Name: James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: April 8, 1946 (Hertford, NC)
Died: September 9, 1999 (Hertford, NC)
Yankee Years: 1975-79
Primary number: 29
Yankee statistics: 993 IP, 137 G, 63-53, 3.58 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 103 ERA+, 65 CG, 11 SHO, 492 K, 10.1 fWAR, 9.9 rWAR
Despite a forgettable start to the 1970s for the New York Yankees, the second half of the decade saw them return to their familiar championship form. Not so coincidentally, the halfway point in the 70s also saw the arrival of star pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter in the Bronx. As the first big-money free agent in modern baseball, Hunter’s arrival was a welcome one, as he exemplified class and excellence on the mound that helped the Yankees of the late 70s reach the top of the mountain once again.
Born to Millie and Abbott Hunter on April 8, 1946, Catfish grew up in the small town of Hertford, North Carolina. Between school and work around his family’s home and farm, Hunter learned to play and love the game of baseball in the backyard with his brothers. It quickly became apparent that he would excel as an athlete, and dominated on the diamond, football field, and track at Perquimans County High School in Hertford. He led their baseball team to a state championship in his junior season, and once struck out 29 opposing batters in a 12-inning game. This success rightfully garnered the attention of plenty, particularly that of persistent Kansas City Athletics scout Clyde Kluttz.
In the fall of his Senior year, Hunter’s career was nearly jeopardized when he was accidentally shot in the foot following a hunting trip with his brother. Catfish lost a toe, and the situation scared some scouts away, but not Kluttz. After another standout season on the mound despite the injury, the belief of Kluttz was enough to convince A’s owner Chuck Finley to offer Hunter a $75,000 signing bonus, enough to seal the deal and bring Hunter into the A’s organization.
“Catfish” quickly rises in the Majors
Finley helped Hunter heal from the significant injury he suffered, as he stayed with the A’s owner while he rested and received medical care in Minnesota. Finley also gave him the iconic name we all know him for, an experience “Catfish” describes as a bit of a marketing ruse:
He told me, ‘A player’s got to have a nickname,’ and he asked me what I liked to do. ‘Hunting and fishing,’ I said, and he said, ‘Let’s call you “Catfish.’…The story is, when you were 6 years old you ran away from home to fish and by the time your parents got to you you’d caught two catfish and were just about to bring in a third. Got that? Now you repeat it to me.’
Frankly, the ploy worked! After all, the title of this very article uses Catfish instead of Jim. However, given his extraordinary talents on the mound, he probably didn’t need a flashy nickname to make noise in the baseball world.
Hunter pitched just nine minor league games before making his big league debut against the White Sox in May of 1965. He finished with a pedestrian 4.26 ERA across 133 inning of work in his rookie year, but he would hit the ground running in the ‘66 season. Starting 25 games for Kansas City, Hunter managed a 4.02 ERA, and pitched well enough to earn his first career All-Star selection.
Hunter’s real coming-out party happened in ‘67 where he set career bests in nearly every category, boasted a much shinier 2.81 ERA (114 ERA+), en route to his second All-Star selection in as many years.
The Athletics’ franchise moved from Kansas City to Oakland for the 1968 season, but Hunter’s success on the hill kept humming right along. In that 1968 campaign, Catfish hurled the ninth perfect game in big league history, while also knocking in three runs on as many hits at the plate in about as complete a game as one could have.
In 1970, the right-hander led the league in starts and earned his third All-Star appearance. But his final three years by the Bay were perhaps his most memorable, as he helped lead he A’s toward the promise land. He crafted an eye-opening 2.04 ERA in ‘72, and tallied 20 wins for the second straight year, as he finished fourth in Cy Young voting. He won 21 more and finished a spot higher in Cy voting a year later, all culminating in an electric ‘74 campaign. That year, his 25 wins and 2.49 ERA both led the league, as he pitched over 300 innings and completed a whopping 23 games. He earned his sixth All-Star selection, and was named the American League’s Cy Young Award winner.
All of these personal accomplishment’s aside, Hunter helped lead the A’s to three consecutive World Series championships from 1972-74, and played a vital role in each of them, something the Yankees would come to appreciate as well.
Big Money in The Bronx
Following a dispute in regard to Hunter’s contract, where Oakland was due to pay part of his salary in deferred insurance annuities, Catfish and the A’s reached a breaking point. Eventually, through an arbitrating panel, Hunter was released from his contract because of Finley’s unwillingness to pay, and he was granted free agency. Unsurprisingly, nearly every team in the majors pursued his services, but only one came out on top.
Just before the calendar turned to 1975, Catfish Hunter and the Yankees agreed to a five-year, $3.2 million deal to put the reigning Cy Young award winner in pinstripes. He was the first high-dollar free agent in the game, and he fittingly found a new home in New York.
The historic investment paid immediate dividends in 1975, as Hunter picked up right where he left off in the years leading up to his arrival in the Bronx. He pitched to the tune of a 2.58 ERA over a league-leading 328 innings of work, and his season was perhaps highlighted by his 30 complete games, a number that has not been reached since by a big league pitcher. He finished second in Cy Young voting to Baltimore’s Jim Palmer.
