Wednesday, August 11, 2010

#7 - Jim Hunter

So the first regular card of the set, pennants and all, is Catfish Hunter, which I like because nobody was a more emblematic star player of the early to mid-Seventies than he was. So this is the typical card layout of the set: team colors represented by the border and the pennants, those latter emblems sporting the full name of the subject's team. The player's position and name filled in the balance of the writing on the front of the card. 1974 would be Catfish's best year and would also cement the A's as one of the best dynasties ever. In the '73 set he had a special card that told the whole "Catfish" yarn. I thought finding out later that the story was a scam invention by Charlie O Finley - Oakland's owner at the time for you young folks - so he could justify the use of colorful old-time nicknames on his stars was pretty hilarious. I love the nickname, actually. I think Catfish went along with it because he didn't give a damn.

Oakland was in the Series in '73 (and '72 and '74), and Hunter was a big reason they got there. He pitched a ton of innings and was a control guy, not a lot of strikeouts per nine innings (he was always on the list of most absolute, but that was because of his innings). He also gave up a lot of homers, which he really didn't sweat. He was definitely an entertaining guy, able to handle the media really well as well as the special chemistry of the team and its owner, and then slip back to his farm down south. '73 was some year for Hunter: he'd won 15 games by the All Star game and then broke his thumb in it trying to barehand a comebacker. That almost enabled the Royals to grab the division while taking Catfish out of the line-up for about a month, but both Hunter and the A's came back by winning a bunch in mid-August and again in late September. Given how he was rolling that year, it is quite likely that minus the injury Catfish would have had his biggest season in '73. In his three full months that year he went 4-2 twice and 6-0, so adding on the lesser of those months as devil's advocate gets him to 25-7 for the year. He really did roll at an opportune time for his team.

Hunter grew up in Hertferd, NC, where he was an excellent high school pitcher, going a combined 26-2 his junior and senior years with five no-hitters, two of them perfect games. He'd been high on just about every team's radar but his snior year had part of his foot shot off in a hunting accident which made a bunch of scouts run away. But a local guy, Clyde Kluttz, a former big league catcher - had been scouting Catfish for years and stuck with him through the accident. When Catfish's high school career ended in the spring of '64 Clyde's team, Kansas City, signed him to a bonus baby contract of around $75,000. After signing he played one more season of American Legion ball and then was dispatched by the A's to the Mayo Clinic where some shrapnel was removed from his foot from that hunting accident, so no more baseball for him that year.

Since Hunter was a bonus baby he joined the KC roster right away and never pitched in the minor leagues. Things went a little slowly the first couple years but started popping a bit in '66 and '67 when he was an All-Star and began reporting improved ERA's and in '68 when he evened his record for the first time and threw a perfect game. Initially Catfish was primarily a fastball guy and he would average around six or seven strikeouts a start. But he pretty quickly became a control guy, would generally walk very few batters, and would rely on now-Oakland's strengthening defense as he put the ball in play a lot. '69 was a bit uneven but beginning in '70 Catfish became a big winner, returned to the All-Star game on an annual basis, and averaged over 20 wins a season for his duration in Oakland. In '71 he won over 20 for the first time while dropping nearly a run off his ERA and had a huge year at the plate, hitting .350 with twelve RBI's. In '72 his ERA fell by another run and he ld the AL in winning percentage. '74 was Catfish's Cy year as he went 25-12 with a 2.49 ERA and only walked 46 guys in 318 innings; his wins and ERA led the AL. Prior to the '74 season Catfish had signed a contract with Oakland that deferred half his salary to be invested in annuities. Towards the tail end of the season it was discovered that owner Charlie O hadn't made the agreed-upon deposits into those annuities and as a result had voided the contract. That allowed Catfish to become a free agent just after his biggest year and in a fit of bidding from just about every MLB team, he signed with the Yankees for $3.2 million over five years, which was a significant uptick to what anyone else was making playing ball back then.

The New York team Hunter joined was on its way but didn't quite have the pop that Oakland had but Catfish was able to post a first year in NY that was only a modest discount to his prior one, going 23-14 with a 2.58 ERA while leading the AL in innings and with 30 complete games. In '76 the Yankees got all the pieces to win the AL pennant but while Catfish was again an All-Star (for the final time) he showed signs of vulnerability as his record fell to 17-15 and his ERA popped a run. That all came home to roost the next season-plus as Catfish went a combined 12-13 with an ERA over 5.00 as he missed time to both shoulder ailments and diabetes (and perhaps to the early onset of ALS) and in between posted some not very good post-season numbers. But in '78 when the Yankees came from more than 15 back and battled Boston down the stretch, Catfish posted his last hurrah and from August 1 went 9-2 with a 2.23 ERA before winning the Series clincher against LA. After a '79 in which he was bedeviled by the deaths of three people who were very close to him - his dad, Clyde Klutts, and Thurman Munson - Catfish retired with a record of 224-166 with a 3.26 ERA, 181 complete games, 42 shutouts, and a save. A very good athlete, he hit .226 with six homers and 51 RBI's for his career. In the post-season he pretty much matched his regular season numbers, going 9-6 with a 3.26 ERA, four complete games, and a shutout in his 22 games, winning five rings.

Hunter retired to run his farm back in NC and do lots of hunting and fishing. He was elected to the Hall in '87. He would get officially diagnosed with ALS in the late Nineties and passed away in '99 at only 53. Catfish was supposed to be a good guy and I can't believe he's been gone 11 years now. There was a story on how he'd split after the season and leave his car on the West Coast for one of the team employees to use and then pick up the tab for the guy's travel expenses. I like those stories.

The back of the card is, again, the same standard setup that was on the first Aaron card. The cartoon is pretty lame since we already know the nickname from the autograph. The stats clearly show a guy at the top of his game. Catfish would be one of a handful of pitchers to win 200 games by his 30th birthday, which I think was the primary argument for his Hall of Fame inclusion. His perfect game was the first in the AL since Don Larson's Series one and the first regular season one in 46 years in the AL. Topps liked to skip years on some stats, mentioning Catfish's from '72, which might imply his ones from '73 were bad. They weren't: 2-0 vs. Baltimore with a 1.65 ERA, 1-0 vs. the Mets with a 2.03 ERA. Not bad.

Lastly, normally a guy with the stats of Catfish would get a milestone card, at least one that ended with a zero. Here, he gets a seven. My guess is that for this set, the first regular card was considered a tribute, so it was not a snub.

No comments:

Post a Comment