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Jim Hunter

May 10, 2010

I’m thinking about perfection today. Have you ever had something perfect? I’m not sure why, maybe because I’m also thinking about grandmothers today, but what comes into my mind is the memory of a pair of boots. On Christmas in 1974, when I was six, I opened a present from my grandmother that was a pair of boots that I’d wanted. I don’t know why I was so crazy about them but I was. It’s the only pair of boots I’ve ever owned in my life. I was amazed that she knew that I’d wanted them. I’d never told her.

“How did you know?” I said. I was ecstatic, and since I was ecstatic she was happy, too.

“We grandmothers have ways,” she said, smiling. She had a low, scratchy voice from a lifetime of smoking Parliaments.

I went to sleep that night with my boots by my bed so I could look at them as I fell asleep. I wore them the next day and kept peeking back at them as I walked.

When I was that young, objects had a kind of magic about them. When I started to collect baseball cards heavily a few months after getting my new boots, I brought to those cards the same ability to be wowed.

This 1975 card of the ace of the Oakland A’s surely wowed me, first pulling me in by the imagined game of catch occurring between the pitcher and the person he was staring in the eyes. The thrill of playing an imaginary game of catch with a major leaguer increased with the intimations of immortality on the back of the card. First, there was the unprecedented focus of the trivia question on the subject of the card. In most, if not all, of the other 1975 back-of-the-card trivia questions, the information did not concern the player on the card, but Jim Hunter rated special treatment, the question asking, “What is Jim Hunter’s nickname?” The answer is upside down below a cartoon of a mustachioed player holding a bewhiskered fish. And after turning the card upside down to learn that Jim Hunter is in fact Catfish Hunter, the perfect baseball name, I turned the card rightside up again and scanned the numbers, the wins piling up in a satisfying repetition of twenties. I didn’t know a lot about baseball yet, but I knew the difference between winning and losing, which was the difference between good and bad, and I learned early on that a pitcher with twenty or more wins in a season had a kind of monumental solidity unmatched by anyone else in the game. And Catfish Hunter won twenty games year after year after year.

***

My brother and I had a baseball encyclopedia in our room. In it, Catfish Hunter appeared on one of the shortest of the many lists. His entry to that list came a few months after I’d been born, when he threw a perfect game.

Yesterday Hunter was joined on that short list by another member of the A’s, Dallas Braden. After pitching his perfect game, Braden embraced his grandmother, Peggy Lindsay, who had raised him after his mother died of skin cancer when he was in high school.

Braden had been in the news earlier this season for chafing at Alex Rodriguez stepping on the mound that Braden was using. After that game, Rodriguez implied that Braden was a nobody and should keep his mouth shut.

You know who will disagree with the opinion that you’re a nobody? Your grandmother. If anybody tells you you’re nobody, ignore it and go with what your grandmother would say. Your grandmother knows.

After Braden proved yesterday that he never was and never would be a nobody, his grandmother had a message for the Yankee star and his image of a rigid hierarchical world with select celebrities on top, perfect, and everybody else below.

“Stick it, A-Rod!” she said, smiling.  

***

When you’re very young, you believe there are good things, maybe even perfect things, and you grab onto them with all your might. You don’t want them to change.      

A few days after I got my new boots, the wonder already wearing off, Catfish Hunter signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees, making this card a lie before it ever reached my hands. When I look at this card now, I don’t see myself as part of the game of catch. I see a turning point of sorts. The 1970s turned right here, in this 1975 Catfish Hunter card. The ace of one of the best-ever baseball dynasties is pretending to play catch. He waits for the ball to return. His throwing partner will not return the ball but will point out toward the sky beyond the outfield stands. The game as you’ve known it is over. You’re free to go. It’s a liberation. It’s an erosion of roots. A blessing, a curse. Free to go. 

