|Born: April 8, 1946|
Hertford, North Carolina
|Died: September 9, 1999 (aged 53)|
Hertford, North Carolina
|May 13, 1965, for the Kansas City Athletics|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 17, 1979, for the New York Yankees|
|Earned run average||3.26|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Member of the National|
|Baseball Hall of Fame|
|Vote||76.27% (third ballot)|
James Augustus Hunter (April 8, 1946 - September 9, 1999), nicknamed "Catfish", was a professional baseball player in Major League Baseball (MLB). From 1965 to 1979, he was a pitcher for the Kansas City / Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees. Hunter was the first pitcher since 1915 to win 200 career games by the age of 31. He is often referred to as baseball's first big-money free agent. He was a member of five World Series championship teams.
Hunter retired in 1979 after developing persistent arm problems. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in his early 50s. He died of the disease about a year after his diagnosis. Hunter has been the subject of numerous popular culture references, including the Bob Dylan song "Catfish".
The youngest son of eight children, Hunter was born and raised in Hertford in northeast North Carolina. He grew up on a farm and excelled in a variety of sports at Perquimans County High School. He played linebacker and offensive tackle in football as well as shortstop, cleanup batter, and pitcher in baseball. His older brothers taught him to pitch, and his pitching skill began to attract scouts from MLB teams to Hertford.
During his senior year in November 1963, Hunter's right foot was wounded by a brother in a hunting accident; he lost one of his toes and shotgun pellets lodged in his foot. The accident left Hunter somewhat hobbled and jeopardized his prospects in the eyes of many professional scouts, but the Kansas City Athletics signed Hunter to a contract. Hunter was sent to the Mayo Clinic that year so that surgeons could work on his foot. He recovered in LaPorte, Indiana at the farm of Athletics owner Charles O. Finley.
Finley gave Hunter the nickname "Catfish" in 1965 because he thought his 19-year-old pitcher needed a flashy nickname. A story circulated that Hunter's family gave him the nickname as a child when he went missing and was later found with a string of catfish; there is no truth to that explanation. Hunter never played in the minor leagues and his first major league victory came on July 27, 1965 in Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox. In 1966 and 1967, Hunter was named to the American League All-Star team.
Prior to the 1968 season, Finley moved the A's from Kansas City to Oakland. On Wednesday, May 8, against the Minnesota Twins, Hunter pitched the ninth perfect game in baseball history. He became the American League's first perfect game pitcher since Charlie Robertson in 1922 (excluding Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series), as well as the franchise's first no-hit pitcher since Bill McCahan in 1947 with what were then the Philadelphia Athletics. The game was scoreless until the bottom of the seventh inning; at the plate, Hunter got three hits and drove in three of Oakland's four runs with a squeeze bunt in the seventh and a bases-loaded single in the eighth.
Hunter continued to win games, and in 1974 received both The Sporting News's "Pitcher of the Year" award and the American League Cy Young Award after going 25-12 with a league leading 2.49 earned run average. The A's also won their third consecutive World Series. Hunter's statistics while he was with the Athletics were impressive: four consecutive years with at least 20 wins, and four World Series wins without a loss. He had won 161 games for the A's, 131 in seven seasons in Oakland and 30 in his first three seasons in Kansas City.
On February 11, 1974, Hunter agreed with the A's on a two-year, $200,000 contract with a clause stipulating that $50,000 payments be made to a life insurance annuity of his choosing in each of the two seasons. After Finley refused to make payment on the annuity after discovering he had to pay $25,000 in taxes which was due immediately, the breach of contract dispute was brought before an arbitration hearing on November 26, 1974. Twenty days later on December 16, arbitrator Peter Seitz decided in favor of Hunter, officially making him a free agent. Hunter recalled being scared after he was declared a free agent. "We don't belong to anybody", he told his wife.
Two weeks after he won his arbitration, Hunter became the highest-paid player in baseball and highest-paid pitcher in history when he signed a five-year contract with the New York Yankees worth $3.35 million. He had been courted by 23 of the 24 teams, including the A's but not the San Francisco Giants, and refused higher offers from the San Diego Padres and the Kansas City Royals. New York was closer to his home in North Carolina and the team played on natural grass.
Finley attempted to have the arbitration ruling overturned, but was unsuccessful after several appeals. Further details of Finley's history with Hunter gave the A's owner added negative publicity. Hunter became known as baseball's "first big-money free agent".
Hunter got off to a rough start going 0-3 in his first three starts, but settled down and was named to his seventh All-Star team. He led the league in wins (23) for the second year in a row, and also led the league in innings pitched (328) and complete games (30) to finish second to Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Cy Young balloting. Hunter also became only the fourth (and last) American League pitcher to win 20 games in a season for five consecutive seasons (1971-1975). The others were Walter Johnson (10), Lefty Grove (7), and Bob Feller (5).
