Bruce Markusen's Page / Hall of Fame
A Tribute to Catfish Hunter
By Bruce Markusen
One of Jim Catfish Hunters neighbors told me that he had been making progress during his late summer stay in the hospital. It was slow progress from a recent head injury, but progress nonetheless. A few days later, I heard that the doctors had been successful in getting him out of bed. On Saturday, September 4th, he was released from the hospital. By the following Thursday, Catfish Hunter had passed away. Thats how it is sometimes with patients who are fighting a terminal disease, whether its cancer or leukemia, or in this case, ALS. They make strides, and then maybe some more strides, but the disease takes them away all too quickly.
Hunter battled ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrigs Disease, as well as he could. He did the same with diabetes, another cruel affliction. He would have it no other way. Thats because one of Hunters many attributes was his tenacity. He certainly needed loads of it to make up for his lack of arm strength, which was often noted by opponents. During the 1972 World Series, a reporter asked Cincinnati Reds left fielder Pete Rose if he would characterize Hunter as a great pitcher. No, I wouldnt, Rose responded tersely. Hes a good pitcher, but hell, Im not gonna make him out to be a super pitcher because hes not. Rose offered an uninspiring comparison of Hunter to a lesser-known pitcher in the National League. He reminds me of Rick Wise, said Rose, referring to the St. Cardinals right-hander. Thats about how hard he throws but he certainly is no Tom Seaver or Bob Gibson. Unshaken by such uncomplimentary words, Hunter won two games and posted a 2.81 ERA in helping the Oakland As win the world championship over the Reds.
Hunter relied on the principles of control and movement to make up for a lack of velocity, but it was his lionhearted approach that won him the most praise. When I was with [the] Washington [Senators], Catfish was never afraid to challenge me, when lots of guys with better stuff were, former As first baseman Mike Epstein once told Sport Magazine. Hes a helluva competitor.
In 1973, he continued to build a reputation as one of the games great clutch pitchers. Taking the ball in the fifth and final game of the Championship Series, he shut out the powerful Baltimore Orioles, 3-0. You know what I like to do, really like to do, Hunter said to a reporter. I like to pitch. Id rather be out there on the mound than anywhere. Thats my business and my pleasure and man, I work at it. While other pitchers cowered under pressure circumstances, Hunter embraced them. When you have a fifth [and deciding] game, Reggie Jackson told the New York Times, hes the one you want pitching for you.
Like most great pitchers, Hunter owned great inner pride. Prior to the 1971 season, As owner Charlie Finley angered the veteran pitcher when he offered him a mere $5,000 raise, which he considered inadequate after winning a career-high 18 games in 1970. Finley preferred emphasizing Hunters 14 losses.
Critics of Hunter also cited his extreme reliance on closer Jim Mudcat Grant, who had rescued eight of Catfishs wins with tightrope relief work. Hunter didnt appreciate the suggestion that he had depended so heavily on Grant to enjoy a successful season. Mudcat was a good relief pitcher last year, Catfish told Ron Bergman of The Sporting News, one of the best Ive ever seen. But I didnt like it when some sportswriters suggested that he get half my salary this year. He did his job and I did mine. Without minimizing the efforts of one of his teammates, Hunter provided a thoughtful defense of his own contributions to the team.
Yet, Hunter didnt take himself too seriously. He was addicted to playing practical jokes. In fact, Hunters habit of playing pranks indirectly enabled one of Oaklands most successful managers to establish his own identity with the team. Early in 1971, the As found themselves playing an unseemly brand of baseball, which did not please their new manager, Dick Williams. After the As played sloppily in a 10-5 loss, they flew to Milwaukee to face the Brewers. While on the team bus at the Milwaukee airport, one of the Oakland players decided to steal a battery-operated megaphone from the team airplane. Williams was not amused. He stormed onto the bus and angrily lectured his players about the incident, demanding the bullhorn be returned immediately.
When no one gave up the bullhorn, Williams delivered a stern announcement. The serving of booze on planes is terminated for the rest of the season. Williams continued his diatribe. The plane cant leave without the megaphone, and we wont leave until the plane does. As Williams continued his lecture, one of the playersi.e. Hunterdropped the megaphone from the bus window onto the sidewalk. Williams saw the megaphone fall, but continued talking. If any of you want to telephone Charlie Finley to complain, Williams said, I have three phone numbers where he can be reached. In other words, Williams was challenging his players to go over his head and complain to the owner. Oakland players had never seen Williams predecessor, the mild-mannered John McNamara, react in such a way. Thanks to Hunters practical joke, the successfully fiery reign of Dick Williams had officially begun.
