North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Jim “Catfish” Hunter
Jim Hunter, so the story goes, wandered off from his family’s farm in rural Hertford one day, causing his concerned parents to initiate a frantic search for the young man. He eventually turned up a few hours later holding a string of catfish he’d caught.
It’s the stuff of which legends — and in this case, nicknames — are born.
But in this case, it actually is a legend.
The incident was the creation of then-Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley, who thought the talented 19-year-old pitcher he’d just signed needed a marketable nickname to help him stand out in the crowd. The plan worked. And Catfish Hunter did the rest.
He pitched his first professional game at Fenway Park and never played a game in the minors. He was an American League All-Star in both 1966 and ’67. After the A’s moved to Oakland in 1968, he pitched the ninth perfect game in baseball history by setting down 27 straight, beating the Minnesota Twins 3-0 in a game that also saw him drive in all three runs.
During the 1970s, Hunter became the premier pitcher in baseball, winning 20 or more games four straight years, going undefeated in World Series play while leading Oakland to three straight titles and earning the American League Cy Young Award in 1974. That winter, after being declared a free agent over a contract dispute with Finley, he became baseball’s first big-money signing when the New York Yankees gave him a five-year deal worth $3.35 million.
He proved worth every penny by winning 20 games for the fifth straight season in 1975, making his seventh All-Star team and helping catapult the Yankees to three straight American League pennants and two more World Series titles.
He finished his career with 224 wins and 42 shutouts. But there’s no telling how many more he might have recorded had arm injuries not forced him to retire at just 33 years old. As it is, he still ended up in Cooperstown, earning induction in 1987.
After baseball, Hunter returned to Hertford and his family’s farm, where he grew soybeans and corn, among other things, before dying at the age of 53 a year after being diagnosed with ALS.