Yankees Magazine: Catfish Hunter Faces His Toughest Battle

By Marty Appel


You’ve spent your whole life depending on your arms and your hands. You grew up, the youngest of nine, bonding with your dad and your brothers by hunting and fishing. You were given a gift of being able to hold a baseball and throw it just about as good as anyone who ever lived. You retired to farm life and the inner peace of working your land and driving your tractor, while taking your own boys hunting and fishing.

And suddenly, life has played a cruel joke on you. In the spring, when a young man’s thoughts turn to baseball, the hand strength and the arm strength began diminishing, and you know something is wrong. By the fall, you cannot button a shirt, let alone lift a rifle. You can only accompany your boys into the woods, as you wonder what this “motor neuron disease” really is.


But in the back of your mind, you know. You are Jim “Catfish” Hunter, and you starred for the Yankees, and you can’t star for the Yankees without learning about the greats who preceded you, and you can’t learn about Lou Gehrig without discovering the disease that found him – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. The disease, we now know, was first identified in 1869, the year professional baseball was born. But it took its more popular name – Lou Gehrig’s Disease – when it claimed the life of the Yankees’ “Iron Horse” in 1941.


Only 5,000 in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year, and in 1998, one of them was Catfish Hunter, the Hall of Famer, who, one might argue, taught the Yankees of the 1970s how to win – a cultural infusion still very much in place today. Thurman Munson was a winner as he learned his trade. Hunter brought it with him from Oakland, and spread it among his teammates. Now, that majestic self-confidence that weathered him through the joys of the baseball wars and the challenges of a 20-year battle with diabetes are going to be called to the front lines again.


He visited Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in November and received confirmation that his name and Lou Gehrig’s were to be linked. And he was told that there is no known cure or means of control, just as there is no known cause. It is random and it is cruel. Care and treatment have barely moved forward in the 60 years since Gehrig got it. There are few good days ahead.


Catfish Hunter was a 20-game winner, World Series hero and Cy Young Award winner in Oakland, but not until 1975 did he become a household name in America, as the game’s first major free agent. He was a free agent by reason of owner Charlie Finley’s failure to make an on-time payment to him, not through the system we now know, but he went out and got a $3.5 million, 5-year deal from the Yankees in the most watched bidding war the game had ever seen. And by establishing the value for players on the open market, he opened the gates for the Players Association to actively pursue free agency for all the following year.


With all the pressure that came with his enormous contract, Catfish came to New York with a maturity and a poise far beyond his 29 years. As small as the dollars seem today, (only $250,000 a year in salary), consider how huge his statistical accomplishment was in that first season. He started 39 games and completed 30 of them, hurling 328 innings. He had a 23-14 record, a 2.58 ERA and seven shutouts. The stats were, seemingly, from another era, an era of Johnson or Mathewson or Alexander.


Catfish could take his lumps and just get ‘em the next time. There was never a whine out of him, even when his arm failed him in the end. He could even admire some of the long home runs he surrendered, a product of his faithful control, allowing hitters to dig in and swing hard. But he usually got the better of them, and if he didn’t, there would be another day.


When the ballpark was his office, he was all business. One spring training, when I was the team’s public relations director, I had the good fortune (?) to room next to Hunter and Lou Piniella. One night, they returned to the hotel rather late, and rather loud. I thought “uh oh, this could be a long night,” and indeed it was. Their voices raised, the two of them proceeded to argue back and forth on into the early morning, seldom agreeing, but firmly making their points, as only a hitter and a pitcher could. What was this important discussion in the middle of the Fort Lauderdale night? How you pitched to every hitter in the league! (“Curve ball on oh-and-two? No #$##@$ way!”) In the fading days of roommates, it was, in its own way, funny and educational and maddening all at once.


The Yankees signed Catfish on a sleet-driven New Year’s Eve in 1974, at a hastily called press conference in the old Parks Administration Building near Shea Stadium, which housed the team’s executive offices during the remodeling of Yankee Stadium. He had flown to New York from his farm in Hertford, N.C., accompanied by his country lawyers, Cherry, Cherry and Flythe, and by Yankee scout Clyde Klutz, who had signed him first for Oakland, and who was instrumental in selling the concept of the Big Apple to the farmboy. He arrived without having agreed – a handwritten draft was prepared en route by one of the Yankees limited partners. He signed the agreement with a 19-cent ballpoint in Gabe Paul’s office, and then headed for the press conference. A huge media throng was there, and we were prepared to tell them “sorry, go home, happy New Year,” if the deal had fallen apart. But it didn’t.


The pen is still on exhibit in the Baseball Hall of Fame.


ABC-TV arranged for Hunter to arrive in spring training two months later in an armored car, ready for his Howard Cosell interview, the mark of the big time. Catfish was a good sport about it all. He lost his first three starts, which had everyone except him considerably concerned, but he straightened out, and in his second season, the Yankees were back in the World Series for the first time in a dozen years. His presence was more than a coincidence, for he would add three World Series rings to the three he had earned in Oakland. Along with his All-Star Game rings, Catfish would house them as only he could – resting on the antlers of a deer head in his home.


When I telephoned Catfish a few days before his trip to Johns Hopkins, he knew what was coming, but he sounded like the same old unflappable leader that he always was. He even told a joke about it. “Tell Piniella to keep kickin’ his cap and throwing those bases,” he said, “I’ll need a good laugh next summer.”


He is facing the most difficult time of his life, with the love of his family and the support of his fans. These will not be easy years ahead and he knows it. But something tells me that Catfish Hunter is going to handle this better than anyone ever has.