JIM "CATFISH" HUNTER
In 1975, actor Lee Majors starred in the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man, where he played a man augmented with bionic components to give him super-human speed and strength. At that same time, in the real world, there actually was a person with a right arm that emulated bionic capabilities and commanded a price almost equal to Major Steve Austin. Jim "Catfish" Hunter's was known as baseball’s "Three Million Dollar Man." While his pitching accolades include a perfect game, a Cy Young Award, five consecutive 20-win seasons and five World Series rings, his big claim to fame may have been becoming baseball’s first huge winner in free agency.
Some heated debate can be generated over who the dominant pitcher of the 1970’s was: Tom Seaver; Jim Palmer; or Catfish Hunter. In my rankings, he is behind the former two on the basis that his star faded out a bit earlier than the other pair, whose careers continued into the 1980s. Hunter, who listed pitcher Robin Roberts as one of his boyhood heroes, closely emulated Robert’s pitching style. Both lived and died by the fastball. I once read an interview where Hunter encouraged young pitchers that they did not need to master every type of pitch to be successful. He emphasized that even if you could only throw a good fastball with control, you could still be quite successful simply by employing variations such as picking corners and throwing the occasional change-up. Both Roberts and Hunter had similar statistics: lots of innings pitched over the peak of their careers; 150 - 200 strikeouts per season over their prime years; minimal bases-on-balls issued; and plenty of gopher balls.
The thought of being a millionaire someday was probably remote for the son (one of eight children) of a Hertford, North Carolina sharecropper. Despite hard work, money was a scarce commodity in the Hunter household. When there just wasn’t enough money to afford a baseball, young Catfish truly did "hum seed," as he used dried hunks of corncobs as a substitute for baseballs. When given a real baseball, Jim Hunter became a local sensation as he was virtually unhittable in high school and American Legion competition. He was starting to see Major League scouts attend his games until a hunting accident put 30 shotgun pellets into his right foot and resulted in the loss of his little toe. The scouts stopped coming and it appeared that Jim Hunter would spend his life in Hertford.
However, a determined Jim Hunter made a recovery from the mishap, but was still considered damaged goods by the scouts. Charles O. Finley, owner of the perennial also-rans of the American League, the Kansas City Athletics, took a gamble and signed Hunter in June, 1964, to a $75,000 contract. A bout with appendicitis kept Hunter on the disabled list for the remainder of 1964. He also spent some time at the Mayo Clinic rehabilitating his foot.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, a peculiar Major League Baseball rule required "bonus babies" to remain on a Major League roster for their rookie season or else risk losing them to another team in the draft. As a result, the nineteen year old Hunter languished in the A’s dugout. However, as the A’s pitching staff was repeatedly pelted, by June, Jim Hunter was pressed into the starting rotation and went 8 - 8 in his first season. He would never throw a pitch in the minor leagues. For a short while, at the close of the season, nineteen year old Jim Hunter and 59 year old Satchel Paige were actually teammates. One publicity stunt had Catfish on Paige’s lap in a rocking chair. Remember, Charles O. Finley is the owner here. By 1966, Catfish Hunter was an All-Star, his first of eight selections there. He finished 9 - 11 that year.
During the 1967 campaign, Jim Hunter owned a few famous last facts during the Kansas City A’s final season of their moribund history. As the Kansas City A’s only (and naturally last) All-Star game selectee that year, he pitched the last five innings of the 15 inning marathon, and was the losing pitcher in the 2 - 1 game, giving up a home run to Tony Perez. He also lost the final game ever played by the Kansas City A’s.
In 1968, Hunter and the A’s moved to Oakland, CA. On May 8, 1968, Jim Hunter pitched the first perfect game in the American League since Don Larsen and the first in regular season since Chicago White Sox’s Charlie Robertson, who pitched his perfect game as a rookie and finished with a career 49 - 80 record, performed the feat in 1922. Hunter victimized the Minnesota Twins, 4-0, striking out eleven (including getting Harmon Killebrew out on strikes thrice) and throwing only 107 pitches. After the game Hunter received a call from Charlie Finley, who congratulated him then added, "But you cost me $5,000."