Pranks aside, Hunter enjoyed a breakthrough season in 1971. After years of mediocre performances, Hunter finally became a bonafide star, aided by the development of a slider and the addition of deception to his pitching motion. He and Vida Blue formed a devastating right-left combination, making Oakland the envy of the American League. And it was a pretty good one-two punch, says former teammate Rick Monday, when you had Vida Blue, who would basically gas hitters and then youd turn around the next night and get Catfish Hunter, who just defied guys. Theyd shake their heads and couldnt wait to get up [Theyd bat] the next time and theyd go back scratching their heads.
Hunters improvement in 1971 was even more impressive considering that he was often pushed back a day or two to accommodate Blue, whom the As tried to pitch at home as much as possible because of his crowd-drawing appeal. Yet, Hunter never publicly complained about such second-class treatment. He continued to pitch well, reaching the 20-win plateau for the first time in his career. This 20th win, Catfish told The Sporting News, [means] more to me than the perfect game in 1968. Hunter had struck out 11 in carving out a perfect game against the hard-hitting Minnesota Twins. Just two words, As batting coach Joe DiMaggio replied when asked to comment on Hunters performance. A masterpiece. Afterward, Hunter exhibited his typical modesty, refusing an attempt by teammates to lift him onto their shoulders. I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, Hunter explained to Sport Magazine. I was too embarrassed.
Hunter had not felt the embarrassment of the spotlight since 1964, when a horde of scouts had initiated an all-out raid on his home in Hertford, North Carolina, and its population of 2,012 residents. Scouts considered the young Jim Hunter one of the best high school pitchers in the country. Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City As, succeeded in signing Hunter to his first professional contract. The following spring, the As wanted to send the 19-year-old Hunter to the minor leagues, but his surprising maturity convinced management that he should remain with Kansas City.
It just so happened that he was my roommate, says Jack Aker, a reliever for the As in the 1960s. Heres a kid right out of high school who goes on the major league mound and pitches as if he were a veteran. Catfish never showed a bit of fear or nervousness, anything that most rookies would show in that situation. He just picked up on major league baseball like it was another day back at his high school in Hertford, North Carolina.
Hunter quickly impressed the veteran As players with his demeanor, both on the pitching mound and in the clubhouse. Very calm, cool customer on the field, Aker says. Very personable off the field. Very shy when he was young.
The young right-handers shyness eventually gave way to a subtle confidence, allowing him to become one of the teams leaders, along with Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson. Catfish was quiet, says Bando, but he was the ace of the staff. Catfish was a jokester, one of the guys, and very unassuming. He was liked by everybody.
Hunters unalterable good-heartedness contributed to his popularity. Although his physical appearance changed from that of a short-haired, clean-shaven All-American boy to the mustachioed, long-haired look preferred by most As during the early 1970s, his inner character remained the same. One day in 1974, Hunter presented a greeting card to little-known backup infielder John Donaldson, who was about to complete his fourth year of service time, making him eligible for a major league pension. The card, signed by the Hunter family, read as follows: From the four of us for your fourth. Overwhelmed by the unique gesture, Donaldson publicly acknowledged Hunters thoughtfulness. That shows what kind of class Hunter has, Donaldson told The Sporting News.
Hunters popularity with teammates was reaffirmed when he became a free agent after the 1974 World Series due to Finleys failure to make an insurance payment that was stipulated in the veteran pitchers contract. The loss of Hunter did not please his former teammates, especially his catchers, who loved his easygoing nature and his willingness to defer to their knowledge in calling games. When I went over to Oakland in 73, Ray Fosse revealed to the Kansas City Star, Catfish Hunter never shook me off. I asked him why and he told me, Its your job to know the hitters. Like other Oakland catchers, Fosse appreciated the authority that a respected pitcher like Hunter bestowed on them.
With Catfish, we were world champions, Reggie Jackson told Sport Magazine. Without him, we have to struggle to win the division. The As did manage to win the AL West, but went no further than that, losing the playoffs to the Boston Red Sox in three straight games.
Hunters new team, the New York Yankees, didnt make the post-season in 1975, but soon became the elite team in the American League, replacing the As. The Yankees won the pennant in 1976, followed by world championships in 1977 and 78. That gave Hunter an incredible stretch of five world championships in seven years. Something like Michael Jordans recent run with the Chicago Bulls.
Although Hunter had left the As to sign a five-year, $3.75 million with the Yankees, he didnt allow the money to change him. Teammates like Reggie Jackson, who played with him in both New York and Oakland, observed the same down-to-earth personality that he had always featured. And to those friends he had made outside of baseball, he remained Jimmy Hunter of Hertford, North Carolina.
Hunters recent death at the age of 53 struck a significant blow to the baseball world, which relies on its retired stars to pass along those stories that re-create the memories of earlier generations. Baseball truly lost a Hall of Fame pitcher, a man who loved to pitch and knew how to win. More importantly, the many friends that Jim Catfish Hunter made along the wayfrom Kansas City to Oakland to New York to Hertfordlost a good man, too.
Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finleys Swingin As.