Hall Pass Spotlight:
Jim “Catfish” Hunter
NCSHOF MEMBER (Class of 1974)
By HELEN ROSS
The nickname was a figment of the imagination of Charlie Finley, the master showman and owner of the Oakland Athletics.
But no matter what you called him – Jimmy, when he was growing up in Hertford, North Carolina, or Catfish when he pitched for the A’s and New York Yankees — Jim “Catfish” Hunter was one of the best of his generation.
Courtesy of MLB.com
Hunter finished his career with 224 wins, including the American League’s first perfect game in 46 years, and just 166 losses. Hunter had five World Series rings, was an eight-time All-Star and won the 1974 Cy Young Award.
Hunter’s three brothers taught him to pitch when they had free time between doing their chores on their family’s farm in eastern N.C. He was a versatile athlete, earning all-state honors in football and winning the state 440-yard dash as a senior at Perquimans High School, but it was clear that baseball was his future.
A Thanksgiving Day accident in 1963 nearly derailed his career, though. On the way home from a hunting trip, his brother Pete’s gun discharged and Hunter ended up with more than 40 shotgun pellets in his right foot. He lost his little toe, suffered several broken bones and eventually had two different operations to remove the pellets.
Major league scouts didn’t know how he would respond to the injury. One, though, Oakland’s Clyde Kluttz, a North Carolina native, stayed close and eventually signed Hunter, who posted a 13-1 record as a high school senior, including a perfect game.
Hunter pitched for the A’s from 1965-74, winning 161 games and closing out his tenure there with four straight seasons of 20 or more victories. He and Finley got into a contract dispute, though, when the owner failed to put half his yearly salary into an annuity. Arbitrators ruled in the pitcher’s favor, and he became the first major free agent of the modern era.
Every team except for the San Francisco Giants sent a representative to the Ahoskie, N.C., office of Hunter’s lawyer, trying to sign the pitching ace. He ended up inking a $3.35 million, five-year contact with the Yankees, where he was reunited with his good friend, Kluttz, and could be closer to his Hertford roots.
Hunter won 63 games for the Yankees but began to suffer from arm fatigue and diabetes. He retired when his contract was up after the 1979 season and returned to North Carolina, where he and his high school sweetheart raised three children on their farm. He was diagnosed with ALS in 1998 and died a year later at the age of 53.
When Hunter was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987, he had the opportunity to choose whether Oakland or New York would be memorialized on his plaque. Interestingly, he declined to pick one organization over the other so there is no logo on his hat on the bronze marker.
Hunter was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1974.
A Passing to Note
The NCSHOF lost one of its own this month (June 2023) when Marion Kirby, the long-time football coach at Greensboro Page High School, died at the age of 80.
Courtesy Greensboro News and Record
Kirby’s Page teams compiled a record of 219-51-5 during his 23 years at the helm. The Pirates won NCHSAA 4-A state titles in 1980, ’83, ’84 and ’85, as well as 14 conference crowns. Kirby also coached seven years at Edenton Holmes and his overall record as a head coach was 278-65-8.
Kirby was inducted into the NCSHOF in 2013. Among the players Kirby coached was Haywood Jeffires, who was a first-round draft pick of the Houston Oilers and was enshrined in the NCSHOF in 2016.