23 comments

  1. There seems to be no performance by Bob Dylan on YouTube of “Catfish,” a song that Hunter reportedly detested.

    Although you can hear Jimi Hendrix perform “Catfish Blues” with an exciting still photo behind it:


  2. Yeah, no luck with a video, but for those who haven’t heard it, you can hear Dylan’s “Catfish” here.

    http://popup.lala.com/popup/505247596315856670

    I don’t think Hunter’s beef was musical – I think he detested being called “Million Dollar Man” and the general idea of having a song about him. I think it fits in well with folk/blues tradition to write a song about a star ballplayer.

    Catfish Hunter was the first big star I ever had an autograph from. Too bad that arm couldn’t hold out a few more years.


  3. That is the greenest card you’ll ever see in your life. It looks very alive and Mayish. It really lifts my spirits.


  4. I thought A-Rod had a nice quote about Braden’s perfecto. I saw this in the Oakland Tribune:

    “After learning of Braden’s performance Sunday in Boston, where the Yankees were playing the Red Sox, Rodriguez told ESPN: ‘I’ve learned in my career, it is much better to be recognized for all the great things you do on the field. Good for him, he threw a perfect game. And better yet, he beat the Rays.'”


  5. My first impressions of Catfish Hunter growing up were purely visceral: the colorful Athletics uniform, one of the greatest nicknames in the history of sports, and, of course, the moustache he sprouted along with the rest of the A’s moustache gang. He was like a great book with an eye-catching cover: the cover got your attention, and, happily, the book rewarded a close read. And speaking of books, I’m reminded of Sparky Lyle’s memoir, “The Bronx Zoo,” which recounts the Yankees’s improbable comeback during the 1978 season, including Catfish’s role. Although Catfish’s skills were in decline at that point, I recall Lyle admired his gutsy pitching.


  6. Catfish Hunter epitomized the phrase, “Right Place/Right Time”. He’s probably the most overrated pitcher of the last 50 years.

    He pitched most of his career in the best pitcher’s park in the A.L. He was on the two best A.L. teams of the 70’s. He left for the Yankees right when the A’s started to struggle. He had a very good offense/defense on Oakland. He had a good bullpens on Oakland/Yankees. He still pitched in a time period when pitchers got 36-40 starts a season. The writers still looked at W/L record which is the most overrated pitching stat in baseball.

    He basically only had 3 very good/great seasons, ’72-’74-’75. I still don’t know how he got into the HOF.


  7. “…it fits in well with folk/blues tradition to write a song about a star ballplayer.”

    Dylan’s idol, Woody Guthrie penned “Joe Dimaggio Done it Again” in 1949, casting the active ball-player-as-folk-hero, just like legends of yore such as Billy the Kid and John Henry, although it didn’t see release until 2000, on the Mermaid Avenue II compilation. (Billy Bragg set Guthrie’s lyrics to music in 1995).

    Catfish was another of those bigger than life characters to me as a kid, and it seemed as if his arrival in NY sort of presaged the tipping of the scales wherein the Yankees would become THE pre-eminent franchise in town. Of course the Mets’ front office didn’t do themselves any favors in simultaneously ignoring free agency and purging the roster of character, culminating with the Seaver trade in 1977…after which the Yankeees truly owned the city, and the Mets became completely mired in irrelevance and obscurity.

    Damnit.


  8. Ramblin Pete,

    That’s a pretty good summary of the Mets/Yankees in those years. I’ve always thought of Hunter as the bridge between the Murcer-Yankees (1969-1974) and the Reggie-Yankees (1977-1981).

    You’re right about the Mets totally missing the boat on the free-agency of the late 70’s-early 80’s. They were actually quite hostile to the idea, which was really dumb in hindsight considering they were playing in the biggest market in America. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Joan Payson had lived another 5-7 years.


  9. Catfish? Overrated? Being one of four pitchers in MLB history with five consecutive seasons of 20+ wins would seem to indicate otherwise. And if his success was a result of his team and home park, why isn’t Vida in the hall?


  10. To clarify: I don’t think Vida should be in the hall. I’m saying that Vida was Catfish’s equal, if not better, in terms of talent. He pitched on the same team, was backed by the same offense and defense. So why wasn’t he winning 20 every year?


