Hearn, Bunny

Primary Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Chapel Hill

First, Middle Names:  Charles Bunn
Nickname: Bunny

Date of Birth:  May 21, 1891  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 19, 1959, Wilson, NC
Burial: Maplewood Cemetery, Wilson, NC

High School: Undetermined
Colleges: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC; Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS; Elon University, Elon, NC

Bats: L Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-11, 190
Debut Year: 1910        Final Year: 1920          Years Played: 6
Teams and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1910-11; New York Giants, 1913; Pittsburgh Rebels, 1915; Boston Braves, 1918, 1920

Awards/Honors: N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1993

Career Summary
G           W        L            Sv       ERA        IP           SO       WAR
66        13        24        0          3.56       399.2  111      +1.3

For almost three decades, folks in the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, knew spring was imminent when the big, black Cadillac pulled up in front of Woollen Gym. A portly, resplendent figure emerged. A passing student might yell a welcome, “Hey, Big Steam.” The Caddy’s occupant might wave an acknowledgement before disappearing into the building. Bunn Hearn was back in town for another Carolina baseball season.

He spent most his of his life in baseball. An accomplished pitcher in the minor leagues, he won more than 200 games over 19 seasons. The big-league portion of his career is scant by comparison, just 66 games scattered over six summers.

Hearn, however, is best remembered for his 26 years as a baseball coach at the University of North Carolina. He was head coach for about half that time, preaching the importance of fundamentals – “old timey, country baseball,” he called it – while leading his kids to more than 200 victories and six Southern Conference championships. Hearn understood young players, nurtured their talents, and gently corrected their failings, usually with a funny story. He was never known to be harsh or critical. “Hang in there, old fellow,” he would counsel. “We’ll get ‘em back.”[I]

In so doing, he became so beloved a figure that the governor thought it proper to proclaim a statewide day in his honor when Hearn retired. The North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame inducted him posthumously in 1993 for his coaching achievements.

Born in 1891 in Chapel Hill, Charles Bunn Hearn was the youngest of five children. His mother, Nellie, died when he was seven. He lived with his uncle while his father, William, traveled the country as a salesman. There’s not much more we know about his childhood – where he went to high school, for instance, or when he started playing organized ball.

Hearn enrolled at UNC around 1907, intending to become a pharmacist, but he left after a year for Mississippi State University in Starkville, where he played baseball and football – he once claimed to have tackled the same opponent twice in the same play. He returned to North Carolina in 1909 to pitch for Elon College, striking out 109 that season to set a school record that stood for 67 years. As a 19-year-old the following year, he was the school’s athletics director and the baseball team’s manager. It’s not clear if he also remained a student. For all that, he was inducted into the Elon Sports Hall of Fame in 1975.

The 1916 New London Planters are considered one of the best teams in minor-league history. Bunny Hearn, who won 21 games that year, is on the top row, last on the right. Photo: Spaulding Baseball Guide.

After the college season in the spring of 1910, Hearn signed his first professional contract with the Tobacconists, a Class D club in Wilson, North Carolina. It was the first of 13 stops in the minors that the lefty hurler made over the next two decades. A few were memorable. He won 27 games in Springfield, Illinois, in 1912, the year he also hit three home runs in a game, two in one inning. With the Toronto, Canada, Maple Leafs the following year, he pitched 20 scoreless innings against Jersey City, New Jersey. “Jersey City used two pitchers against me, and we didn’t score a run either,” he later explained. “I had to settle for a tie.”[II] Hearn’s 22 victories led the trio of 20-game winners who pitched the New London, Connecticut, Planters to the Eastern League pennant in 1916. The team won 86 of its 120 games and is considered one of the best teams in minor-league history.

After winning 16 games with Wilson in that first professional season, Hearn earned a look from the St. Louis Cardinals. His debut, big-league season in 1910 wasn’t particularly memorable: one victory, 39 innings pitched, 5.08 earned-run average. Neither were his five subsequent forays in the majors over the next 10 years. Most were brief, a handful of innings pitched over a few starts. His longest stint was in 1915 when he appeared in 29 games for the Pittsburgh Rebels of the renegade Federal League.[1]

With Christy Matthewson and Rube Marquard on his pitching staff, Manager John McGraw of the New York Giants had used Hearn sparingly two years earlier. Muggsy did, however, take the kid along on a world tour of baseball diplomacy. The Giants and the Chicago White Sox left for China after the 1913 season and played their way through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe in front of huge crowds. In London before more than 60,000 spectators, Hearn was introduced to King George V. “Glad to meet you, Mr. King,” he said in his slow, Southern drawl.[III] He then proceeded to show the monarch the grips pitchers use. Late in life, Hearn liked to brag that he taught the king how to throw a curve. He returned home on the Lusitania the following spring, a year before it was sunk by a German U boat during World War I.

