Jim Bunning’s Brethren: Baseball Men Who Went Into Politics

Magglio Ordonez was a much better baseball player than he is a politician. (via Cbl62)

An old baseball player is a young man. Even the lengthiest careers leave a man with half his life still ahead of him. Bartolo Colon just celebrated his 44th birthday in May, but a month later, he found himself designated for assignment after posting an 8.14 ERA in 13 starts for the Braves. It’s unlikely that he will spend his 45th in a major league uniform. How will he spend his 50s, 60s, and 70s?

He’ll have a few options, even if he decides not to stick in baseball as a coach, manager, scout, or executive. (The nearly ageless Julio Franco continued playing baseball in Japan well into his 50s.) For example, if he’s an entrepreneur, he might follow Al Spalding’s example. Spalding was a truly remarkable player — he won 40 or more games and pitched 496 or more innings in four straight seasons, and retired in 1878 with a career ERA+ of 132 and OPS+ of 116. He was still only 26, and he transitioned into management and eventually team ownership, as well as building the sporting-goods empire that still bears his name.

Some players went much further afield. Moe Berg was a light-hitting backup catcher, but after his career ended, he went into the OSS, which later became the CIA. His career was later memorialized in a book called The Catcher Was a Spy. (There’s a film in development.) Meanwhile, Maurice Lerner was a prospect who never quite made it to the Show, but after his baseball career ended, he began a long career as a mob hit man.

But if Bartolo is anything like Jim Bunning, he could go into politics, following the example of the tall right-hander who passed away on May 26 after 224 wins, 3,760.1 innings, and 23 years in the House and Senate as a representative and later senator from Kentucky.

John Tures, a political scientist at LaGrange College, compiled a list of players who went into politics. As with baseball itself, many have tried, but few succeeded, and certainly none so spectacularly as Bunning, whom the Veterans Committee inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996. (That happened while he was a member of the House of Representatives. Two years later, he ran for the Senate and won. His newfound Hall of Fame status surely cannot have hurt his chances.)

Here are a few other major leaguers who have managed the transition from the clubhouse to public office:

Magglio Ordoñez

One of the best baseball players to experience major electoral success, Magglio Ordoñez is proving to be an unlucky politician. A six-time All-Star, Ordonez was born just eight months after Bartolo Colon, but he retired six years ago after slugging 294 home runs in 15 years while playing for the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. In 2011, his year ended when he re-fractured an ankle he had broken the previous year. The following year, after mulling a comeback at 38, he  announced his retirement. The year after that, he won election as the socialist mayor of Sotillo, Venezuela, a city of a quarter-million people in the state of Anzoátegui, despite the fact that he had never previously voted there.

Sotillo is east of his hometown, Caracas. In a brief news article about his election, the Los Angeles Times noted that he won election as “a supporter of President Nicolas Maduro, who … is known to turn to celebrity candidates to help bolster support in the midst of rising anger with his economic policies.”

But in the past three and a half years, Ordoñez has drawn his constituents’ ire with a penchant for traveling back to the States. In February 2017, hundreds of municipal employees marched to city hall to claim that they had been illegally dismissed from their jobs. In March, a group called Vente Venezuela marched in front of city hall to demand his resignation because of “garbage, deteriorated roads and insecurity,” and  claiming that Ordoñez had “not been in the country for a long time.” This habit for visiting the States especially rankled when another news story in March revealed that in the three years since taking office, he had never requested a travel permit.

The next municipal elections in Venezuela are scheduled to be held in December. If Ordoñez has his sights set on higher office, he may have his work cut out for him.

Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell

Possessor of one of the all-time great nicknames, Vinegar Bend Mizell took his name from a tiny Alabama town across the state line from his hometown of Leakesville, Miss. A winner of 90 games in nine seasons, Mizell had a decent career with one shining half-season of stardom. In late May of 1960, the southpaw was traded to the Pirates by the Cardinals, the team that had signed him out of high school a decade earlier and stuck with him through two years of military service and six seasons of inconsistent but frequently effective work.

When the Pirates got him, they were 23-14, a game behind the Dodgers in second place, but with Mizell they went 72-45 and won the league pennant by seven games. Mizell was terrific, going 13-5 in 23 starts for his new team. The 1960 World Series was his only postseason appearance and he got shelled, giving up four runs in one-third of an inning in Game Three. But the Pirates managed to overcome that, as you may know. He would pitch only two more seasons in the big leagues.

