Thirty years ago yesterday, James Augustus Hunter, was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, getting 315 of the 413 ballots cast, just 76.3% of the vote, barely surpassing the required 75% for induction.
In the eight year period from 1971 until 1978, James ‘Catfish’ Hunter won 149 games and lost just 79, a .654 win/loss percentage; played in the Post Season seven times; played in six World Series’, five of which he was on the winning team, three times in succession from 1972-1974, with the Oakland Athletics and twice with the New York Yankees. He started 268 games in that period and finished an amazing 130 of them, with 29 shutouts, was named to the All Star Team five times and won the Cy Young Award in 1974. He averaged 19 wins and 10 losses per year, 34 starts, 16 complete games and 254 innings pitched per year.
From 1971 until 1974, with the Oakland Athletics, he won 20 or more games four years in a row for a total of 88 wins and just 35 losses and went 4-0 while leading Oakland to three consecutive World Series’ titles.
There have been pitchers who had better careers in the history of baseball than Catfish Hunter but few, if any, have had a run of consistent success like Catfish had in those periods. His plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame reads
‘ The bigger the game, the better he pitched. One of baseball’s most dominant pitchers from 1971-76, winning over 20 five straight years, Compiled 224-166 mark with 3.26 ERA before arm trouble ended his career at age 33.’
Jim Hunter was born in Hertford, North Carolina on April 8, 1946. He led his Perquiman’s High School teams to state championships in baseball, football and track and was signed by the Kansas City Athletics on June 8, 1964, shortly after he led his high school team to the state championship.
He played for the Athletics team in the Florida Instructional League in 1964, compiling a 3-5 record with a 3.76 ERA, starting eight games and pitching five complete games, one of them a shut out.
The following season, he made the huge jump to the Majors and made his debut on May 13, 1965, in relief. He finished that year with an 8-8 record and a 4.26 ERA but had three complete games and two shut outs in 20 starts. Not a particularly good start for a future Hall of Famer but not bad for a 19 year old with no Minor League experience. Over the next two years, 1966 and 1967, with a Kansas City team that won just 136 and lost 185 to finish seventh and tenth in the American League, he won 22 and lost 28 with a 3.30 ERA and 17 complete games and five shutouts in 60 starts.
On May 8, 1967 he pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in Oakland at age 22, only the seventh perfect game in the Modern Era.
The Athletics moved to Oakland in 1968 and, during his first three years in Oakland, Catfish won 43 and lost 42 with a 3.51 ERA, 30 complete games and 10 shutouts.
In 1971, led by 25 year old Hunter with a 21-11 record, a 2.96 ERA, 16 complete games and four shut outs, the A’s won the American League West with a 101-60 record. In the ALCS, they were swept in three games by the Eastern Division Champion Baltimore Orioles and Catfish started and lost Game, 5-1, despite pitching a complete game.
Over the next three years, the A’s won the pennant and World Series each year. In 1972, he won 21 and lost 7 with a 2.04 ERA, finishing fourth in the Cy Young Award balloting. In the ALCS, against Detroit, he started Game 1, going eight innings and giving up just one run on four hits in a game the A’s eventually won in 11 innings 3-2. In Game 4, Catfish started again and lasted 7 1/3 innings, giving up just one run on six hits in a game the A’s lost in 10 innings, 4-3.
In the World Series that year, which the A’s won in seven games against the Cincinnati Reds, he won Game 2, going 8 2/3 innings and giving up one run on six hits and started Game 5, leaving ahead 4-3 in the fifth in a game the A’s lost 5-4 but he came back to get the win in Game 7, relieving in the fifth and pitching 2 2/3 innings giving up just one run as the A’s won the game and the series.
In 1973, he had a sensational 21-5 record with a 3.34 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting as the A’s won the West again. In the ALCS, he started and won Game 2, 6-3 and four days later, came back to throw a complete game five hitter in Game 5 to send the A’s to the World Series again. In the Series, he started Game 3, which the A’s won in 11 innings, 3-2, going six innings and giving up just two runs on seven hits. In Game 6, with the A’s down 3 games to 2 and facing elimination, he started and held the Mets to one run on four hits through 7 1/3 innings and got the win as the A’s won, 3-1 to extend the Series to seven games. The A’s won Game 7, 5-2, to take their second consecutive Series.
The A’s went all the way again in 1974, with Catfish winning 25 and losing 12 and posting a league leading 2.49 ERA with 23 complete games of 41 starts and 6 shutouts. He was named the Cy Young Award winner. In the Playoffs, which the Athletics won, four games to two, against the Orioles, he started and lost Game 1, leaving in the fifth, behind 6-1, after giving up a homer to Brooks Robinson and a grand slam to Paul Blair. He came back in Game 4 and pitched a three hit shutout for seven innings and the win to take the A’s to the Series.
In the Series, in which the A’s beat the Dodgers in five games, Hunter came in in relief with two outs in the ninth and the tying run at the plate in Game 1 and struck out Joe Ferguson for the game and the save. He started and won Game 3, holding the Dodgers to one run on five hits as the A’s won 3-2 to go up four games to one.
After the 1974 season was over in the disposition of a dispute over Finley refusing to pay some benefits in his contract, he was declared a Free Agent and signed with the Yankees for $3.75 million for five years and became the first Free Agent.
In his first year with the Yankees, he won 23 and lost 14 and led the league in complete games with 30 and innings with 328. He had a 2.58 ERA and 7 shutouts and finished second to Jim Palmer in the Cy Young balloting. He went on to help the Yankees to three World Series appearances in the next four years, two of which they won. He won 63 and lost 53 in his five years in New York but the toll on his arm and his diabetes that reduced his effectiveness those last years caused him to retire at 33. He was one of only four pitchers to win 200 games by the age of 31.
After the 1979 season, in which, at age 33, he won just two and lost nine with a 5.31 ERA, Catfish was forced to retire due to his diabetes. He passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease on September 9, 1999. Despite his career being cut short, Catfish Hunter had one of the most productive careers of any pitcher in Major League history.