How You Gonna Keep Catfish Down on the Farm After He's Seen New York? It'll Be Easy

The crowd of autograph seekers outside the ball park began squeezing in until one teenage boy, irritated at being elbowed by an over-zealous father trying to push his son forward, yelled, “Hey, take it easy. I don’t want to get crunched.”

That made sense to the burly, sport-shirted man who had been standing at the center of the crowd, methodically signing “Jim Catfish Hunter” on baseballs, albums, scorecards and sundry scraps of paper. “I’m not going to stand here and get crunched, either,” he said, and thereupon maneuvered himself free and went home.

The newest member of jockdom’s royalty shrugs off the multimedia notoriety that has shadowed him since he signed a New York Yankees contract worth $3.75 million last December. That was $3 million and change more than the previous richest contract in baseball’s 105-year history, awarded the reluctant slugger Dick Allen. So unprecedented was Hunter’s off-the-field coup that even in an especially cruel April torn by news of war and recession, Americans turned curious eyes toward New York, where Catfish was to open the home season against Detroit. Observers at Shea Stadium (which the Yankees are sharing with the Mets while their home arena is rebuilt) found Hunter, a 29-year-old farm boy from Hertford, N.C., to be patient, cooperative and good-natured, if less than ecstatic about the celebrity his salary demands. He insists the Yankees purchased only his right arm, not his soul.

“Back in Oakland,” he says, referring to his previous incarnation as the world champion A’s top pitcher, “there would be 6,000 people in the stands for a game and afterwards in the clubhouse maybe three reporters. Here the stands are packed, I see reporters every place I go, and I even seem to be finding a whole lot of kinfolk I didn’t know I had before. I don’t really mind it but I want to be able to get away once in awhile, too.”

While he was with the A’s, otherwise known as owner Charlie Finley’s traveling Marat/Sade show, Hunter had developed into contemporary baseball’s peerless pitcher, winning 106 games over the last five seasons, including 25 last year. But while many of his teammates were talented and eccentric, Hunter was only talented. Of his unremarkable style, player-manager Frank Robinson of the Cleveland Indians observed, “Catfish is not a strike-out pitcher. You hit the ball when he pitches, but you don’t get a hit. Before you know it, the game is over and you still don’t have a hit.”

Hunter came to the Yankees in a classic demonstration of the laws of economics. Late last year an arbitration board ruled that Finley had defaulted on his contract with Hunter and the pitcher was a free agent, eligible—contrary to all of baseball’s tradition of identured servitude—to bargain with any team he chose. With exactly one certified 20-game winner available on the open market and 22 pennant-hungry teams wanting him, the supply and demand curves for Hunter crossed somewhere in the fiscal promised land.

Catfish signed a complex five-year contract with the Yankees on December 31, and, while he was in no way a better pitcher than he had been a month before, he was quickly a lot better known. New York’s roster of current sports heroes includes Joe Namath, the swinging manchild, Tom Seaver, the suave businessman-athlete, and Walt Frazier, the supercool epitome of soul. So the city known as the Big Apple—most especially its sports-writers—was ripe for a clever but homespun country boy, a kind of grammatical Dizzy Dean.

Though Hunter will occasionally talk about “hittin’ one of my hounds up ‘side the head if they act up,” he is articulate, literate and far from a Grand Ole Opry caricature. Nonetheless, he doesn’t mind the down-home image.

“New York?” he says. “Well, it’s interesting. But I’m not really one for the shows and the museums and all. I don’t mind being called a country boy because that’s what I am, and to me that means I know how to live. Out in the country you can get fresh air, you can grow your own food, you can just go off by yourself and relax and think if you want. I told the Yankees and my lawyers that during the season I’ll do what they want and make my appearances, but when the season’s over I want to be able to go home to hunt and work on my farm.”

His 113-acre Hertford spread, where he grows peanuts, soybeans and turnips, is not far from where he was raised as the youngest of eight children of Abbott Hunter, a tenant farmer. Jim had an authentically rural, up-at-6-a.m. boyhood. But his nickname, though picturesque, is a fabrication of urbane Charles O. Finley. Finley decided, when he signed Hunter to a $75,000 bonus in 1964, that the 18-year-old pitcher was not colorful enough. The glib owner promptly invented a heartwarming story about Jim running away from home when he was 6 to spend the day angling for catfish. Hunter is good-natured about the origin of his nickname, but adds, “When someone calls out ‘Hey, Catfish’ from the stands, they don’t know me, because everybody down home calls me ‘Jimmy.’ ”

Nonetheless, Hunter’s Yankee teammates call him “Catfish,” “Cat,” “The Fish” or “Goldfish” (a recent refinement), except for catcher Thurman Munson. He calls Hunter “You big piece of garbage,” which is what Munson calls everybody.