After Mizell retired from his playing career, he moved to Winston-Salem, N.C., where he had pitched in the minors 13 years earlier. As his SABR biographer Mike Jaffe writes, he worked as a broadcaster for the farm club, and also took a job with Pepsi in public relations. He served on his local board of county commissioners, eventually being elected chair. Then he won a seat in the U.S. House as a Republican, serving three terms before losing in the Watergate wave election of 1974.

He then served in the next three Republican presidential administrations, working as Gerald Ford’s assistant secretary of commerce, Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of agriculture, and as a deputy assistant secretary in George H.W. Bush’s Department of Veterans Affairs.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Going back to his playing days, Mizell was known for a folksy demeanor. But he could turn his hayseed image to his advantage. Cardinals general manager Frank Lane once described how Mizell got the better of him in a contract negotiation. ”I was looking for a typical Ozark Ike type,” The New York Times quoted Lane as saying. ”Vinegar told me how he had turned most of his earnings over to his family to put them on their feet… I never got a chance to open up my mouth again for the next half-hour. He signed for more than I had intended to give.”

John Tener

The most successful politician ever to play in a major league game was almost certainly John Tener. A native of County Tyrone, Ireland, Tener emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1873 when he was 10 years old. As Daniel Ginsburg writes in his SABR biography, he would become among the most successful Pittsburghers of his generation. He took his Pittsburgh high school education to work at a steel company called Oliver Brothers and Phillips, but when he was 22, he pursued his minor league dreams to Haverhill, Mass., in the New England League.

He met his wife there, and enjoyed a one-game cup of coffee with the Baltimore Orioles. One of his Haverill teammates, Wilbert Robinson, later starred with the Orioles, who may have been the best team of the 1890s. He kept working, and eventually baseball took him to Cap Anson’s Chicago White Stockings — today’s Cubs, not today’s Pale Hose, according to the franchise encyclopedias — enjoying two decent seasons in 1888 and 1889. (In between those seasons, he went on a baseball tour with Al Spading, who tried to hire him.)

The following season, he joined his friend, the player and labor activist John Montgomery Ward, in the Players League, a breakaway league established by the forerunner to the players’ union. After the year ended, the league was finished, and so was he.

He moved to the First National Bank of Charleroi, a Pittsburgh suburb, and within six years he was its president. He joined the Elks and the Masons, and in 1907, he served as the “grand exalted ruler” of the Elks. The following year, he ran for Congress as a Republican, representing three counties in Pittsburgh’s western suburbs. During his one term in Congress, he organized the congressional baseball game, as Mary Craig wrote for Hardball Times in April.

He was nominated for a second term in Congress in 1910, but as the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission writes, he was seen as “a candidate whose integrity, honesty, and record were above reproach” — so he was unanimously nominated for governor, and amid a fraud scandal regarding the construction of the state capitol, the fresh-faced Irishman won the election. Two years later, he also was named the president of the National League.

Term-limited from the governor’s seat after a single term, he remained the president of the NL until 1918. In the 30 years after his retirement as a player, Tener had been a bank president, a grand exalted ruler of the Elks, a member of Congress, a governor, and National League president.

Fred Brown

Ordoñez and Mizell both had All-Star careers before entering politics. Fred Brown’s distinguished career only began after he left baseball. A New Hampshire native and Dartmouth matriculant, Brown left college after his freshman year in 1899 to pursue a career in the minor leagues. In 1901, he signed a contract with the Boston Beaneaters, but he got into only seven games in the majors that year and just two more the following year. He spent most of his time in Providence, with the Class A Grays. After a 20-plate-appearance major league career — four hits, two runs, two RBIs, five total bases — he was a 23-year-old former major leaguer.

He returned to Dartmouth as a baseball coach, and shortly thereafter entered Boston University Law School. He didn’t stop playing in the minor leagues, and just like Tener, as Bill Lamb wrote for SABR, he wound up in Haverhill. His player-manager there was “Sliding” Billy Hamilton, who had just finished a sensational major league career that would eventually place him in Cooperstown. Brown himself retired from organized baseball after the 1905 season, when he was still just 27. Haverhill was just south of the New Hampshire border, and after finishing law school, Brown quickly repaired north to his home state, and commenced to have an extraordinary career for an ex-jock and college dropout.

