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Hunter, Jim "Catfish"

Jim "Catfish" Hunter

1946-1999

American baseball player

Jim "Catfish" Hunter was a master hurler whose presence on the mound struck fear in his opponents. During his 15-year baseball career, Hunter took part in eight All-Star Games, won 20 or more games five seasons in a row (1971-1975), and pitched in six World Series, coming away a winner five times.

What endeared Hunter to the hearts of his fans, however, was his gentle demeanor. Though he threw a mean fastball on the field, Hunter's aggressiveness never followed him off the mound, and no matter how bad things got for him, he never lost his temper. He was known for his kindness and modesty. When Hunter pitched a perfect game on May 8, 1968, the humble hurler wouldn't let his teammates hoist him on their shoulders in celebration. Hunter never made a big deal of this accomplishment, though he was only the 10th pitcher in baseball history to toss a perfect game.

Even when Hunter was hot on the mound and clearly contributing to his team's victory, he always maintained that baseball was a game in which all nine players on the field were needed to win. According to the book Catfish, The Three Million Dollar Pitcher, once, when reporters tried to single out Hunter following a victory, he said, "I've said this before and I'll say it again. This is a team game and I'm only a part of our team."

Raised on a Farm

James Augustus Hunter was born on April 8, 1946, in Hertford, North Carolina, one of 10 children born to Abbott and Lillie Harrell Hunter, though two died at birth. The family lived in a farmhouse without plumbing and

stoked a pot-bellied stove for heat. Hunter's father was a tenant farmer who worked long days to support the family, never grumbling, never taking a day off. Through his example, Hunter learned the merits of an uncompromising work ethic.

Growing up with seven siblings provided Hunter with plenty of opportunities to practice baseball. Day after day, Hunter pitched to his brothers and developed the extraordinary ball control that would later make him famous. Baseballs, however, were rare, but the Hunter children didn't mind batting corncobs or potatoes, any substitute for a ball. Hunter also spent many long days loading cantaloupe and melons. The heavy lifting helped Hunter earn enough money to buy baseballs and also helped him develop his upper-body strength.

Hunter began playing organized baseball in grammar school and became a local hero. Though he was quite young, townsfolk began bragging about his future. In his book Catfish: My Life in Baseball, Hunter explained that all this talk bothered his father. "Don't let what you do go to your head," his father warned him. "If you play good ball, people will certainly brag about it to your face. Just thank them. If you don't play good, they will certainly tell you." Hunter's father also reminded him that a pitcher couldn't win a game by himself. Those words stuck with Hunter, and during his entire career, he never took sole credit for a win.

At Perquiman High, Hunter became a hurling hero. In Catfish, the Three Million Dollar Pitcher, baseball scout Floyd "Dutch" Olafson described Hunter's high school days. "The first time I saw Jim pitch, I knew he'd make the major leagues. He throwed smoke then." Hunter came of age before there was a baseball draft, so he was eligible to sign with any team. Scouts flocked to Hertford to watch him play.

Hunter's future took a turn for the worse in November 1963, however, when his brother Pete accidentally blasted buckshot into Hunter's right footthe foot he used to push off with when pitching. His foot ached, yet Hunter made a comeback his senior year, though his pitching form was awkward at first. Throughout the season, Hunter improved, pitching to a 14-1 record and helping his team win the state championship.

Signed with the Kansas City A's

Hunter, however, never recaptured the speed he had before the accident, and most scouts wanted nothing to do with him. The Kansas City A's, however, took a chance and signed Hunter, then sent him to a doctor, who removed more pellets from his foot.

When Hunter reported to the A's for duty, the team's owner, Charles Finley, decided that Hunter needed a nickname. Finley relied on nicknames to increase fan hype for his players. After speaking with Hunter's family, Finley came up with "Catfish" after finding out that Hunter liked catfish as a child. Hunter didn't like the moniker, yet he didn't complain, and it stuck.

During 1965, Hunter's rookie season, he compiled a record of 8 wins and 8 losses. Following the close of the 1967 season, Hunter had amassed an iffy career record of 30 wins and 36 losses. The losing A's relocated to Oakland in 1968.

The move did something for Hunter. On May 8, 1968, Hunter had a magical night. Not only did he connect with the ball four times to drive in three runs, but Hunter's pitching was unhittable. When all was said and done, Hunter had pitched a "perfect" game, meaning he had not allowed any walks, hits, or runs, and the team made no errors. No American League pitcher had tossed a perfect game in regular season play since 1922.

Suddenly, Hunter became a hero. As he improved, so did the A's, who became unstoppable. Buoyed by Hunter, the team won three consecutive World Series titles, in 1972, 1973, and 1974.

Earned the Cy Young Award

For Hunter, 1974 was a dream year. He led the league in complete games (23), and ERA (2.49), had the most wins (25), and most shutouts (6). For his efforts, he won the Cy Young Award.

During the 1974 season, Hunter got embroiled in a contract dispute with the A's, and his contract was terminated. As a free agent, Hunter was courted by nearly every team in baseball. In the end, he signed a deal worth about $3.75 million with the New York Yankees. With the A's, Hunter had made about $100,000 a year. Thus, Hunter became baseball's first multi-million-dollar player.

