Baseball Great 'Catfish' Hunter Dies at 53

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

( - Baseball Hall of Famer Jim 'Catfish' Hunter succumbed Thursday to amniotrophyic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease which also claimed the life of the great New York Yankee first baseman in 1941 at the age of 37. Hunter won World Series rings as a pitcher with both the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees.

Hunter, 53, died at his lifelong home in the eastern North Carolina town of Hertford, about 60 miles south of Norfolk, Va. He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Helen, whom he met in high school; three children, Todd, Kim, and Paul; and his grandson, Taylor.

Hunter's stellar career spanned 15 years with the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees, during which his pinpoint control and crafty mix of pitches enabled him to post five straight 20-win seasons, pitch a perfect game, win a Cy Young Award, and earn five World Series rings. His lifetime record was 224 wins and 166 losses, with an earned run average of 3.26.

Although he stood six feet and weighed 195 pounds, the right-handed Hunter was never a power pitcher. He attributed his razor-sharp control to throwing at a hole in a barn door as a youngster, competing with his three older brothers to see who would have to do family chores.

"My three brothers taught me to throw strikes, and thanks to them I gave up 374 home runs in the big leagues," said Hunter, with his typical self-effacing humor, at his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.

Once, after giving up three home runs to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first three innings of the second game of the 1977 World Series, the fans at Yankee Stadium booed him as he trudged to the dugout. "The sun don't shine on the same dog all the time," he told reporters after the game.

His roots may have been in the rural South, but his nickname 'Catfish' was given to him by the flamboyant Charlie O. Finley, who signed Hunter to the Athletics in 1964, then playing in Kansas City. Finley, an innovative showman who encouraged his fellow owners to play more baseball games at night and field their players in colorful uniforms, once suggested that the major leagues use orange baseballs to make them more visible to players and fans. He even made up a legend to go with Hunter's nickname, saying that he once ran away from home and returned with two catfish, which reportedly irritated the ballplayer's mother, who said that her son would never run away from home.

To Finley and his fans, Hunter was Catfish, but in Hertford he remained simply Jim. "Around here we never call him Catfish," a local newspaper editor once said.

When Hunter left the Athletics for the Yankees in 1974 he became the game's first big-money free agent, signing a five-year, $3.35 million contract that was the largest in baseball history at the time. The Yankees were then in the midst of a ten-year slump, not having won a pennant since 1964, but when Hunter retired in 1979, at the age of 33, he had led them to four pennants and two World Championships.

Current Yankee ace Roger Clemens said that Hunter "paved the way" for talented free agents like himself and others. Clemens will reportedly earn $16.1 million over the 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner said that Hunter also paved the way for his team's revival, which has made them one of baseball's best teams again.

"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," Steinbrenner said at Hunter's Hall of Fame induction.

After his retirement from baseball, Hunter became a full-time farmer growing peanuts, soybeans, and corn. He was an avid fisherman and hunter, who kept a kennel of hounds and bird dogs on his 100-acre spread outside Hertford.