Hearn married Ethel Barrett in 1915 and settled in her hometown of Wilson, where they raised two sons. He began selling insurance and for eight years in the 1920s pitched for and managed the local minor-league team, then called the Bugs.

He was also manager and part owner of clubs in Winston-Salem and Hendersonville, North Carolina, before becoming head coach at UNC in 1932. Hearn employed a simple strategy with his kids. “Forget the trick plays and the fancy stuff,” he once told participants at a coaching school. “Teach your boys to hit and catch and throw, and you’ll win your share of games. Old-timey, country baseball is hard to beat.”[IV]

This breaking down things to their basics applied to most things in Bunn Hearn’s world. When asked by reporters for a forecast before each season, Hearn would invariably reply: ““We’ll do all right. We’ll win a few and lose a few and a few will be rained out.”[V]

Humor was also part of his arsenal. UNC’s perennial rival, Duke University in nearby Durham, was a baseball powerhouse at the time. Coached by the great Jack Coombs, the team had more or less had its way with Carolina.[2] Before the game in 1940, Bunn called his boys together. “Well, fellows, we’re playing a good team today,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is to get several base knocks in a row for a few innings. If we do that, we’re bound to score some runs because you can’t have more than three men on the bases at any one time.”[VI] The tension broken, his players went out and pasted Duke 26-3.

Lefty Cheshire was a talented Tar Heel pitcher who often didn’t know where the ball was going after he threw it. During one particularly wild outing, Hearn went out to calm him down. “Some of the fans in the stands are saying some mighty mean things about your pitching, Lefty, and the fellows on the bench are too,” he said. “But I’m going to leave you in, and I think you’ll do all right. I have just one request.”

“What’s that?” asked a surprised Lefty, who was eager to please his considerate manager.

“Just don’t throw that ball until I get back in the dugout,” Hearn instructed.[VII]

Lefty laughed, relaxed, and settled down. Carolina won the game.

Any wonder why the guy they called Big Steam or the Old Leaguer around campus was so loved?

Hearn suffered a debilitating stroke in 1947 that forced him to relinquish his head-coaching job, but he remained an active assistant for another decade. Gov. Luther Hodges proclaimed March 7, 1957, as Bunn Hearn Day to honor the coach who had retired the previous spring. Hearn died two years later from heart disease.

[1] The league started as a minor league but declared war on baseball in 1913 by actively recruiting players from the two established leagues. It offered higher salaries and freedom from the contract restrictions that tied a player to a major-league team for life. Many players made the switch. The league lasted until 1915. See the Ducky Yount profile for a more thorough examination of the Federal League.
[2] Coombs, a right-handed pitcher, won more than 150 games during a 14-year career in the major leagues. He won 59 games in 1910-11 to lead the Philadelphia Athletics to back-to-back world championships. He became head coach at Duke in 1929 and won 381 games and six Southern Conference championships over the next 26 years, making him the winningest baseball coach in the school’s history. Its baseball field is named after him.

[I] “Coach Bunn Hearn Passes at Wilson.” Chapel Hill (NC) Weekly, Oct. 12, 1959.
[II] Waldmane, Marshall. “Coach Bunn Is Beginning 26th Year Here.” Daily Tar Heel (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC), March 3, 1955.
[III] Associated Press. “Coach Bunn Hearn Dies.” Herald-Sun (Durham, NC), Oct. 12, 1959.
[IV] Associated Press. “Old-Timey, Country Baseball Hard to Beat, Says Bunn Hearn.” Wilmington (NC) Morning Star, Aug. 29, 1940.
[V] Garrison, Wilton. “When Big Steam Rolled Into Town It Was Spring and Time to Play.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, Oct. 14, 1959.
[VI]Chapel Hill Weekly.
[VII] Ibid