As we all know, 1979 marked the final season of Thurman Munson’s career as a Yankee—the end result of one of the game’s worst tragedies. A number of other Yankee also played their final games in pinstripes that summer, though for far less heartbreaking reasons. Dick Tidrow left in May, traded to the Cubs in an ill-fated deal for Ray Burris. Mickey Rivers left in August, traded to the Rangers for Oscar Gamble and prospects. After the season, longtime Yankee mainstay Roy White moved on, opting to continue his career by playing in the Japanese Leagues.
A future Hall of Famer also left the team that winter. Jim “Catfish” Hunter decided to call it quits, his right arm having buckled under the stress of so many innings and far too many sliders.
Like most great pitchers, the 33-year-old Hunter owned great inner pride. He had no interest in hanging on as a mop-up man wallowing in long relief. The refusal to accept life as a fringe pitcher probably came as no surprise to people who had followed Hunter since his early days with the Oakland A’s. Prior to the 1971 season, A’s owner Charlie Finley had angered the pitcher when he offered him a mere $5,000 raise, which Hunter considered inadequate after winning a career-high 18 games in 1970. Finley preferred emphasizing Hunter’s 14 losses and his extreme reliance on closer Jim “Mudcat” Grant, who had rescued eight of Catfish’s wins with late-inning relief work. (Yes, it was a different baseball world back then.) Hunter didn’t appreciate the suggestion that he had depended so heavily on Grant to enjoy a successful season. “Mudcat was a good relief pitcher last year,” Catfish told The Sporting News, “one of the best I’ve ever seen. But I didn’t like it when some sportswriters suggested that he get half my salary this year. He did his job and I did mine.” Without minimizing the efforts of one of his teammates, Hunter had provided a thoughtful defense of his own contributions to the team.
Yet, Hunter didn’t take himself too seriously. He enjoyed playing practical jokes, which served to loosen up a clubhouse that was sometimes sidetracked by tension and mistrust. He never really liked being the center of attention, which was exactly where he found himself in 1964, when a horde of scouts had initiated an all-out raid on his home in Hertford, North Carolina, and its population of 2,012 residents. Scouts considered the young Jim Hunter one of the best high school pitchers in the country. Finley, at the time the owner of the Kansas City A’s, succeeded in signing Hunter to his first professional contract. The following spring, the A’s wanted to send the 19-year-old Hunter to the minor leagues, but his surprising maturity convinced management that he should remain with Kansas City.
Hunter quickly impressed the veteran A’s players with his demeanor, both on the pitching mound and in the clubhouse. He eventually established himself as a model teammate. One day in 1974, Hunter presented a greeting card to little-known backup infielder John Donaldson, who was about to complete his fourth year of service time, making him eligible for a major league pension. The card, signed by the Hunter family, read as follows: “From the four of us for your fourth.” Overwhelmed by the unique gesture, Donaldson publicly acknowledged Hunter’s thoughtfulness. “That shows what kind of class Hunter has,” Donaldson told The Sporting News.
Hunter’s unalterable good-heartedness contributed to his popularity, whether with the A’s or with the Yankees, with whom he signed an historic five-year, $3.75 million contract after the 1974 season. Just as he did in Oakland, Hunter bonded well with almost all of his Yankee teammates, no matter their personality. Whether it was the quiet and mild-mannered Ron Guidry or the intensely fiery Lou Piniella, Hunter found a way to connect with other players in the Yankee clubhouse. Given Hunter’s humility and sense of humor, it was easy to see how he did it.
About the only thing that changed about Hunter during his career was his facial appearance. With the A’s, he began as a short-haired, clean-shaven All-American boy; by the time that he joined the Yankees, he had graduated to the mustachioed, long-haired look preferred by many players of the 1970s (and as seen in his final 1979 Topps card, ). While the appearance changed, the inner character remained rock-solid stable. Teammates like Reggie Jackson, who played with him in both New York and Oakland, observed the same down-to-earth personality that he had always featured, unaffected by the amount of money that he was paid. And to those friends he had made outside of baseball, he remained Jimmy Hunter of Hertford, North Carolina.
It remained that way even when Hunter left the Yankee organization in the early 1990s. He had been working as a spring training instructor, but then-Yankee manager Buck Showalter did not think highly of Hunter’s work. The two men had words, Hunter did not like what he heard, and he quickly left the Yankee organization. Many of Hunter’s former Yankee teammates wondered how Showalter could have treated the beloved Hall of Famer so coldly.
Hunter remained out of the public spotlight until 1998, when he was diagnosed with ALS, more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” The following year, he suffered a bad fall, which occurred because of his restricted mobility. In August of 1999, I remember one of Hunter’s neighbors telling me that he had been making progress during his late summer stay in the hospital. It was slow progress from a recent head injury suffered in that nasty fall, but progress nonetheless. A few days later, I heard that the doctors had been successful in getting him out of bed. On Saturday, September 4th, he was released from the hospital. By the following Thursday, Hunter had passed away—at age 53. That’s how it is sometimes with patients who are fighting a dreaded disease, whether it’s cancer, or in this case, ALS. They make strides, and then maybe some more strides, but the disease takes them away all too quickly.
Hunter battled ALS as well as he could. He did the same with diabetes, another cruel affliction, which forced him to take injections three times a day. He would have it no other way. That’s because one of Hunter’s many attributes was his tenacity. He certainly needed loads of it to make up for his lack of arm strength and absence of an overpowering fastball. Though he had pedestrian stuff, he became the unquestioned ace of the Oakland staff before bringing respectability to a developing Yankee rotation. In 1975, he logged 328 innings and a stunning 30 complete games, easing the transition until Guidry was ready to become the unquestioned anchor in 1977 and ‘78.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Hunter succumbed to ALS. He would have turned 63 this year, a reminder of just how young he was when the disease claimed him. He’s not remembered as often as Munson, partly because he split his career between the Bronx and Alameda County. But Jimmy Hunter was an important reason why following those Yankees—the Yankees of 1975 to 1978—became such a worthwhile pastime.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.