Jim "Catfish" Hunter, whose pitching prowess earned him five World Series rings, 224 victories, a spot in the baseball Hall of Fame and made him the game's first big-money free agent, died at his home Thursday after battling Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 53.
Hunter, like his father a farmer in Hertford, N.C., learned in September 1998 that he had amyothropic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the disease named after another New York Yankee who died of it in 1941.
The way they approached their illness had parallels.
On a day given for him at Yankee Stadium, Gehrig told the assembly that he was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
Said Hunter: "I don't know if it's a bad break. You look at the things you've done in your lifetime and you know that you couldn't have done it without God. Maybe he's telling me I should have done things better than what I did, but you never know. Maybe he'll let me know later, when I'm gone."
Last May, Hunter attended a kickoff function in Hertford for the Jim "Catfish" Hunter ALS Foundation to raise money for research.
To his friends in North Carolina, he was always Jimmy Hunter, in the big leagues and when he was a pitching phenomenon in Perquimans County in 1964 when scout Clyde Kluttz came to call. Kluttz was working for the Kansas City Athletics, owned by Charles O. Finley, who invested $50,000 in Hunter and brought him to the big leagues right away to pitch batting practice and serve in promotional stunts.
In one of those, Finley gave Hunter the nickname "Catfish." In another, Finley had Hunter pose on the lap of aged pitcher Satchel Paige for photographers.
A year later, Hunter, then 19, won his first major league game and a year after that, at 20, made the American League All-Star team in a season in which he finished 9-11.
At 6 feet and 190 pounds, he was never an overpowering pitcher, but won with control.
He reached 20 wins for the first time in 1971 with a 21-11 record and won at least 20 games the next four seasons. In 1974, he was 25-12 and won the Cy Young Award. In 1968, he pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins, the seventh perfect game in modern baseball history at the time.
And the A's, by then in Oakland, dominated baseball with the likes of Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Rollie Fingers and a group that played hard, on and off the field.
"We were the long-haired, mustached gang from Oakland," Hunter said. "We were lucky just to be there, was what they said."
They were talented, argumentative and united in only two things: their desire to win and their dislike for Finley, the A's frequently penurious, always cantankerous owner.
Both of those traits helped usher in baseball's free-agent era.
In 1974, Hunter won an arbitration ruling against Finley, who had been late with a $50,000 deferred salary payment. The ruling made Hunter a free agent, and set up a stream of club owners and general managers to Ahoskie, N.C., where his lawyer, Carlton Cherry, entertained their offers.
Billions have been spent on player salaries since in ever-increasing increments.
"He paved the way for me," Roger Clemens said. "I watched him as a kid and didn't appreciate the type of pinpoint control he had."
Steinbrenner on Thursday said, "He exemplified class and dignity and taught us how to win."
At his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1987, Hunter thanked Finley and Steinbrenner, both of whom were in the audience.
"Mr. Finley gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues, and Mr. Steinbrenner gave me enough money to retire after five years," Hunter said.
His first season with the Yankees was his last of five consecutive 20-win years. He was 23-14 for the 1975 Yankees and pitched for them until 1979, when he retired at 33, with a 224-166 record and a 3.26 earned-run average. He was on World Series-winning teams with Oakland in 1972-74 and New York in 1977-78.
Many believed Hunter's retirement was premature.
"I lost my daddy, Thurman [Munson, who died in a plane crash] and Clyde Kluttz," he said. "That was too much."
He went back to the farm, working 600 acres of corn, soybeans, peanuts, cotton and wheat in season and hunting with dogs he named after former teammates during the fall and winter.
It was on one of those hunting outings in the winter of 1997-98 that he began to notice problems holding a shotgun.
"It was a little bit cool that day, and I thought there was something wrong with me that would go away," he told the Associated Press in an interview in the spring of 1999. "But it just kept getting worse.
"I was kind of hoping it was a tick bite. I'm always around dogs and stuff. Three or four doctors sent my blood off to check for a tick bite, but it always came back negative."
Trips to doctors in Norfolk, Va., 60 miles away, and at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., yielded no clue, and then the doctors at Johns Hopkins made the diagnosis: ALS.
"Right then," Hunter said, "I couldn't even talk."
ALS, which has no known cause or cure, is a neurological disease that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brain that control muscle movement, causing progressive paralysis and leading to death, usually within five years. Drugs can only retard the process.
Within a few weeks, Hunter's arms became useless. His wife, Helen, his high school sweetheart, administered the thrice-daily insulin shots he had required for diabetes that had been found in 1978.
"I always used to get up early and leave her in bed," Hunter said. "Now I've got to wait until she gets up to get me dressed. I'm putting a lot of work on her and she's been strong, but once in a while we sit there and cry together."
Those limp arms were unable to arrest his fall on Aug. 8, 1999, when he hit his head on concrete steps outside his home. He was unconscious for three days after that accident but improved enough to be sent home Saturday, according to the Rev. Keith Vaughan, a family spokesman.
Only a week before the fall, he had appeared at an International League baseball game in Norfolk, Va., where his 3-year-old grandson, Taylor, had thrown out the first pitch while Hunter watched alongside.
To the end, Hunter remained philosophical about his lot.
"It's one-on-one when you're a pitcher," he said. "It's just the hitter and you. I'm not worried about the guy on first or third, just the hitter. If you get the hitter out, you're gonna get the other guys out and you're going to have a chance.
"A lot of people worry too much about different parts of the game or different parts of the disease. You should take it one day at a time and go from there.
"A farmer is the biggest gambler in the world. Everything he does is a gamble. You don't know if he's going to get his crop up, you don't know at harvest time if he's going to get the right prices for anything. He's got to depend on everybody else. I've got to hope the doctors can prolong this thing until they find a cure. I just sit back and wait."
And then time ran out.
A funeral was scheduled Sunday in Cedar Wood Cemetery in Hertford, behind the field where Hunter played high school baseball.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
CATFISH BY THE NUMBERS
5: World Series rings (3 with Oakland, 2 with N.Y. Yankees)
8: All-star selections
1: Cy Young Award
3.26: Earned-run average
224: Major league victories
30: Complete games in 1975 (AL best)