The date was June 9, 1991, and in a pregame ceremony the Oakland Athletics organization retired number 27 in honor of who had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
I remember seeing Hunter surrounded by his teammates from the A’s consecutive championship years of 1972 – 1974 consisting of , , , , and others as an emotional Hunter, often wiping away tears, told a nearly sellout crowd of the honor to play for the A’s and in Oakland.
It was the first number retired by the A’s organization’s then 90-year history and the ceremony concluded with the unveiling of a California gold jersey with Hunter’s name and number 27 on the left field wall of the Oakland Coliseum.
Hunter played 11 seasons in the A’s organization, four in Kansan City and seven in Oakland.
On May 8, 1968 against the Twins in the Oakland A’s inaugural season, Hunter pitched the ninth perfect game in baseball history. He became the AL’s first perfect game pitcher since 1922 (excluding ’s 1956 WS perfect game), as well as the A’s first no-hitter since 1947 when the A’s were still in Philadelphia.
Hunter contributed to his own cause in the game, which remained scoreless until the bottom of the seventh, getting three hits and driving in three of Oakland’s four runs with a squeeze bunt in the seventh and a bases-loaded single in the eighth.
Hunter, a stronghold to the Mustache Gang success, continued to win games, making six All-Star teams with the A’s (KC & Oak) while averaging an incredible 38 starts and 281 innings per year, not counting postseason. In 1974 he received both The Sporting News “Pitcher of the Year” award and the American League Award, going 25-12 with a league leading 2.49 ERA.
Hunter’s statistics while he was with the A’s were impressive: four consecutive years with at least 20 wins, and four World Series wins without a loss. He had won 161 games for the A’s,
Unfortunately after that ’74 World Championship season, after a contract violation on an annuity by owner Charlie Finley, Hunter won an arbitration case in December and was declared a free agent, Days later he signed with the Yankees for $3.35 million for five years. Hunter retired in 1979 after developing persistent arm problems.
In 1987 Hunter was elected to the Hall of Fame, and since Oakland hosted the All-Star game that year, was the honorary AL captain. Hunter’s HOF plaque does not designate a cap logo since Hunter felt highly of his experiences with both the A’s and Yankees and his appreciation for both team owners, Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner.
In 1998, Hunter who previously disclosed he had battled with diabetes was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or ‘s disease.
On June 12, 1999, the A’s again honored Hunter with Jim “Catfish” Hunter Day before their inter-league game against the LA Dodgers. I recall seeing Hunter’s arms hanging limp at his sides and he was barely able to shake hands with old teammates, but he did wipe away a tear or two as again he was overcome with the outpouring of emotion as his former teammates gathered to support and honor their friend and colleague on the field.
On September 9, 1999, the jovial man who brought smiles to so many teammates’ faces passed away at age 53.
Last season when the A’s honored the 1974 team in May, I had the pleasure of a just-by-chance meeting with Hunter’s wife Helen and adult children, Todd, Kimberly, and Paul who were waiting for a shuttle after the game. (They actually acknowledged me since I was wearing a 1972 A’s jersey) I felt privileged that I was able to share with them my memories of Catfish during the 70s and what he meant to my childhood being part of those great A’s teams.