In 1976, Hunter won 17 games, led the Yankees in complete games and innings pitched, and was again named to the All-Star team. The Yankees won three straight pennants with Hunter from 1976 to 1978. In 1976, Hunter became the fourth major league pitcher to win 200 games before the age of 31 and the only one since Walter Johnson in 1915, preceded by Cy Young and Christy Mathewson. Hunter was also a competent hitter, with a career batting average of .226; in 1971 he hit .350 with 36 hits in 38 games. After the designated hitter was adopted by the American League in 1973, Hunter had only two plate appearances in his final seven seasons, with one base hit in 1973.
Hunter won his Opening Day start on April 7, 1977, limiting the Milwaukee Brewers to three hits over seven shutout innings in a 3-0 victory. He left the game with a bruised foot and was eventually placed on the 21-day disabled list with the injury, not pitching again for the Yankees until May 5.
Arm injuries plagued Hunter beginning in 1978. In spring training, he was diagnosed with diabetes and combined with his chronic arm trouble the disease began to sap Hunter's energy. Following the 1979 season and the end of his five-year contract, Hunter retired from baseball at age 33. Hunter won 63 games in his five seasons with the Yankees. He retired with appearances in six World Series and with five World Series championships.
He returned to his farm in Hertford where he grew soybeans, corn, peanuts, and cotton, and was a spokesman for diabetes awareness. Hunter noticed arm weakness while hunting in the winter of 1997-1998. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Hunter died at his home in Hertford in 1999 at age 53, a year after his ALS diagnosis. A month before his death, Hunter fell and hit his head on concrete steps at home. He was unconscious for several days after the fall, but he had returned home from that hospitalization when he died. Hunter is interred at Cedarwood Cemetery in Hertford, adjacent to the field where he played high school baseball.
Along with Billy Williams and Ray Dandridge, Hunter was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown in 1987. At the time, Hall of Fame officials would always defer to the player's wishes in determining which team would be memorialized on his Hall of Fame Plaque. Before and after his induction, Hunter spoke highly of his experiences with both the Athletics and Yankees and his appreciation for both team owners, Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner. For this reason, he declined to choose a team; accordingly, his plaque depicts him with no logo on his cap. He was credited by Steinbrenner as the cornerstone of the Yankees in their return to championship form.
In 1990, Hunter was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. In 2004, the Oakland Athletics began the Catfish Hunter Award. His number 27 was retired by the Oakland Athletics in a pre-game ceremony on June 9, 1991, the first in the franchise's 90 years.
The Jim "Catfish" Hunter Memorial is located in Hertford. An annual softball event is held in Hertford in memory of Hunter. All proceeds from the weekend benefit ALS research. The tournament has raised over $200,000 since 1999.
On September 5, 2018, Hunter was inducted into the Oakland Athletics first Hall of Fame class, with wife, Helen, there to receive the honor.
After Hunter's death, former teammate Reggie Jackson described Hunter as a "fabulous human being. He was a man of honor. He was a man of loyalty." Steinbrenner said, "We were not winning before Catfish arrived... He exemplified class and dignity and he taught us how to win." Former teammate Lou Piniella said, "Catfish was a very unique guy. If you didn't know he was making that kind of money, you'd never guess it because he was humble, very reserved about being a star-type player... almost a little bit shy. But he told great stories. He had a heck of a sense of humor. When you play with guys like that, you feel blessed."
Hunter has been the subject of multiple popular culture references. Bob Dylan wrote the song "Catfish" in 1975. the song was later released by Dylan, Joe Cocker and Kinky Friedman. In 1976, Hunter was also the subject of the Bobby Hollowell song "The Catfish Kid (Ballad of Jim Hunter)", which was performed by Big Tom White and released on a 45 RPM single. Hollowell was best friends with the young Jim Hunter while they grew up together.
Hunter is mentioned in the 1976 film The Bad News Bears. When Coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) is trying to get Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O'Neal) to pitch for his Little League team, Amanda makes a number of outlandish demands (such as imported jeans, modeling school and ballet lessons) as conditions for joining the team. Buttermaker asks, "Who do you think you are, Catfish Hunter?" Amanda responds by asking, "Who's he?" In the movie Grumpier Old Men, an enormous and highly prized fish is named "Catfish Hunter" by the locals. In You, Me and Dupree, Catfish Hunter is mentioned by Owen Wilson's character, Dupree, convincing an Asian orchestra student that he can pitch: "First, call me Dupree 'cause I'm your teammate. Second, so what if you're in the orchestra? So was Catfish Hunter."