From 1914 to 1922, he was mayor of Somersworth and also a U.S. district attorney; he then served a single term as governor from 1923-24, and after being defeated for reelection, he served on the state Public Service Commission for eight years, then won a single six-year term in the U.S. Senate. Finally, he was appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the Comptroller General of the United States, though he resigned after a year in office following a stroke.

His success in New Hampshire was not only noteworthy for an ex-ballplayer, it was downright remarkable for a Democrat. He was only the second Democrat in the Granite State to win a gubernatorial election after the Civil War, and the first to win a senatorial election since the passage of the 17th amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators by popular ballot. He is also, along with Henry Hubbard and New Hampshire’s two current senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, one of just four Democrats to be elected to both offices in that state.

So… does a career on the diamond help a man on the hustings? John Tures explores that question in a chapter he wrote in an edited book called “The Politics of Baseball.” He expands his search to include farmhands, umpires and owners (including President George W. Bush), as well as men who ran for office but lost, then compared their success to a randomly selected list of political candidates from politicalgraveyard.com. Unsurprisingly, he found the answer to be yes.

“Baseball politicians won 83.33 percent of their races, and 88.2 percent of their runs for the state legislature,” he writes. For Congress, “The record dipped to a 71.4 percent showing… but in elections for statewide offices, baseball politicians prevailed in nineteen of twenty-two contests.” His randomly selected list of non-baseballers did slightly worse: they won “80 percent of their local races,” 75 percent of state legislature races, and less than 50 percent of congressional races.

The true outlier is Bunning, the only Hall of Famer to hold high office, though by no means the only one to have tried. Walter Johnson, probably the greatest pitcher ever, won a county commissioner race in Maryland, but lost his race for Congress. Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop of all time, lost a sheriff’s race. And Cap Anson, the first man to 3,000 hits and one of the first true stars of modern baseball, was a one-term city clerk before he too lost his sheriff’s race.

That’s no bad thing for Colon, who likely will take his place alongside Ordoñez in the Hall of Very Good, rather than in Cooperstown. If he were to return to his hometown of Altamira in the Dominican Republic, he might find his celebrity to be a definite advantage, as his countryman Raul Mondesí found for a while. When Mondesí ran for mayor in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that he was one of “nearly 100 entertainers and sports figures [who] ran for a variety of national and local offices in the November primaries.” He won election as mayor of San Cristobal and served for six years. But in February 2017, he was sentenced to six months of home detention for embezzlement, and his political career appears to be over.

It may be some time before we see another baseball player elected senator or governor in the United States, so Jim Bunning may remain singular for quite some time yet. But baseball is more international than ever. The next baseball senator or governor is likely to be from another country, likely Latin America. Perhaps even from Altamira.

Resources and References

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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87 Cards
6 years ago

Under the category of MLB/Hanshin Tiger first-basemen-sluggers-turned-politicians-representing-U.S. Army constituencies:

My travels have taken me to Lawton, Oklahoma where former MLB/Hanshin Tiger 1B Randy Bass is a state senator and to Columbus, Georgia where former Astro/Oriole/Hanshin Tiger1B Glenn Davis is a city councilman.

First-base is a good position to develop chat-them-up skills.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

Honorable mention goes to Mario Cuomo who played minor league ball for the Pirates.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

Getting away from baseball, there was Jack Kemp, the former NFL QB, who was in House for many years and was thought to be a presidential candidate at some point. And, of course, ex-NBAers, Bill Bradley and Tom McMillan, senator and congressman respectively.

It’s probably inevitable that an athlete will one day be president.

6 years ago

Larry Jackson served in the Idaho House of Representatives.

Fireball Fred
6 years ago

Gavvy Cravath, 6-time NL HR champ (and son of a mayor), served as an elected judge in California for 36 years.

6 years ago

Former Dodger second baseman Steve Sax ran for the 5th District seat in the California State Assembly but dropped out of the race before the primaries.

6 years ago
Reply to  Philip

His criminal record for being the most prolific murderer in New York City history put a big dent in his campaign.

ruby singh
6 years ago

Thanks for the information

6 years ago

Ordonez is not an “unlucky” politician, as you refer to him. He is a socialist who made tens of millions of dollars in the capitalist US, and now supports a regime that oppresses poor Venezuelans.