"I'm sorry. Who got it?" Hunter asked.
"You did," responded Finley. "It'll be in your next contract."
With the likes of Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers coming into their own, the A’s had metamorphisized from cellar dwellars to contenders, finishing as runner-up to the Minnesota Twins in the AL West in 1969 and 1970. Hunter also became a real presence as he achieved his first winning season, going 18 - 14, in 1970.
Both Oakland’s and Jim Hunter’s fortunes were flying high in the early 1970s. With Hunter, the A’s won five consecutive AL West flags and were world champions from 1972 through 1974. During that span, Hunter had four consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins, a 4 - 0 record with and one save in World Series play. His 1971 mark was 21 - 11, which was the same season that fellow pitcher Vida Blue was the sensation of baseball -- going 24 - 8. In 1972, Hunter went 21 - 7 and led the league with a .750 winning percentage. He garnered an additional famous last fact that year (a good one this time) as the last AL pitcher to win 20 games and bat over .300 (he hit .350) -- unless the DH rule is ever lifted, that one may last forever. He again led the AL in win percentage in 1973, going 21 - 5 (.808). In 1974, Catfish were jumping as Hunter led the league in wins (25 - 12) and ERA (2.49), earning him the Cy Young Award and Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News.
However, all was not well in Oakland. Hunter's contract called for Finley to pay half of the pitcher's $100,000 salary into a life insurance fund in what was essentially a deferred compensation agreement. In October, 1974, as the World Series was about to begin, Hunter charged that because Finley had failed to honor this portion of the agreement, the entire contract was void, including the reserve clause. Catfish Hunter declared himself a free agent.
Charlie Finley took major actions to placate Hunter. He offered Hunter a $50,000 bonus, but Hunter stuck to his convictions. Hunter’s rationale was a loophole in the Standard Player Contract that allowed a player to terminate his contract if his club defaults in the payments.
During arbitration, Hunter's contract was ruled void, thus clearing his path for free agency. Baseball’s first bidding war ensued. Jim Hunter’s agent was not the typical holdout specialists you hear too often about. He was represented by the law firm Cherry, Cherry and Flythe, located in Ahoskie, North Carolina. Soon owners such as Gene Autry, Ewing Kauffman and Bud Selig were visiting Ahoskie, but leaving Catfish-less. Hunter’s offers soon increased into the Megadollar range. Offers of up to $4 million were solicited by Kansas City and San Diego. However, the big winner was George Steinbrenner, who inked a five year, $3.75 million contract with the Yankees, which also included a $1 million signing bonus.
George Steinbrenner received an immediate return of investment as Hunter had a 23 - 14 season in 1975. He also led the AL in wins for the second consecutive season plus topping the league with 328 innings pitched and 30 complete games. Though his career began to ebb from there, he remained a solid contributor in the Yankees pennant winning seasons of 1976, 1977 and 1978. Before the 1978 season, Hunter was diagnosed with diabetes. Still, he went 12 - 6 and was the winning pitcher in New York's 7-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the deciding Game 6 of the World Series.
Hunter struggled through the 1979 season, going 3 - 9. Having honored his multi-year contract, a rarity in baseball anymore, Catfish Hunter retired while only 33 years of age. His final tally was 224 wins against 166 losses. Eschewing the big city life, he returned to Hertford, NC. The sharecropper’s son is now a gentleman farmer.
In addition to his Cy Young award and his Hall of Fame nomination in 1987, Jim Hunter also has the unique honor of being the subject of a fairly popular Bob Dylan song, entitled Catfish. It depicts Hunter’s travails with Charlie O. Finley. When asked about the song, Hunter (who only likes two kinds of music: Country and Western) replied, "Who is this guy Dylan to write a song about me?"