  11. According to my dad, if he had his way I would have been named Catfish… or Spike. My mom confirmed his story, but also pointed out that he NEVER would have gotten his way. How different would my life be if I had grown up as a Catfish? or a Spike? I think I would be a heck of a lot tougher either way.


  12. The problem with Wins is that it’s a Team accomplishment. There are way too many variables to make it an accurate assessment of a pitcher’s talents. Take this year, Zach Grienke has a 2.51 era, 10th in the A.L. and is 0-4. Tyler Clippard has 6 wins in only 23 innings pitched in relief and is leading the Majors in wins. Here’s some of the problems with W-L.

    1-Team offense: It’s a lot easier to win games with the 1976 Reds than it was to win with the 1980 Mets, ask Pat Zachery.

    2-Team Defense: It’s a lot easier to win games with B.Robinson, Belanger and Grich than it is with Steve Henderson, Frank Tavares, and Doug Flynn.

    3-Bullpen: If you leave a game and your bullpen blows the game you get a no-decision.

    4-Run Support: Case in point Steve Trachsel had an era of 4.97 in 2006 and pitched horribly all season. He won 15 games, his second highest total of his career because the Mets averaged 5.5 runs per game when he pitched.

    5-Ballpark: Pitching in pitcher’s parks is less stressful than pitching in a hitter’s park.

    6-Luck: sometimes pitchers just get lucky.


  13. As far as Vida Blue goes, He did win 20 games 3 times, He won 18 games twice. So if he won 4 more game in those two seasons he’s a HOF?

    Hunter was awful with the Yankees in ’77-78 but won 21 games because he got awesome run support. He wasn’t great in ’73 but won 20 games because he got 5.6 runs per game.

    A better indicator for pitchers’ performance is ERA+ which is just era adjusted to league and park factors.

    Catfish Hunter’s era+ is 105. 100 being a league average pitcher, so Hunter was basically 5% above average for his career.


  14. It’s not really correct to say Catfish was awful in 1978. He was awful in ’77 and not great in the first half of ’78. However, he came back to have a tremendous 2nd half – his pitching in August was one of the main factors in the Yankee comeback.

    In August ’78, J. Hunter: 6 GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 6-0, 1.64 ERA, 0.886 WHIP


  15. Glad you mentioned that about Catfish in 1978, @blankemon. Sparky Lyle sang his praises in The Bronx Zoo.


  16. He was awful for 2/3 of the 1978 season, he had a 5.36 era by Aug 1, but then like you said he had a good August-September. He only pitched 118 innings in ’78, which was a low total back then so he was also very lucky to have Gossage and Lyle in the bullpen. So overall Catfish had a 102 era+ which is slightly above league average for the season.

    Catfish had tremendous run support per game for most of his career especially with the Yankees. In 1978, he had 5.1 runs per game which was among the league leaders in run support.

    1977 he had the most runs per game of his career 5.8, which masked the awful year he had.

    1976 he had a 98 era+ but got 4.3 runs per game in support.

    1979, he was just awful.


  17. johnq, you are selling that August run short. That wasn’t a good August, that was a great August, and for a team that was coming back from 14 1/2 games in mid-July, it was a huge boost. As great as the Yankee pen was that year, he finished 3 of those 6 starts in August. Didn’t Hunter have some oddball physical therapy to enable that run? Something like having his pitching arm manipulated while he was unconscious?

    The biggest trouble I see with Hunter is that he was essentially washed up at 31. He had that aforementioned hot 6-8 week period in the second half of ’78, but after ’76 he was toast. It would have been interesting to see what he would have done with the Yankees had he aged more like some of his contemporaries, given the Yankees offense and bullpen.

    The guy spent so much time in the spotlight and the World Series, it’s not at all surprising his stardom eclipsed his accomplishments. However, there’s no denying the man was a star, and his signing in NY was a very big deal in the scheme of the free agent era.


