Straight to the Majors: Catfish Hunter
Over the extended weekend of the Field of Dream series the Yankees played against Garrett Crotchet, a relief pitcher for the Chicago White Sox who throws hard, pitches well, and has yet to ever play a game in the minor leagues. After getting drafted 15th Overall in the 2020 MLB Draft, he signed, and went straight to the majors.
This got me wondering about what other players were who went straight to the MLB, of which there have been 22 since the MLB Draft was implemented in 1965. Over the next few weeks there are 11 players who have played for the Yankees while making their professional debut at the MLB level.
Today’s player is: Catfish Hunter
Road to the Show:
Before the MLB draft was implemented in 1965 there was a system in place to sign amateur free agents to play professional baseball. This system required that if a player was signed to a contract larger than $4,000 then they had to spend 2 years on the MLB roster, and if not the signing team would lose their rights to the player. This system was called the bonus rule and the players who came to the MLB through it were known as “bonus babies”. Catfish Hunter is one of those players.
Coming out of Perquimans County High School, Jim Hunter was born the youngest of 8 children on a small farm in Hertford, North Carolina. During his childhood he learned that in order to succeed in baseball as a pitcher he needed to know how to throw strikes to his older brothers, of which Hunter learned to do with a side-arm delivery. The season before his senior year, Hunter would throw 2 no-hitters in American Legion ball which helped place him on scouting radars. And, while Hunter was a good football player (he was an All-State player) and a track champion in the 440 yard sprint, his baseball career was almost derailed by a hunting accident at Thanksgiving.
His brother’s shotgun accidently discharged and shot Jim’s right foot, ultimately leading to him losing his pinky toe and leaving about 30 pellets stuck in his foot. While Jim lost feeling in his 4th toe, he would recover just in time for his senior baseball season, but news of the injury did worry most scouts. Just not Clyde Kuttz and the Kansas City Athletics. Hunter would have a successful season and the day after pitching- and winning- his state championship game the Athletics offered Hunter a $75,000 contract to play professional ball that next season. Thus began his MLB career as a “bonus baby”.
However, Jim Hunter wouldn’t really make an appearance as a major leaguer. Instead, owner Charlie Finley decided he needed to have a nickname, and he chose the name “Catfish” as a way to promote the young pitcher. As stated by SABR, “Nineteen-year-old Jim Hunter was a $75,000 bonus baby fresh out of high school with no real track record to speak of. Nineteen-year-old Catfish Hunter was a fireballing, can’t miss, right-handed phenom whose nickname was ready-made for memorable headlines.”
Catfish would spend three seasons with the Athletics in Kansas City and accompany them on their move west to Oakland, which is where Catfish would truly become a star.
While learning the ropes in Kansas City as a teenager and young-20 year old in the MLB, Catfish was okay with a 3.53 ERA (95 ERA+) and his 30-36 record (.455 WP%) and he was a 2-time All-Star, but after a year getting used to Oakland, Hunter truly emerged on the scene as a true baseball player. He would be an All-Star in 1970, win 20 games (and get some down-ballot MVP votes) in 1971, and from 1972 to 1974 Hunter was dominant.
He won the 1974 AL Cy Young (with a combined 4 Top-4 CY Young finishes), was a key part in bringing 3 World Series championships to Oakland in 1972, 1973, and 1974, made 4 All-Star appearances in a row, had 4 Top-12 MVP finishes, won the AL ERA crown in 1974 while finishing each season with 21 (or more) wins. However, Hunter’s career with the Athletics would end after 1974. Soon he would go to a new team.
Road to the Yankees and Afterwards:
Catfish Hunter was one of the first major free agents in Major League Baseball and his turmoil in the 1974 offseason with the Oakland Athletics is a major point in which set-up the modern free agency system in baseball. Hunter had not been paid deferrals in his latest contract with the Athletics and starting that August his agent had been notifying and making it known that Catfish was to become a free agent after the World Series due to neglect in payments from Chuck Finley if Finley did not pay up. Ultimately, Finley did not pay in time and a reigning World Series winning, AL Cy Young touting, perennial All-Star was to become a free agent.
While every team was interested in his talents (well, every team except the San Francisco Giants), one team had a leg-up on the others. Hunter was close friends with a scout in the Major League Baseball world; the same scout that recruited him to the MLB as a high schooler, Clyde Kuttz. However, Kuttz was no longer in the Athletics organization and instead was a part of the New York Yankees. Add in the admiration from owner George Steinbrenner (who was serving a suspension in the MLB at the time) and soon enough a deal was struck.
Catfish Hunter would become a Yankee for the 1975 season. And, to spoil the rest of the story, he would stay there through the end of his 15-year career in 1979.
Now, the Yankees were not a powerhouse in the late-1960’s and early 1970’s. They were in need of great help and Catfish Hunter was at the forefront in reshaping the Yankees and making them great. His first season he nearly won back-to-back Cy Young awards while pitching to a 23-14 record and pitching 30 complete games to a 2.58 ERA over 328 innings. It’s something we would never see in today’s game and he lost out to Jim Palmer (who did rightfully deserve it). As a consolation, he was an All-Star.
Hunter would also be an All-Star in 1976 in what would be his last award as a New York Yankee. However, it wasn’t the last great thing that would happen to the teams he was on. Though no awards came to him in 1977 and 1978, he did help lead those teams to World Series championships: the 4th and 5th of his career.
After the 1979 season, Hunter retired from the game of baseball.
In 1987, Hunter was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And, unfortunately far too early, Catfish Hunter was taken from us all after suffering from ALS, dying a year and a half after his original diagnosis in 1999.