Catfish Hunter and the Hall of Fame

I have been working on a formula for rating baseball players. One of the players I was interested in was Catfish Hunter, a pitcher from my childhood. When we were voting in the Gallery of Renown elections (our own baseball hall of fame), Bob Gregory, the founder and organizer of the Gallery, was a lot more enthusiastic about Catfish than the rest of us. I decided Bob had some good points so I was interested in how Catfish would do. So far, I have rated 264 pitchers (I am rating the best pitchers I can find) and Catfish Hunter rates 94th on the list. Not bad, he is in the top half and I wish I could say I was one of the top 100 pitchers of all time. However, it is not hall of fame or Gallery of Renown quality.

Catfish Hunter has 540 points according to my formula. The cutoff point for the Hall of Fame I came up with is 580 points. Right now, there are 62 pitchers above the cutoff line. I don’t foresee Catfish ever getting over that line. However, is that the only thing we should use. Catfish certainly was famous in his day. He seemed to always be involved in a major story, even from a young age. I was a kid, but it seemed I always knew who Catfish Hunter was.
It started in the 1967 All-Star game. The game was tied 1-1 after 10 innings Catfish Hunter came in to pitch the 11th inning. He pitched 4 scoreless innings. In those days everyone knew the National League was the stronger league. I would have thought Hunter would have pitched against the bench of the National League All Stars late in the game. However, in the 14th he retired, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron in a row, three of the greatest players of all time. Finally, in the 15th inning Tony Perez hit a home run off Catfish and the National League won 2-1. The press made a big deal out of this and it made a huge impression on me at eight years old. At that time Catfish was only 21 years old.

The next year Catfish Hunter pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. I didn’t really hear too much about this at the time, but I read about it a couple of years later. A perfect game is a rare feat as there has been only 23 pitched in the major leagues. The Twins had two hall of famers in their lineup Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew. They also had Tony Oliva and Bob Allison two strong hitters. Catfish Hunter earned his perfect game.

When I started watching the game of the week the main announcer was Curt Gowdy. Curt like to tell stories and he always told the story of how Catfish Hunter got his nickname as he was actually Jim Hunter. One day he played hooky and went fishing. When they found out he wasn’t in school everyone came looking for him. Soon he came home with two big Catfish, thus the nickname. I must have heard that story about 100 times from Gowdy.

In 1971, Catfish’s team the Oakland A’s grew strong enough to win the division. Catfish won 21 games. Winning 20 games is considered an excellent season. The A’s had a new young pitcher named Vida Blue who was a sensation and won 24 games. I heard or read someone say that Blue was great, but everyone knew the real ace of the staff was Catfish Hunter. The ironic thing is I have Vida Blue 74th on my pitching list, comfortably ahead of Catfish. The A’s played the Baltimore Orioles for the American League Championship and lost all three games.

Catfish won 21 games again in 1972. The A’s made it to the World Series. In the World Series, Catfish pitched great and won game 2. He didn’t pitch as good in game 5, but left with the lead, but the A’s lost. The Series came down to game 7. Whoever would win would be World Champs. Hunter was put in relief in the fifth inning with the score 1-0 A’s. There were two men on, and the Reds scored one of them to tie the game. The A’s scored two runs in the top of the 6th to take the lead again. Catfish pitched two scoreless innings before giving up a Pete Rose single in the 8th. Rose would eventually score to make the score 3-2, but the A’s held on from there to win the World Series. Catfish Hunter got credit for the victory giving him two wins in the Series and the prestige of winning a game 7. Curt Gowdy was still telling the story of how Catfish got his nickname.

In 1973, for the third straight year, Catfish won 21 games, even though he didn’t pitch as well. However, not many had noticed as wins was a big part of how pitchers were evaluated in those days. The A’s won their division again and faced Baltimore in the playoffs to go to the World Series. Catfish won the second game and pitched a shutout in the fifth and deciding game to get the A’s to the World Series. He won game 6 of the World Series to keep the As alive and the As won game 7 and again were World Champions. Curt Gowdy was still telling the story of how Catfish got his nickname.