  18. He was good in August of 1978, I can’t say he was great. He had a 17/9(1.8) strikeout/walk ratio that month, which isn’t anything outstanding. He had 3 very good games in 1978, Aug 1, Aug 6, and Aug 22. 3 games Aug 11, Aug 16, Aug 27th could have gone either way.

    Aug 11, was a 5inning rain shortened game against the Orioles that he won. He had 5h, 1hr, 1er, 1k/1bb.

    Aug 16, he pitched 6 innings 2k/1bb, 3er, 7h, 1hr, and then Lyle/Gossage saved the game.

    Aug 27th, he pitched 7 innings, 0-k/1bb, 5h, 1hr, 2er, and then Gossage saved the game.

    Hunter was very reliant on his fielders because he didn’t get a lot of k’s, and for some reason those Yankee teams of 1976-1980 don’t get nearly enough credit for the defense.

    Nettles, Dent, Randolph, and Rivers were Outstanding fielders. Chambliss and Munson were well above average.

    He was surrounded by another great group of fielders when he was on the A’s, Campanaris, Bando, and North were outstanding fielders during the early-mid 70’s. Rudi, Green, Jackson were above average during the early to mid 70’s.

    He was great for the Yankees in 1975, but from 1976-1979 he was a below average pitcher for most of that time period. From ’76-79 he had a 4.07 era with a 91era+ 315k/184 k/bb ratio. But the time was very good/great so his w/l record masked a lot of his play.


  19. run support, schmun support. as far as pitchers go, all the facts in the world don’t matter except for one — wins. the pitcher’s primary job is to give up at least one less run than his team scores. for a comparison, i always look to grant fuhr, edmonton’s superstar goalie during their cup runs in the mid- to late-’80s. his gaa ranged from 3.31 to 4.25 (and was generally closer to 4), with a save percentage around .880, hardly hall of fame numbers, but he was the goalie you wanted between the pipes in the clutch.

    check out his record for one seven-year period: 28-5, 13-12, 30-10, 26-8, 29-8, 22-13, 40-24. that’s part of why he was elected to the hall in his first year of eligibility.

    in the long run, it’s great having a low era, a lot of strikeouts, and other good stats, but winning is the name of the game. would you rather be an 11-11 pitcher with a 2.25 era or a 22-7 hurler with a 4.50 era?


  20. Using wins is a horrible way to judge a pitcher’s performance. A w-l record is a relic of the 19th century.

    There’s hundreds of examples of pitchers pitching poorly or league average and actually having good w-l records. Conversely there are hundreds of examples of pitchers having great seasons with mediocre or bad W-L records.

    Case in point Jim Hunter in 1973. He won 20 games while posting a league average era+.

    Jon Matlack had a 2.41 era, 149era+ in 1974 and had a Losing record, 13-15. The 1974 Mets were horrible, Matlack was great. Matlack’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was 8.6. He rates as the best pitcher in 1974 and should have won the Cy Young. His 1974 season was the 13th best pitcher’s season from the 1970’s. It’s the 23rd best pitcher’s season from 1970-2009. But all his w-l record says is he was slightly below average.


  21. all of that is well and good and obviously true, but you still haven’t answered my question: would you rather be an 11-11 pitcher with a 2.25 era or a 22-7 hurler with a 4.50 era?


  22. You have to put those seasons in context. What season? 1906? 1933? 1968? 2000? What was the runs per game average of that particular season? What ballpark did this pitcher play in? Astrodome, Oakland, Dodger or Coors, Citizen’s Bank or Fenway? How good was the team’s defense? Was it the ’73 Orioles? or the ’79 Mets?

    W/L record is too arbitrary on too many factors to show how productive a pitcher performed.


  23. I love this card too (and his 76 card as well), but what I remember about this card is the feeling of disappoinment that it was not a Yankees card! That was always one of the annoying things about Topps in the 1970s. Your team made a big offseason acquisition and you had to wait another whole year to see the player on a card in the uniform. With the Yankees at least Burger King produced cards in 1977, 1978, and 1979 that tended to be a more accurate representation of the team on the field.



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