Hunter got the nickname in 1964 when the 19-year-old pitcher from Hertford, N.C., was signed by the team that was then known as the Kansas City Athletics. Charles Finley, who owned the team, created the persona in a publicity stunt, concocting a story that Hunter once ran away from home and returned with two catfish.
“Around here, we never call him Catfish,'' Ray Ward, editor of Hunter’s hometown newspaper, once said, according to the New York Times. ''We call him Jimmy. Jimmy's mother has been upset about the nickname.”
But the name stuck.
So did Hunter, who never pitched in the minor leagues, instead starting his career directly for the A's in 1965 and finishing with an 8-8 record. Kansas City wasn’t that good at the time, and Hunter’s record was 55-67 in his first five seasons with the team. But he still was named to the American League All-Star team twice.
Once the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968, though, things changed. Hunter helped jump start the revival when he pitched a perfect game on May 8 against the Minnesota Twins. It was baseball’s ninth perfect game and the first for an American League team during the regular season since 1922.
The A’s – a team that also featured Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers -- would go on to win the World Series in 1972, ’73 and ’74. Hunter was 4-0 in seven World Series starts and had a 106-49 record overall in his last five years at Oakland.
Hunter won the Cy Young Award in 1974 when he went 25-12 and had an ERA of 2.49. That would be his last year with the A’s after he discovered a contract violation that went to arbitration and resulted in the pitcher being named a free agent, which was rare in those days.
Of the 24 teams in the major leagues at that time, only the San Francisco Giants declined to bid for Hunter’s services. Gene Autry, the man known as “The Singing Cowboy” who owned the California Angels, even came to North Carolina to make his pitch in person.
“Gene Autry came down here handing out records of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’” Hunter once said, again according to the New York Times. ''That was the biggest thing that ever came to Ahoskie.”
Hunter was eventually lured to New York where he went to work for legendary George Steinbrenner, whose five-year offer of $3.35 million was for five years and included a $1 million signing bonus. The total package was at the time the largest in baseball history.
When he retired at the end of the 1979 season at the age of 33 due to chronic arm problems, Hunter had amassed a career record of 224-166 and had an ERA of 3.26. The eight-time All-Star played on five World Series championship teams.
Hunter, who had been diagnosed with diabetes during spring training in 1978, had a farm in Hertford where he settled and grew soybeans, corn, peanuts and cotton. He was 52 when he was diagnosed with ALS and died a year later in 1999.
Hunter was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1974 and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. He would have turned 72 on April 8.
In recognition of the start of baseball season, the NCSHOF has chosen Hunter as its member of the month. This year’s induction ceremony, which will be held May 4, will feature three major leaguers in Scott Bankhead, Skinny Brown and Jakie May.
Tag(s): Member of the Month