Jim “Catfish” Hunter – Money Pitcher Of The 70’s

12 Dec

On April 8, 1946, James Augustus Hunter was born in Hertford, North Carolina. It was going to be another 29 or so years before he became known to the world as “Catfish.” Over fifteen years with the A’s and Yankees, Hunter put together a resume as impressive as any pitcher during his era. When examining Hunter it wasn’t a question of quantity, just posting slightly better than average numbers over two or more decades, it was all about pure dominance, absolute quality over a career cut too short by health issues.

Hunter debuted with the A’s in 1965 having a ho0hum type of year. In fact he had five years like that posting a record over that span of 55-64. While he showed progress as viewed by his regularly shrinking ERA and increased workload, he hardly looked like the ace he was once projected to be. In 1971 however something changed, the A’s found them self with a tremendous offense, great defense, and plenty of talented and similarly matured pitchers to surround Catfish and take some of the pressure off of him. Suddenly Hunter posted 18 wins and realized all the potential that was attributed to him. Over the following five years he went on to win 21 or more games each season, the last to ever do that and a feat not likely to be matched given the strategy of the modern game.

All told Hunter went on to post career totals of 224-166 with 42 shutouts, 2912 strikeouts, and a 3,26 ERA. Just to round out the trophy case he was an eight time All-Star, the 1974 CY Young Award winner, a two time league leader in wins, and the owner of one ERA crown. Amazingly enough, Hunter went to the post-season in 7 years out of 8, an era before the wild-card and Division playoffs, appearing in 6 World Series, winning five. It was obvious that winning was linked to Hunter. Statistics are only a part of his story though.

Hunter is a player that will forever be remembered as the first big free agent in baseball. His 5 year $3.75 million deal with the Yankees rang in the era of spending. The pen he signed the contract with that made him the highest paid player in baseball history at the time is on Display at the Baseball Hall of Fame to this day. Hunter opened the door to players seeing what free market economics, and Steinbrenner dollars, was all about. Steinbrenner said of Hunter, :He exemplified class and dignity and he taught us how to win.” Leading the Yankees to three straight World Series appearances it is hard to argue he wasn’t worth every penny.

In fact to a person, former teammates of Hunter use some mix of the words “class, humble, and dignity” when describing Hunter. He was considered one of the true gentleman of the game, much different from the thick mustachioed face with untamed hair look he cultivated with the A’s to claim a little extra bonus money. In fact it is hard to find pictures of Catfish when he wasn’t wearing a smile.

After a very unusual 2-9 season in 1979 it was obvious something wasn’t right. Hunter had been dealing with diabetes but doing well until then. The occasional numbness in his fingers made gripping the ball much less controlling it difficult. There was constant pain in his shoulder, pain he dealt with for years by having chiropractors break the scar tissue by manipulating the arm to buy him a couple more weeks of work each time. Each time however its effectiveness was decreasingly profitable. Feeling he was unable to continue to play to his standards he retired and only returned to the game each spring as a special instructor for the Yankees for a period of two weeks or so.

Life after baseball became difficult for Hunter. While he loved being back home in Hertford, his health was continually declining. Somehow it took three ballots before hunter was elected to the Hall of Fame. Feeling his accomplishments with the A’s and Yankees were equally great, he chose to have the hat on his plaque bear the logo of neither team. While it was a joyous day each year after when Hunter made the trip to Cooperstown to welcome new hall of fame inductees to the shrine, in 1997 it was also filled with heartbreak as that was the day many former teammates became visibly aware that something was very different and learned he was fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gherig’s disease.

Hunter himself didn’t realize anything was wrong until he realized he could no longer raise his arm enough to lift his shotgun. The disease attacked quickly despite a battery of drugs aimed at slowing it. He remained at home for the most part cared for by his high school sweetheart and wife of thirty years Helen. Still, Hunter made the trip to Tampa Florida to make a brief appearance at just one more Yankee spring training camp. Everyone was shocked to see this once strong workhorse of a man could barely muster the strength to shake hands. It was his last goodbye to baseball.

In August of 1999 he fell unconscious for several days after falling down on the steps outside of his home, marking what many felt would be his final days. Somehow he pulled through but only temporarily. On September 9, 1999, at the age of 53, Hunter passed away approximately one year after his ALS diagnosis. While his achievements on the field will always be remembered, it is important we remember how did them as well with class, dignity, dedication, and true sportsmanship.

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