Nicknamed Catfish for effect by A’s owner Charles O. Finley when Hunter was signed for $75,000, other stories about the origin of the humble North Carolina farmboy’s moniker are apocryphal. He was 26-2 with five no-hitters in high school, but nearly lost his chance to play pro ball when he suffered a foot wound in a hunting accident. He missed the 1964 season due to surgery, and made the A’s in 1965. From then until 1977, Hunter didn’t miss a start. Named to the All-Star team for the first of eight times in 1966, he first participated in ’67, yielding only one run in five innings, but lost. On May 8, 1968 against Minnesota, he pitched the AL’s first regular-season perfect game in 46 years. (Charlie Robertson in 1922 was the last; Don Larsen‘s came in the World Series in 1956.) Hunter received a $5,000 raise on the spot from Finley.
In 1970, his first season over .500 (18-14), Hunter tied for the AL lead with 40 starts. He then won 21 games each season from 1971 to 1973; his .750 winning percentage (21-7) in 1972 and .808 (21-5) in 1973 led the AL. In 1974 he won the Cy Young Award; his 25 wins tied him with Fergie Jenkins for the AL lead, and his 2.49 ERA stood alone at the top. In each of those four seasons, Oakland won their division, and three times were World Champions. Hunter was 4-0 with one save in seven A’s WS appearances.
Hunter was declared a free agent for 1975 by arbitrator Peter Seitz when Finley failed to pay $50,000, half of Hunter’s salary, to a life-insurance fund. Hunter signed with the Yankees for $3.5 million, by far the largest amount ever paid a player to that point, inspiring others, especially A’s stars, to seek free agency. In 1975, his first season in New York, Catfish went 23-14, tying with Jim Palmer for the league lead in wins and topping the AL in complete games and innings pitched. However, he took the loss in the ’75 All-Star Game. He helped the Yankees to three straight pennants (1976-78) despite declining effectiveness due to arm strain and diabetes. After going 2-9 in 1979, Hunter retired at age 33. Though continuing to assist the Yankees in spring training, his priorities remained on his farm in Hertford, NC.
A good hitting pitcher, Hunter batted .350 in 1971 (36-for-103) and .226 lifetime, with six home runs. He holds Oakland’s all time top spots in wins (161), starts (340), innings (2,456), shutouts (31), and strikeouts (1,520). His World Series marks in five categories rank him among the top ten in history. Soft-spoken and humble, with a dose of country charm, Catfish was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.