Chronology

1946 Born April 8 in Hertford, North Carolina, to Abbott and Lillie Harrell Hunter
1960s Becomes star of Perquiman High baseball team
1963 Injures foot in hunting accident
1964 Signs with Kansas City A's
1965 On May 13, pitches two innings in his major league baseball debut
1966 Marries high school sweetheart, Helen, on October 9
1968 On May 8, pitches a perfect game to beat the Minnesota Twins 4-0
1971 Compiles a 21-11 season to help the A's win the Western Division title
1972 Plays in first World Series, comes away a winner
1973 Helps team win the World Series
1974 Helps team win the World Series
1974 Wins contract dispute, becomes free agent, and signs a $3.75 million deal with New York Yankees, making him baseball's first multi-millionaire player
1975 Makes his debut in pinstripes as a New York Yankee
1976 Plays in fourth World Series, though team loses
1977 Has trouble with sore arm; plays and wins fifth World Series
1978 Spends most of season on the disabled list; makes comeback for the World Series, winning game six, the deciding game
1978 Diagnosed with diabetes
1979 Retires from baseball after 15 years
1979 Returns to Hertford, North Carolina
1987 Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame
1988 Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS
1999 Dies on September 9 of complications due to ALS

Awards and Accomplishments

1966 Selected for first All-Star Team
1967 Selected for All-Star Team
1970 Selected for All-Star Team
1972 Selected for All-Star Team
1972 Won first World Series ring
1973 Selected for All-Star Team
1973 Won second World Series ring
1974 Selected for All-Star Team
1974 Won third World Series ring
1974 Won the Cy Young Award
1974 Named The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year
1975 Pitched his fifth consecutive season with 20 or more wins
1975 Selected for All-Star Team
1976 Selected for All-Star Team
1987 Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame

In 1975, Hunter finished the season with 23 wins, giving him five seasons in a row with more than 20 wins. He was the third American League pitcher to accomplish that feat. In 1977, Hunter made his fifth World Series appearance. The Yankees had played in the 1976 series but lost. With Hunter's pitching help, the Yankees won the 1977 series.

By the start of the 1978 season, Hunter's arm was constantly in pain. Not surprising, considering he'd pitched more than 3,000 innings in 13 years. Hunter spent most of the season on the disabled list, though he went 6-0 in August. Next came the World Series. When called to pitch in the sixth game of the series, Hunter came through, delivering a win that decided the title.

At the end of the 1979 season, the 33-year-old pitcher retired. Hunter returned to his hometown of Hertford where he raised hunting dogs and appeared in spots for Dodge trucks, Red Man Chewing Tobacco, and Purina Dog Food. In 1987, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. A year later, Hunter was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative disease of the nerve cells that control movement. The disease is most often called Lou Gehrig' s disease, for the famed Yankee who died of it. Hunter succumbed to ALS on September 9, 1999, leaving behind his wife, Helen, and three children, Kim, Todd, and Paul.

While Hunter's feats on the mound have earned him a place in baseball history, he will also be remembered for what he did off the mound. Hunter was an ace pitcher, to be sure, but he was also an ace of a human being, whose down-home farm boy personality endeared him to the hearts of many. Years after his retirement, he remained a household name. After being diagnosed with ALS, Hunter struck back and founded the Jim "Catfish" Hunter ALS Foundation hoping to use his name as a baseball Hall of Famer to raise awareness about the disease and raise funds for research and for ALS patients. In this way, Hunter hoped to "strike out" the disease, just as he did so many batters. Even after he'd lost control of most of his body, Hunter continued in the fight to raise funds for his cause. His widow continues today. Though Hunter is gone, his foundation and his feats on the mound live on.

Career Statistics

Yr Team W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R BB SO
KC: Kansas City A's; NYY: New York Yankees; Oak: Oakland A's.
1965 KC 8 8 4.26 20 3 2 133 124 63 46 82
1966 KC 9 11 4.02 25 4 0 176.7 158 79 64 103
1967 KC 13 17 2.81 35 13 5 259.7 209 81 84 196
1968 Oak 13 13 3.35 34 11 2 234 210 87 69 172
1969 Oak 12 15 3.35 35 10 3 247 210 92 85 150
1970 Oak 18 14 3.81 40 9 1 262.3 253 111 74 178
1971 Oak 21 11 2.96 37 16 4 273.7 225 90 80 181
1972 Oak 21 7 2.04 37 16 5 295.3 200 67 70 191
1973 Oak 21 5 3.34 36 11 3 256.3 222 95 69 124
1974 Oak 25 12 2.49 41 23 6 318.3 268 88 46 143
1975 NYY 23 14 2.58 39 30 7 328 248 94 83 177
1976 NYY 17 15 3.53 36 21 2 298.7 268 117 68 173
1977 NYY 9 9 4.72 22 8 1 143.3 137 75 47 52
1978 NYY 12 6 3.58 20 5 1 118 98 47 35 56
1979 NYY 2 9 5.31 19 1 0 105 128 62 34 34
TOTAL 224 166 3.26 476 181 42 3449.3 2958 1248 954 2012

SELECTED WRITINGS BY HUNTER:

(With Armen Keteyian) Catfish: My Life in Baseball. McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1988.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Emert, P.R. Sports Heroes: Great Pitchers. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1990.

Hunter, Jim "Catfish," with Armen Keteyian. Catfish: My Life in Baseball. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1988.

Kuenster, John. From Cobb to "Catfish." New York: Rand McNally & Co., 1975.

Libby, Bill. Catfish, The Three Million Dollar Pitcher. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1976.

Reichler, Joseph L., ed. The Baseball Encyclopedia. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1985.

Periodicals

"Catfish was a Credit to Baseball, and His Fans." Asheville Citizen-Times (September 12, 1999): A8.

Gergen, Joe. "'Catfish' Hunter's Professional Example Lives On." Seattle Times (September 10, 1999): D1.

Roberts, Frank. "Catfish Hunter's Wife Searches for a Cure: She Strives to Raise Money for Lou Gehrig's Disease Research." Virginian Pilot (June 25, 2001): B1.

Other

"Catfish Hunter Statistics." Baseball-Reference.com. http://www.baseball-reference.com/h/hunteca01.shtml (October 8, 2002).

Sketch by Lisa Frick

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