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Catfish Hunter dead
Hall of Famer, 53, loses battle with Lou Gehrig's disease
Posted: Thursday September 09, 1999 11:43 PM
HERTFORD, N.C. (AP) -- Hall of Famer Jim "Catfish" Hunter died Thursday, one year after learning Lou Gehrig's disease was the reason he could barely toss a baseball with an arm once famous for pinpoint control. He was 53.
Hunter, baseball's first big-money free agent, died at home in Hertford, N.C., where he was born and raised.
He was unconscious for several days last month after falling and hitting his head on concrete steps. But he improved and was sent home to his Perquimans County farm on Saturday, according to the Rev. Keith Vaughan, a family spokesman.
As the centerpiece of pitching staffs, first with the Oakland Athletics and then with the New York Yankees, Hunter won 224 games, produced five straight 20-victory seasons, a perfect game and a Cy Young Award.
"The bigger the game, the better he pitched," is how Hunter's Hall of Fame plaque at Cooperstown, N.Y., describes him.
"He was a fabulous human being. He was a man of honor. He was a man of loyalty," said Reggie Jackson, who played with Hunter on championship teams in Oakland and New York.
It was last September when Hunter learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brain that control muscle movement. There is no cure for ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease, after another Yankees Hall of Famer who was afflicted with it.
Hunter first noticed the condition in the winter of 1997-98 while hunting near his farm.
"I couldn't lift my shotgun with my right hand," he said. "It was a little bit cool that day, and I thought there was something wrong with me that would go away. But it just kept getting worse."
At first he thought it might be a tick bite, but after repeated visits to doctors in Norfolk, Va., and the Duke and Johns Hopkins medical centers, Hunter got the dreaded diagnosis.
Doctors put Hunter on a drug regimen to slow the disease, but 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."
Hunter also had diabetes and required insulin injections three times a day.
He made a brief visit to the Yankees' training base in Tampa, Fla., last spring, but was barely able to shake hands with old teammates.
Old friends were shocked when they saw him. His arms hung limply at his side. His hands seemed soft and puffy, much different from those he displayed as a powerful pitcher and farmer.
"I'm doing all right," he said at the time. "It's just my hands and arms don't work right."
Athletics owner Charles O. Finley found Hunter in Hertford and made him one of the first building blocks in a dynasty team that won three straight World Series from 1972-74.
Finley gave him the nickname "Catfish" and Hunter went along with it. He loved a joke and when the owner decided all his players should have mustaches, Hunter was one of the first to grow one and collect the $300 bonus.
Hunter came up with the A's in 1965 and punctuated the team's move from Kansas City to Oakland with a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins on May 8, 1968. At the time, it was just the seventh perfect game in modern baseball history.
"He was a big-game pitcher, a consistent pitcher who always kept you in the ball game," said Sal Bando, the third baseman on that Oakland team. "He consistently pitched well in big games. He was a No. 1 starter, and you can't win without one."
Bando recalled Hunter as the ultimate team player, a guy who loved to sit around the clubhouse, spinning stories with a country drawl.
"He was very low key, a very warm person. He treated everybody the same. If you were an extra man or you were a star, it didn't matter. Just a down-to-earth guy," he said.
Bando also remembered how Hunter did not let baseball interfere with the rest of his life. Typical was when the pitcher won 20 games for the first time in 1971.
"He was up by 4 or 5 and went fishing. He got in about noon, showered, went to the ballpark, pitched 10 innings and drove in the winning run," Bando said.
By 1974, when the Athletics won their third straight World Series, Hunter was ready to become a baseball trailblazer. Finley had failed to pay an annuity clause in his contract and the pitcher's grievance went to arbitration. He was declared a free agent, setting off a surreal scene in little Hertford, about 100 miles northeast of Raleigh, where baseball executives arrived to woo him.
Finally, he settled on the Yankees, agreeing to a landmark $3.75 million, five-year contract that was signed on New Year's Eve 1974.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner never regretted the deal.
"Catfish Hunter was the cornerstone of the Yankees' success over the last quarter century," Steinbrenner said. "We were not winning before Catfish arrived. ... He exemplified class and dignity and he taught us how to win."
Hunter was the second Yankees Hall of Famer to die this year. Joe DiMaggio died March 8 at age 84.
In today's baseball economics, Hunter's contract was a small-change deal. But it made him the highest-paid player in baseball history at the time, and set the stage for full-scale free agency, which began after the 1976 season.
"I was probably the first player who broke it open for other players to be paid what they're worth," he said in 1987, shortly after he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
After signing his contract with the Yankees, he became the team's workhorse the following two years, completing 51 of 75 starts and leading it to its first pennant in 12 seasons.
"Catfish was a very unique guy," said Lou Piniella, a teammate on those Yankees clubs. "If you didn't know he was making that kind of money, you'd never guess it because he was humble, very reserved about being a star-type player. We had a lot of fun when he was in New York. There was a lot of give and take, and Catfish was in the middle of it all the time.
"He was a class guy, very humble, very reserved, almost a little bit shy. But he told great stories. He had a heck of a sense of humor. When you play with guys like that, you feel blessed."
The Yankees won three straight pennants with Hunter from 1976-78. When his contract ended, he returned to his beloved Hertford, to his farm and his outdoor life.
Besides his wife, survivors include three children and a grandson. Funeral services will be Sunday in Cedar Wood Cemetery in Hertford, behind the field where Hunter played high school baseball.
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