Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Catfish Hunter

Posted on July 26, 2009 by Dean Hybl
Catfish Hunter

Catfish Hunter

In recognition of just how infrequent it is for a pitcher to throw a perfect game, the Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Week is a hurler who in 1968 became the first American League pitcher in 46 years to experience perfection.

Jim “Catfish” Hunter was already a two-time All-Star when he threw his perfect game for the Oakland A’s against the Minnesota Twins. However, that performance served as the springboard to his emergence as one of the top pitchers of his era.

Depicting the workman-like attitude typical of pitchers of that time, Hunter averaged 37 starts and 16 complete games per season between 1967 and 1976. In 1975 he completed an amazing 30 of his 39 starts.

Given the nickname “Catfish” by then Kansas City Athletics owner Charlie Finley, Hunter was barely 18 when signed by the Athletics in 1964 and made his major league debut just a year later at age 19.

Hailing from Hertford, North Carolina, Hunter’s career almost didn’t happen.

A highly touted athlete, Hunter was injured in a hunting accident during his senior year. It resulted in the loss of one toe and in the lodging of shotgun pellets in his foot.

The accident scared away some major league clubs, but not Finley, whose team was based in Kansas City before he moved them to Oakland in 1968.

The A’s weren’t very strong in the late 1960s and despite making All-Star appearances in 1966 and 1967 and pitching a perfect game in 1968, Hunter was 55-64 in his first five seasons.

However, that began to change in 1970 as the young A’s started to emerge as a contender in the American League.

Hunter was 18-14 in 1970 and the following year posted the first of five-straight 20+ victory seasons.

The A’s won three straight World Series titles from 1972-74 and Hunter was 67-24 during those seasons.

The 1974 season was his apex as Hunter won the AL Cy Young Award while registering a 25-12 record and 2.49 ERA.

Following that season, Hunter was among the first players in the game to be declared a “free agent” and became the highest paid pitcher in the game when he signed with the New York Yankees.

Hunter earned his paycheck during his initial campaign in New York. His 30 complete games were the most in the league and he tied for the league-lead with 23 victories.

However, the toil of a decade of constant work started to take a toll on Hunter the following season.

He went 17-15 in 1976 as the Yankees reached the World Series before losing to the Cincinnati Reds.

Over the next three seasons, Hunter went 23-24 and was no longer a fixture of the starting rotation. He retired following the 1979 season.

With a 224-166 career record and 3.26 ERA, some questioned whether Hunter was deserving of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Surprisingly, he didn’t have to wait long as Hunter reached the magic 75% mark in only his third year of eligibility.

Hunter died following a battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1999, but he has been immortalized in music and the movies. He was the subject of a 1975 song by Bob Dylan called “Catfish” and has been referenced in a number of movies including The Bad News Bears and You, Me and Dupree.

If you had a favorite athlete growing up that you would like to see featured as the Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Week, send me a nomination by e-mail.

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