The A’s had an incredible dynasty in the 1970’s, winning three straight World Series with a roster full of Hall of Famers. One of their greatest players was Jim “Catfish” Hunter. He was truly gifted as a pitcher and served an inspiration for his teammates. He led by example and due to his determination he collected five World Series rings on his way to Cooperstown. This is his story.
He was born on April 8, 1946 in Hertford, North Carolina, a town of barely 2,000. He spent his days helping his father on the farm and playing baseball with his brothers and friends. From the beginning, the youngest of eight showed an affinity for baseball. Due to a hunting accident his senior year he lost his pinky toe and had pellets lodged into his foot, but despite being hobbled he did well enough to catch the eye of the Kansas City A’s. After signing for $75,000, Hunter was sent to the Mayo Clinic for doctors to work on his foot. After the procedure, he recovered at A’s owner’s Charles Finley’s farm in LaPorte Indiana.
Major League Beginnings
Shortly after signing his rookie contract, Finley gave Hunter the “Catfish” nickname to give the A’s more publicity. After feeding Hunter a story about how he got the nickname, he would forever be known as Catfish.
He proved to be so dominant that he never spent a day in the minor leagues, a rarity. He went 8-8 his rookie year of 1965 and held an ERA of 4.26. He made the All Star Game the next two years, going a combined 22-28 and had a respectable 2.81 ERA in 1967. The team left for Oakland following the 1967 season and Hunter struggled to maintain his poise, going 13-13 with a 3.35 ERA. One of the few bright spots that season was a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins.
After struggling again in 1969, Hunter had a breakout year in 1970, winning a then career best 18 games and striking out 178 batters in another All Star season. Between 1971 and 1975, Catfish Hunter would record at least 21 wins every year, becoming just the fourth AL pitcher to win at least 20 games in five straight seasons. In 1972, when the A’s began their dynasty, Hunter had a scintillating 2.04 ERA while striking out 191 batters. It was during this streak of dominance that the A’s won three straight World Series. The 1974 season was his last in Oakland and his best professionally. He led the AL in wins (25) and ERA (2.49) and earned the Cy Young Award while leading the A’s to their third straight World Series. At the end of the season, he decided to seek free agency when Charles Finley refused to honor a part of his contract. Catfish Hunter was a free agent in an era of changing economics.
Catfish Hunter was one of the most sought after free agents in an era before free agency became an official part of the professional sports landscape. The Yankees had recently been bought by George Steinbrenner and he wanted to build a winner in a hurry. He sought after Hunter, competing with a number of teams and he eventually won him over with a lucrative offer of 5 years for $3.75 million, making him the highest paid baseball player ever.
Unfortunately, his skills began to decline considerably almost from the moment he stepped on the field at Yankee Stadium. After leading the AL with 23 wins in 1975, he won 17 in 1976 and made his final All Star Game appearance. The next two years were memorable ones in New York as the Yankees won back-to-back World Series but he began to have major problems with his throwing shoulder. In 1977 he joined Christy Mathewson, Cy Young and Walter Johnson as the only pitchers in MLB history to win 200 games by the age of 31.
While he was accomplishing that feat, he was starting to struggle with his health. In 1977, he found out during Spring Training that he had developed diabetes. The 1978 season was his last good year, winning 12 games and earning a 3.58 ERA in just 118 innings. He underwent a procedure on his throwing shoulder in the middle of the season and pitched much better down the stretch. Following a 1979 season where he struggled to a 2-9 record and a 5.31 ERA. He retired from the game following the season, due to fatigue over his diabetes as well as ceaseless struggles with his throwing shoulder. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
A Painful End
ALS. Just the name strikes fear in even the toughest of individuals. Catfish Hunter noticed unexplainable weakness in his arms while hunting in the winter of 1998. A short while later he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease progressed quickly. His powerful right arm, the one which had given him so much, became completely useless within months. After hitting his head due to a fall, he passed away on September 9, 1999.