In 1974 Catfish had his best season. He won 25 games, the earned run title and was voted the Cy Young Award as the American League’s best pitcher. That year I had to go to with my parents to Sears during the first game of the American League playoffs. You can guess where I wanted to be. Sears had about 100 TVs (slight exaggeration) and all of them was on the ball game Oakland versus Baltimore. The pitchers were Catfish Hunter and Mike Cuellar. To me it seemed like forever. I was 15 years old and the As and Baltimore always seemed to win and two of their best pitchers were Hunter and Cuellar. However, the good days for both was soon ending. Cuellar (who is 151st on my list) was already 37 had his last good season. He would have one more decent season and retire after 3 more seasons. Catfish would develop arm troubles.

Catfish would lose that game but won the fourth game after pitching 7 scoreless innings to put the A’s in the World Series. In game one the A’s had a 3- 1 lead with one out to go and their relief act Rollie Fingers on the mound. However, he gave up a home run and a single as he was pitching in his fifth inning and was probably tired. Al Dark, the A’s manager put Catfish Hunter in the game. This was a big deal to use the team’s best starter to relieve in a save situation this early in the series and this added to the Catfish legend. Catfish struck out Joe Ferguson to win the game. Three days later Catfish won game 3 to put the A’s up in the World Series 2 games to 1. The As would win the next two games of the World Series to win their third World Series in a row. They were the first and so far, only non-Yankee to accomplish this feat. Curt Gowdy was still telling the story of how Catfish got his nickname.

After the season Catfish Hunter became a free agent. This is how Wikipedia describes how he became a free agent:

On February 11, 1974, Hunter agreed with the A’s on a two-year, $200,000 contract with a clause stipulating that $50,000 payments be made to a life insurance annuity of his choosing in each of the two seasons. After Finley refused to make payment on the annuity after discovering he had to pay $25,000 in taxes which was due immediately, the breach of contract dispute was brought before an arbitration hearing on November 26, 1974.[6] Twenty days later on December 16, arbitrator Peter Seitz decided in favor of Hunter, officially making him a free agent. Hunter recalled being scared after he was declared a free agent. “We don’t belong to anybody”, he told his wife.

Everyone wanted Catfish on their team, but the Yankees had the most money, so they won. He had a great first season with New York. He won 23 and was 2nd in the Cy Young voting. However, Curt Gowdy had to change his story. It seems Charlie Finley the owner of the A’s had told Hunter to tell this story about catching the Catfish and getting the nickname. This didn’t slow down Gowdy, he told the story with the addition about as many times as he told the original story.
In 1976, Hunter struggled even though the Yankees won the pennant. He won 17 games in the regular season and was 1-2 in the post season, but his arm was sore. The Yankees lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

In 1977 he started only 22 games and didn’t pitch that well. He didn’t pitch at all in the playoffs and didn’t pitch as well in his only World Series start, but the Yankees won the World Series.

In spring training in 1978 he was diagnosed with diabetes. He had a poor start to the season and by the end of July he won 3 and lost 4 and had an earned run average (ERA) of 6.51. Then he started to pitch like the old Catfish. He went 9-2 in August and September and got his ERA down to 3.58, which was a little above average. However, considering the first four months of the season it was darn good. The Yankees made it to the World Series again and started game 2. He pitched OK but lost 4-3. The Yankees then won 3 in a row to go up 3 games to 2. One more win and they would win the World Series. Catfish Hunter got the start in game 6. Hunter pitched a solid game winning 7-2 and the Yankees won the World Series for the second year in a row.

It was Hunter’s last big moment. He didn’t pitch well in 1979 and retired after the season with a record 224 wins and 166 losses. In 1987, in his third year of eligibility Catfish Hunter was elected to the hall of fame. Catfish Hunter died in 1999 at the age of 53.

So, what do you think, was he a hall of famer, despite his record? It was a real good record, but he doesn’t quite make the qualifications of a hall of famer in a lot of analysis.

1 Comment

  1. I should point out that Catfish was injured in the 1973 all-star game (his leg was broken by a Billy Williams line drive) and missed several weeks. I remember he was 15-3 going into the game and came back to go 6-2, but I don’t know if he was any less effective after the injury than before.

    I can echo your memory about how famous he was, though, for sure. Catfish was as famous as any pitcher in the game, and there were some very famous names in his heyday.


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