After a spectacular career as a schoolboy pitcher—including one 12-inning game for Perquimans County High School in which he struck out 29 batters—Hunter was signed by the A’s. They were taking a chance, because Jimmy Hunter had been shot in the foot by his brother Ray in a hunting accident early that year and had lost a toe. When he started slowly in spring training before the 1965 season—his first—bonus-baby Hunter was introduced to the world of baseball critics. He still remembers, word for word, a Sporting News headline that asked, “Should A’s Toss Catfish Back?”

“That really got me down,” Hunter recalls. “When Moe Drabowsky, who was with the A’s then, saw me moping around, he said, ‘You read it, didn’t you?’ He told me then to never read what anyone writes about me, and I’ve followed his advice. I let my wife do the reading.”

Hunter ended up with a respectable 8-8 won-lost record that year for the A’s, a bumbling last-place team then in Kansas City. By the time Finley took the team west in 1968, Hunter had established himself as one of the American League’s steadiest pitchers. (He still credits the A’s four pitching coaches he played under—Tom Fenwick, Cot Deal, Bill Posedel and Wes Stock—with much of his success.) That year Hunter pitched a perfect game—only the 11th game in history in which the pitcher did not allow a single batter to reach base. Three years later, when the A’s took their first Western Division championship, he won 21 games and did the same in 1972 and 1973.

His record last season gave him 161 career victories, making Hunter a candidate for the 300-win mark reached by only 14 pitchers. It also earned him the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher. Having won four World Series games with no losses as Oakland took three straight world championships, Hunter seemed to be the kind of man with a golden arm that not even the disputatious Charlie Finley would consider getting rid of.

But Finley and Hunter had begun to clash, first over a 1970 loan from Finley that was unexpectedly recalled, then over the World Series rings Finley gave the team in 1973, which Hunter thought were of substandard quality. Midseason last year, Hunter’s home-town lawyer, J. Carlton Cherry of Ahoskie, N.C., informed his client that Finley was not fulfilling the terms of his contract. Hunter was hardly working for slave wages; his contract called for him to receive $100,000 a year. Of that, however, $50,000 (according to Hunter) was to be paid to an insurance company as part of a deferred income plan to minimize taxes. Finley realized belatedly that his own tax situation would be aggravated by paying his pitcher that way, says Hunter. “My lawyer kept sending Finley letters asking him to live up to the contract, and Charlie finally told him, ‘Hell, no.’ When I first joined the A’s, I thought you could believe Finley when he promised you something. But the last three or four years he’s been a different man.”

Finley has insisted all along that their squabble was the result of a misunderstanding. But after last season, Hunter took his case to an arbitration board representing the Players Association and baseball club owners. The board surprised everyone by ruling that Finley had defaulted, and he is appealing in the courts.

Meanwhile, Hunter is a Yankee and, to Finley, a nonperson. When someone asked Carl Finley, an A’s publicity man and Charlie’s cousin, whether Hunter’s defection has hurt attendance at Oakland games so far this year, he said, “I didn’t hear anybody even mention his name.”

After he became a free agent, several clubs made passes at Catfish. He was won over by the Yankees, he says, by New York’s relative proximity to his Dixie home, the lucrative endorsement market and the team’s chances to win the pennant, which his arrival improved considerably. The money, says Catfish benignly, was just a sweetener.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, convicted of violating political contribution laws, has been quarantined from contact with his athletes for two years by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, so Yankee general manager Gabe Paul worked out the $3.75 million contract. It includes a $l50,000-a-year salary for five years plus bonus, insurance payments and a $50,000 annual pension for 15 years. “At one point,” Hunter says, “Gabe said to me, ‘I don’t give a damn how much money we give you; I’ll be dead by the time you get most of it, anyway.’ ” (Paul is 65.)

With Hunter’s wife Helen and their two children now financially secure, his goal is to increase his holdings in North Carolina—but cautiously. “It seems to me that prices have gone up a lot around home since people heard I was looking for land,” he says. “I’m not going to pay any more than it’s worth.”

Yankee money doesn’t seem to have gone to Hunter’s shaggy head in other ways, either. Even after he signed for his bonanza, townsfolk in Hertford say he continued to come around for some quiet parlor sitting or headed out deer-and squirrel hunting with his dogs. He owns 25 of them.

Hunter seems to have fit in well with his new teammates, respective tax brackets notwithstanding. “He works hard, he doesn’t ask any special treatment, and he hasn’t caused any problems for me at all,” says Yankee manager Bill Virdon. “He’s a nice guy, and the other players know that with him here, they all have a lot better chance to get into a World Series and make more money themselves.”

Alas, in his first game, Hunter went nine innings but lost to the Detroit Tigers 5-3. He handled the reporters afterward more successfully. Having given up two long home runs, he confessed, “They told me the ball doesn’t carry well here, but I sure proved that wrong today.” When asked what he would be doing in five years, Hunter spit tobacco juice into a paper cup, smiled and said, “You never know. I may just be back in North Carolina, looking at the rear end of a mule.”

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