Catfish’s top-notch stretch would continue in 1976, as he garnered his fifth consecutive All-Star selection, though his streak of 20-win seasons came to an end. He did still manage a respectable 3.53 ERA over the course of nearly 300 innings. Maybe most significant was Hunter and the Yankees returning to the postseason for the first time in over a decade. They made it all the way to the World Series in ‘76, aided by a Hunter complete game victory to open the ALCS, but were eventually swept by the mighty Reds. But there was no denying the Yanks were now on the up-and-up.
1977 ended up as perhaps the worst year thus far in Hunter’s 13 season in the big leagues. 143.1 was his lowest inning total since his rookie campaign and his 4.71 ERA the highest he had ever maintained. Age and arm fatigue began to wear on Hunter even though it was just his age-31 season. Despite this, the Yankees returned to the Fall Classic in ‘77, and won their first championship since 1962 over the Dodgers. Catfish started just one game in that postseason, taking the loss in Game 2 of the World Series.
Hunter and the Yankees returned to supremacy in ‘78, and the right-hander was able to right the ship in another limited campaign. His availability dwindled again, pitching just 118 innings, but they were solid ones. He posted a 102 ERA+, his best since number since the excellent ‘75 season, helping the Bombers back to the game’s biggest stage.
They would face off with the Dodgers once again. Hunter lost Game 2 for the second straight year, but any negative memories could be pushed aside after he went seven innings giving up two runs in a Game 6 victory that sealed their second championship in as many years.
It would be the final postseason appearance of his storied career.
With his production and longevity dwindling, as well as his continued arm problems and diabetes diagnosis the year prior, 1979 would wind up being Hunter’s final major league season. He once again set a new low with just 105 innings pitched, and they were fairly easily his worst as a big leaguer, in which he posted a 5.31 ERA and 4.94 FIP amid a 2-9 record. It was also a difficult year for him personally, as well. Scout Clyde Kluttz who recruited him both to the A’s and Yankees suddenly passed away, as did his father Abbott. This was, of course, also the year that Thurman Munson, with whom Catfish was very close, tragically died in a plane crash in August.
According to Hunter himself, ‘79 being his final year in the majors was always the plan:
When I signed my contract with the Yankees, I told them I would play these five years and call it a career no matter what happened. Fifteen years is enough.
He followed through on his word, ending a special big league career after 15 years. He notched a perfect game, collected a Cy Young Award, played a pivotal role for five different World Series championship teams, and was just the fourth pitcher ever to win 200 games before the age of 31. His accomplishments did not go unappreciated, as Hunter was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. He elected to wear a cap with no logo on his plaque, to account for his time with the A’s as well as the Yankees.
A Legacy of Class
Hunter retired at the age of just 33, and did so to a family and passions he cared very deeply for. It was quiet and simple, seemingly the exact way he would want it. He was known as a fairly reserved man, and very humble amidst his tremendous success. Hunter has been credited as a key contributor in the Yankees’ return to success in the late 70s, and helping to bring in winning nature to the franchise.
He was also an important part of the labor movement in baseball. As the first true high-dollar free agency signing, his exit of Oakland and subsequent signing with New York likely signified to other players what was possible. He even felt as though he was “probably the first player who broke it open for other players to be paid what they’re worth.”
In September of 1998, after noticing some newfound weakness in his arm, Hunter sought medical care and was eventually diagnosed with ALS. A year later he would sadly pass away from the disease in his hometown of Hertford, and be buried near the field where his rise to excellence in the game began.
In a tribute to Catfish Hunter, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner appreciated the Hall-of-Famer’s contributions to the franchise:
Catfish Hunter was the cornerstone of the Yankees’ success over the last quarter-century. We were not winning before Catfish arrived. He exemplified class and dignity and he taught us how to win
There is little doubting his accomplishments on the field, and seemingly anyone who crossed paths with him in the game spoke highly of the way Catfish Hunter carried himself in the game and in life. Although his Yankee career spanned just five seasons, the impact his arrival and success had should not be understated. Not only was he among the game’s best pitchers for part of his tenure, but his arrival coincided quite fittingly with the Yankees return to the top of Major League Baseball’s totem pole.
Staff rank: 72
Community rank: 62
Stats rank: N/A
2013 rank: Off
Barns, Bart. “Hall-of-Famer ‘Catfish’ Hunter Dies at 53,” Washington Post, September 10, 1999. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1999/09/10/hall-of-famer-catfish-hunter-dies-at-53/8bba7e36-4a22-4fa1-b360-703b51eab1b7/
Beitiks, Edvins, “Catfish Hunter: A Lifetime of Happy Baseball Memories,” Baseball Digest, November 1991, 72-74.
Lupica, Mike. “47 years ago, Catfish became 1st free agent.” https://www.mlb.com/news/catfish-hunter-first-free-agent-baseball