New Bern legend Bunky Stewart dies
New Bern lost one of its all-time sports heroes Wednesday as Veston "Bunky" Stewart died in Wilmington at the age of 76.
He was born in Jasper, but lived much of his life in New Bern. Stewart was a former Major League Baseball player, a man whose friends and family say always gave a hard day's work and a had a good time doing it.
His loved ones got together Thursday night and remembered how important the game of baseball was to Bunky.
this in the hospital just the other day," said Stewart's son Wes.
"He was asked
"Dad did what he wanted to do his whole life," Wes continued. "And he always had fun. Sure, there were times that were tough. But he always had a good time."Stewart pitched at New Bern High School and was drafted and played Major League Baseball for the Washington Senators.
Stewart pitched for the New Bern Bears of the now defunct Coastal Plains League before signing with the Senators. During his playing days with the Bears in 1951, the town would come to a standstill with signs of "Bunky's Pitching Today" adorning windows in businesses around old Kafer Park.
"New Bern was a baseball town back then," said Stewart's wife, Jean. "There were times when it seemed like the games were the social outing of the year."
A lot of that had to do with Stewart's left arm. However, he'd never take the credit.
"We had real good defense," Stewart said in an interview with the Sun Journal early this year. "The defense always made the pitching better."
But Stewart held his own on the mound, despite, in his own words being "A 6-foot tall, 148-pound asthmatic."
Tough was what ball players were in those days, said Stewart's other son, Chris.
"Just look at the uniforms they wore," he said with a smile. "They were all wool. You just had to be tougher to wear those."
Stewart will be inducted into the New Bern/J.T. Barber High School Athletics Hall of Fame on Oct. 12. He once struck out 23 Greenville Greenies in a high school game.
During the 1951 season in the CPL, Stewart won 17 straight games for the Bears. He pitched a no-hitter and a couple of one-hitters.
Soon after, he had professional scouts wanting to have him try out for the big leagues. He got his shot after the Bears won the CPL title that year. He got the tryout in front of owner Calvin Griffith.
"I worked out for old man Griffith," Stewart reminisced in 2006. "I had pitched the night before and felt like I didn't throw that good. We rode in an old Studebaker. I slept on the way up there in it. I ended up buying that car. They had everybody out at the stadium, watching and seeing how I threw and all that stuff. Then they signed me.
"The Senators bought out my contract (at New Bern) and I signed a bonus. At the time it was the most ever played for a Class D player. That $500 was a lot of money back then."
Stewart played parts of five seasons with the Senators, compiling a 5-11 record from 1952 to 1956. His best season was his last in the majors, going 5-7. Along the way, he played with greats such as Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew, Whitey Herzog, Eddie Yost and Mickey Vernon.
He also pitched against some pretty good hitters.
"I pitched right much against the Dodgers in spring training," he said. "Roy Campenella before he got hurt. Gil Hodges. Pee Wee Reese. Billy Cox. Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson. They were all great hitters."
Then there was the home run he gave up to Ted Kluszewski while in the minor leagues.
"He always said, 'That one's still traveling out there somewhere,'" Jean said. "He loved that story."
Killebrew and Stewart were reunited at the 2007 New Bern River Rats Hot Stove Banquet in which Killebrew was the keynote speaker.
"He's an old friend," Killebrew said in January. "I knew he lived in New Bern, here, and it was fun for me to get to talk about some of the old guys and old times."
After his playing days, Stewart owned Weslin Clothiers in Wilson. He later worked as a Realtor in New Bern. He worked at Wal-Mart in Monkey Junction for the past 15 years.
Stewart also threw out the first pitch at the River Rats' season opener for the 2006 season.
"Bunky was certainly a big part of New Bern baseball history," River Rats General Manager Michael Weisbart said. "We were honored to have him throw out the first pitch. Wes and Becky Stewart are part of the River Rat family as a host family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Stewart family."
The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Cotten Funeral Home Chapel. Burial will follow at Greenleaf Memorial Park.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Carolina Beach First Baptist Church.