He stands unsteadily at the foot of a beautiful staircase. Its pine handrails are supported by 78 posts, each post a Louisville Slugger, each Slugger game-used by a Hall of Famer. The staircase ascends to a small attic that is floor to shoulder with baseball memorabilia, but from where he stands, gazing up, it really resembles a stairway to heaven.
"I go up there every once in a while and look at old pictures," says Jim (Catfish) Hunter, who now lacks the energy to climb these stairs off the living room of his small brick home in Hertford, N.C., unassisted. "The ballplayers, some of 'em, I don't even know who they are anymore. But I'll look and look and say to myself, Oh, yeah, that's so-and-so...." And the boys in his attic begin to stir.
Twenty years ago to the day, Hunter's friend and batterymate with the New York Yankees, Thurman Munson, was killed in a plane crash. "It's today?" Hunter says, coldcocked by the anniversary. "God." The air goes out of him, and he falls silent. Then a smile fissures out from beneath his white mustache. "I got the last picture of Thurman in uniform," he says. "It was the day before he got killed. He fouled a ball off his foot. I was jumpin' up and down in the dugout, screamin' like a dawg, imitatin' him, and a photographer took a picture: It's Thurman lookin' at me like, You stupid son of a bitch."
Catfish Hunter, who was once thrown into a bar in Chicago (the police wanted him off the street) and then thrown out of the bar he'd been thrown into—"Damn, we couldn't go anywhere" he says of himself and his Oakland A's teammates—thinks today's ballplayers are just slightly duller than tournament SCRABBLE. "We went out and raised hell," he says. "Five or six of us always went out together: Me, Lindblad, Sal, Gene, Dave Hamilton, Glenn Abbott. Geno always ordered the same thing Sal did, and Sal would always say it was because Geno couldn't read the menu."
Munson is gone. Paul Lindblad, 58, Hunter's roommate for 10 years in Kansas City and Oakland, moved to the Peach Tree Place nursing home in Weatherford, Texas, two years ago, his memories taken by Alzheimer's disease. Hunter himself can't raise his hands, much less hell: He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—Lou Gehrig's disease—diagnosed only 10 months ago but swiftly rendering his muscles useless. Hunter, a Hall of Famer, says he receives less mail today than he did before the diagnosis became public last November," 'cause people know that I can't sign anymore."
His arms hang like empty coat sleeves, both palms splayed backward, as if he has concealed a coin in one of them and is asking you to guess which hand it's in. "My arms and legs don't work like I want them to," he had said hours ago, after descending his concrete front stoop to greet me in the driveway, where I extended a hand he couldn't shake.
Six days from now Hunter will fall from that front stoop while saying goodbye to a visitor, hit the back of his head on the concrete and be rushed to intensive care; he remains hospitalized but is in fair condition and undergoing rehab.
But on this 100° day he repairs safely to a wooden swing beneath a large shade tree on the property he purchased in 1969 with a $150,000 loan from A's owner Charlie O. Finley. The Finley A's, who won three consecutive world championships from 1972 to '74, remain the last baseball team to three-peat and the only club other than the New York Yankees to do so. "The '74 team was our best," says Hunter, who won 25 games and the American League Cy Young award that season, after which he became baseball's first de facto free agent and its first instant millionaire.
He's wearing shorts, and a spider is slowly scaling his right leg. "Would you get him for me?" Hunter asks. I carefully flick the spider off his thigh and apologize, disingenuously, for putting him through this, for imposing, for strip-mining him of his memories. But Hunter won't hear of it. "I don't get tired of this," he says in a thick east Carolina drawl that turns tired into tarred. " 'Cause it brings back good memories, all the good times we had together, my teammates and me."
So where was he? Oh, yes. "The '74 Oakland A's," he says, "was one of the better teams that ever played baseball...."