 and 1 flourish in September. On July 3rd, Bunker eviscerated the Kansas City Athletics with a 4-0, one-hitter, the only hit being a 5th inning double by Rocky Colavito. Bunker struck out five Athletics and only allowed one walk in his second one hitter of the summer.

The Orioles, led by Bunker, Pappas, Robin Roberts and a slew of up and coming young hitters, improved from 86 wins in 1963 to 97 wins, and third in the American League, in 1964. The Yankees won the pennant with a 99-win season, while the White Sox took second with 98 victories. That’d be a tough winter, winning 97 or 98 games and having to stay home to watch the World Series.

19-year-old Wally had a season for the ages, going 19 and 5 with a 2.69 ERA over 214 innings. He finished second in the Rookie of the year vote and 12th in the MVP race. You may wonder how he could put up those numbers and not win the Rookie of the Year. One name. Tony Oliva. Oliva slashed .323/.359/.557 with 217 hits, 32 home runs, 94 RBI and 109 runs scored in what was also a truly magnificent season. It was just as tough in the National League as Dick Allen, Rico Carty and Jim Ray Hart all put up phenomenal numbers in their rookie campaigns.

After his season ended, Bunker said, “one day you’re skipping school to watch the Giants play in the 1962 World Series against the Yankees. Two years later, you’re pitching against Mickey Mantle.”

Bunker didn’t possess an overpowering fastball, but did throw a nasty sinker, of which Mantle himself said it was a pitch that, “you could break your back swinging at.”

On Bunker’s second to last start, on September 25th on a cool night in Cleveland, while warming up, Bunker felt something pop in his shoulder. “It felt like someone shot me in the back with a .22. I’m sure it was the rotator cuff. From then on, it always hurt.”

Bunker had a pain filled spring training in 1965, which led him to change his delivery. That change later led to elbow problems. Bunker “slumped” to 10 and 8 in 1965 over a gut wrenching 189 innings. Having torn a rotator cuff myself at age 19, I can’t imagine how Bunker gutted it out. He appeared in 34 games, with 27 starts.

With the addition of Frank Robinson, the Orioles were the team to beat in 1966. They didn’t disappoint, moving into first place in June and never looked back. The took the American League pennant with a 97-63 season. Bunker fought through various injuries to finish at 10 and 6 over 142 innings.

The Birds met the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the ’66 series. These were the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. The something utterly amazing happened. The Orioles beat Drysdale 5 to 2 in Game one. Future Royal Moe Drabowsky threw six and two thirds innings of scoreless ball in relief of Dave McNally to stymie the Dodgers.

Jim Palmer threw a four-hit shutout in Game Two to beat Koufax, 6-0. In Game Three, despite a throbbing arm, Bunker scattered six hits while striking out six Dodgers in a 1-0 complete game victory. McNally came back for Game Four and tossed a complete game four hitter to clinch the series with another 1-0 win. The Orioles pitching staff had done the unthinkable. Five guys had combined to throw 33 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings. They held the Dodgers to two runs and a .142 team batting average in what remains one of the all-time great World Series pitching performances.

After the season ended, Bunker was ordered to rest over the winter. It made no difference. He still suffered from tendinitis of the elbow when spring training opened for the 1967 season. The injured elbow and shoulder limited him to 29 games and 88 innings of work, mostly in relief. It was no better in 1968 as the Orioles optioned him to AAA Rochester. AAA hitters were no match for Bunker, injured arm or not. He made ten starts at Rochester and went 6 and 1 with a 2.70 ERA before being recalled to Baltimore. He appeared in 18 games for the Orioles in 1968, including ten starts.

The Orioles left Bunker unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft and Royals General Manager Cedric Tallis, on the advice from a former Oriole employee named John Schuerholz, took Bunker with the 25th pick. The Royals picked four former Orioles but curiously passed on Jim Palmer before he was withdrawn.

On April 8, 1969, Bunker threw the first pitch in Kansas City Royals history. He went five innings against the powerful Minnesota Twins, only allowing two runs. The game went to extra innings and Bunker’s former teammate, Moe Drabowsky, pitched a clean 12th for the first win in team’s history.

Bunker coaxed some fine performances out of his injured wing. On May 30th, he came within one out of a complete game victory against the Yankees. On June 3rd, he struck out a career high ten batters in a complete game victory over Washington. On June 16th, he only allowed four hits in ten innings in a victory over Oakland. His best game of the season came on September 11th in in Anaheim. On this night, with friends and family in attendance, Bunker was masterful, only allowing a 7th inning single to Jay Johnstone. Bunker only faced 31 batters and Ed Kirkpatrick blitzed his former team with two home runs to propel the Royals to a 3-0 victory. The year was encouraging. Bunker finished at 12 and 11 with a 3.23 ERA. He appeared in 35 games, making 31 starts while throwing 222 innings, all career highs.

Unfortunately, the good times did not last. Bunker’s shoulder woes resurfaced in 1970, limiting him to 24 games and 121 innings.

The Royals penciled in Bunker as their number three starter in 1971, behind Dick Drago and Jim Rooker, but the arm would not allow it. His final major league win came on May 1st, 1971, a 5 to 2 win over Baltimore. Bunker allowed two runs over five and two thirds innings of work. he made three more appearances before the Royals optioned him to Omaha. He had some early success in Omaha, sparking hopes of another comeback, but the injuries were just too much. At the still tender age of 27, Wally Bunker decided he’d had enough pain and walked away. It’s a shame that so many pitchers of that era did not have the surgery options that today’s pitchers have. Who knows what Bunker might have accomplished with a rebuilt rotator cuff?

In retirement, Bunker became an accomplished pianist. Bunker and his wife Kathryn also authored several children’s books.

Bunker ended his career with a mark of 60-52 and a respectable 3.51 ERA. He won a World Series and will always have the distinction of being the first starter in Royals history.