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Remembering Yankees great Catfish Hunter, the somewhat-forgotten ALS victim

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Fifteen years ago today, the Yankees lost a dear friend and valued member of two World Series championship teams.

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It's difficult to imagine a disease more cruel than ALS. It turns its victims from fully functional humans to people unable to care for themselves at all, rendering even tremendous athletes like Lou Gehrig immobile before long. Hell, they become immobile within just a couple years, but the process does not feel fast at all. When Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS, he had been slowly losing his motor skills over the previous several months and by the time he was fully retired and honored on July 4th, it was extremely difficult to walk. It's tragic that ALS struck a Yankees icon once, but sadly, it's happened more than once. Fifteen years ago today, Hall of Famer and '70s great Catfish Hunter passed away from ALS. He was only 53.

I could be mistaken, but I do not believe Hunter's death from ALS is as nearly well-known as it ought to be. To most people, he's just a funny nickname from the past, a baseball Hall of Famer probably most famous for signing the first big money free agent contract in 1975. I think a decent portion of baseball fans remember his fate, but so many more do not.

Every year, the Yankees welcome back many of their alumni for Old Timers' Day. Catfish should be there. This year on that occasion, the Yankees honored his teammate and closer Goose Gossage with a plaque in Monument Park. Catfish should have been there. In 2008, they bid goodbye to the old Yankee Stadium, where he won countless fans over his five years in pinstripes. Catfish should have been there. Eleven years ago, the Yankees retired his teammate and fellow slider expert Ron Guidry's number 49 in a ceremony at the old Yankee Stadium. Catfish should have been there. ALS robbed us of Catfish.

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A good ol' farm boy out of Hertford, North Carolina, Jim Hunter learned his famous control from his older brothers and rose to prominence dazzling scouts who visited his high school in Perquimans. One of the last future Hall of Famers to sign as an amateur before the advent of the MLB draft, charismatic Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley signed him and gave him a $50,000 bonus, even though he had been injured in a hunting accident. He immediately made an impact, coming up to Kansas City as a teenager in 1965 without ever pitching in the minor leagues and becoming a two-time All-Star by age 21. Finley conjured a fictitious story to give him his famous nickname, and a legend was born.

In 1968, the A's moved out west to Oakland, and Hunter immediately gave his new fans a highlight with the greatest day of his career. He twirled just the ninth perfect game in major league history, setting down 27 Twins in a row while also notching a three-hit day. No pitcher in modern baseball history has ever been younger than Catfish when he threw his gem. Ever the carefree guy though, he joked to teammates and reporters that his hitting was the star of the show that day, not his pitching.

Of course, Catfish would go on to later prominence with the A's when his teammates around him rose to his levels of excellence and the 1972-74 A's became the only non-Yankees team to ever win three World Series championships in a row. Catfish was the clear ace, making four more All-Star teams in Oakland while averaging an incredible 38 starts and 281 innings per year, not counting postseason. He had his best season in his last year in Oakland, 1974, when he won the AL Cy Young Award with a league-best 2.49 ERA (73 ERA-) and 0.986 WHIP in 41 starts and 318 1/3 innings (!).

After the third straight title, Hunter and his agent discovered that Finley had violated terms of his contract and when they brought the case to an arbiter, he was declared a free agent. It was a nearly unprecedented situation and it set off a frenzy in which numerous teams bid for his services. In the end though, it was new Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who sought to make his stamp on the game by showing how dedicated he was to trying to improve his team through his wallet. He spent the most, offering Hunter a five-year, $3.35 million contract, which was accepted by Hunter on New Year's Eve.

"You started our success. You were the first to teach us how to win. Other Yankees continued that leadership role, but you were the one who first showed us what it means to be a winner." -George Steinbrenner

Manager Billy Martin knew just how potent and durable Hunter was, and he absolutely used him like a workhorse in his first season. That year, Hunter pitched a career-high 328 innings and 30 complete games, unheard of marks by today's standards that also easily led the AL. The All-Star was brilliant with 8.1 rWAR, a 2.58 ERA, and a league-best 1.009 WHIP, but the Yankees missed the playoffs. In '76, Hunter wasn't as effective, though he was an All-Star for the eighth and final time and he was still roundly regarded as the staff ace. The Yankees won both the AL East and their first AL pennant in 12 years.

The years of wear and tear took their toll on Catfish over the next three years, as he struggled with injuries and effectiveness. The Yankees achieved their goal and won the World Series in both '77 and '78. Catfish was able to channel the ace of old in the Yankees' stunning rally during the second half of '78, as he pitched to a excellent 2.23 ERA from the beginning of August onward, throwing 80 innings with just a 0.967 WHIP. Without his efforts, the Yankees probably don't come back on the Red Sox that year to force the one-game playoff.

Nonetheless, further arm ailments in '79 forced him into early retirement as his contract expired at age 33. A diabetes diagnosis that required three insulin shots a day and the sudden death of his friend and catcher Thurman Munson that August certainly didn't help matters, either. The humble Hunter was never bitter about his departure from the game, as he felt great joy just working on his 1,000-acre farm in North Carolina growing corn, soybeans, and peanuts. He was a constant presence at Old Timers' Day who always received a huge round of applause for his efforts in bring the Yankees back to prominence in the late '70s. When the BBWAA voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1987, the five-time champion chose to wear a cap with no insignia out of respect to both the A's (who later retired his number 27 in 1991) and the Yankees.

It seemed like Hunter would just continue his pleasant life of normal baseball retirement, and he did until the winter of 1997. Hunter noticed he couldn't lift his shotgun with his right hand while hunting. He thought it was just a tick bite, but it was far, far worse. Hunter ventured to numerous medical centers and was stunned to learn that he was diagnosed with ALS. His motor skills continued to deteriorate, as he could barely grip a baseball. The Associated Press detailed his struggles:

...it progressed quickly, leaving the once strong-armed pitcher unable to function without help. He talked of how Helen, his high school sweetheart and wife of more than 30 years, helped him through each day, dressing him and cutting his food.
"Once in a while," he said, "we sit there and cry together."

When he visited the Yankees in spring training of '99, his old teammates were extremely saddened by the fact that he could barely shake hands with arms that "hung limp at his side." On August 8th, he fell and hit his head on the concrete steps outside his house. That sent him to the hospital for the final time, where he stayed until September 4th. That day, with his condition growing ever more critical, he was sent home for his last days. On September 9, 1999, the jovial man who brought smiles to so many teammates' faces passed away at age 53. When the Yankees and some of Hunter's former teammates-turned-coaches celebrated their 25th World Series title that fall, they did so with black arm bands on their jerseys in remembrance of Catfish Hunter.

It's just a damn shame that Catfish was taken from us so soon. You can help in both his and Gehrig's honor by donating to ALS research at one of the many organizations fighting for a cure to this terrible disease. More people should know about Hunter's fight against ALS and keep his memory alive. The unparalleled Bob Sheppard said it best during the first game at Yankee Stadium after Hunter's passing:

"Jim Hunter was more than a Hall of Fame pitcher.
He was a Hall of Fame human being."