Home Page

Baseball Analysis  Bruce Markusen's Page / Hall of Fame

A Tribute to Catfish Hunter

By Bruce Markusen


One of Jim “Catfish” Hunter’s 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. That’s how it is sometimes with patients who are fighting a terminal disease, whether it’s 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 Gehrig’s Disease,” as well as he could. He did the same with diabetes, another cruel affliction. He would have it no other way. That’s because one of Hunter’s 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 wouldn’t,” Rose responded tersely.  “He’s a good pitcher, but hell, I’m not gonna make him out to be a super pitcher because he’s 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. “That’s 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 A’s 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 A’s first baseman Mike Epstein once told Sport Magazine.  “He’s a helluva competitor.”


In 1973, he continued to build a reputation as one of the game’s 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.  I’d rather be out there on the mound than anywhere.  That’s 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, “he’s the one you want pitching for you.”


Like most great pitchers, Hunter owned great inner pride. Prior to the 1971 season, A’s 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 Hunter’s 14 losses. 


Critics of Hunter also cited his extreme reliance on closer Jim “Mudcat” Grant, who had rescued eight of Catfish’s wins with tightrope relief work.  Hunter didn’t 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 I’ve ever seen. But I didn’t 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 didn’t take himself too seriously. He was addicted to playing practical jokes. In fact, Hunter’s habit of playing pranks indirectly enabled one of Oakland’s most successful managers to establish his own identity with the team. Early in 1971, the A’s found themselves playing an unseemly brand of baseball, which did not please their new manager, Dick Williams.  After the A’s 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 can’t leave without the megaphone, and we won’t leave until the plane does.” As Williams continued his lecture, one of the players—i.e. Hunter—dropped 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 Hunter’s 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 you’d turn around the next night and get Catfish Hunter, who just defied guys. They’d shake their heads and couldn’t wait to get up … [They’d bat] the next time and they’d go back scratching their heads.”


Hunter’s improvement in 1971 was even more impressive considering that he was often pushed back a day or two to accommodate Blue, whom the A’s 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,” A’s batting coach Joe DiMaggio replied when asked to comment on Hunter’s 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 A’s, succeeded in signing Hunter to his first professional contract. The following spring, the A’s 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 A’s in the 1960s.  “Here’s 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 A’s 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-hander’s shyness eventually gave way to a subtle confidence, allowing him to become one of the team’s 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.”


Hunter’s 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 A’s 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 Hunter’s thoughtfulness.  “That shows what kind of class Hunter has,” Donaldson told The Sporting News.


Hunter’s popularity with teammates was reaffirmed when he became a free agent after the 1974 World Series due to Finley’s failure to make an insurance payment that was stipulated in the veteran pitcher’s 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, ‘It’s 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 A’s 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.


Hunter’s new team, the New York Yankees, didn’t make the post-season in 1975, but soon became the elite team in the American League, replacing the A’s. 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 Jordan’s recent run with the Chicago Bulls.


Although Hunter had left the A’s to sign a five-year, $3.75 million with the Yankees, he didn’t 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.


Hunter’s 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 way—from Kansas City to Oakland to New York to Hertford—lost a good man, too.

Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. 

HomeGuru's Baseball Book StoreLink to UsBraintrust & Mailing ListsEmail the GuruContact InfoRead baseball analysis