In 1975, the New York Yankees were assembling the pieces for a team they hoped would return to baseball dominance after a dry spell of 12 seasons. One of those key pieces to this late ’70’s Yankees run in the making was starting pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, who signed as a free agent with the Bronx Bombers on New Year’s Eve, 1974.
Having already won three straight World Series titles with the Oakland Athletics, the Yankees signed Hunter to a then record contract worth $3.35 million. With him, Catfish brought a big pitching resume to the Bronx which included five straight 20 win seasons from 1971-1975, and the ninth perfect game in MLB history. He was also only the fourth pitcher in MLB history to win 200 career games before the age of 31.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner once referred to Hunter as “the cornerstone of the Yankees franchise” in the late ’70s, a pretty big compliment since those teams were loaded with a lot of talent, including a guy named Reggie Jackson who is remembered for belting three homers in the memorable game 6 of the 1977 World Series.
In his five seasons in New York, Catfish probably had his best season in pinstripes in 1976 when he put up 17 wins and lead the Yankees in complete games and innings pitched. He was named to the American League All-Star Team for the fifth year in a row, and the eighth time in his career.
Arm trouble and health issues began to plague Hunter during the 1978 season with a diagnosis of diabetes. The illness along with chronic arm trouble and fatigue forced Catfish to retire from baseball at the way-too-young age of 33. Remarkably, he compiled a 224-166 record in his shortened career, and was well on his way towards hitting the illustrious 300-win milestone. Catfish retired with a career ERA of 3.26 and 2,012 career strikeouts. He was elected to the MLB Hall-of-Fame in 1987.
Upon his retirement from baseball, Hunter returned to his roots and his farm in Hertford, North Carolina. He was an avid outdoorsman and loved to hunt. Unfortunately, in the winter of 1997-’98, Hunter was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Schlerosis (the diseased now commonly known and named after former Yankees great Lou Gehrig). Hunter died in 1999, a year after his diagnosis.
For those who knew and remembered Yankees baseball from the mid to late ’70s, Jim “Catfish” Hunter was a huge piece of the puzzle. As George Steinbrenner said, he was indeed “the cornerstone of the franchise” during those years.