Southern Song of the Day: ‘Catfish’ by Bob Dylan
This is a revised and expanded version of the story first posted November 16, 2009.
Catfish Hunter had his mind made up. He wasn’t gonna work on Finley’s farm no more.
The son of a Hertford, North Carolina sharecropper, James Augustus Hunter, knew all about farms. He also knew when he was getting a raw deal, whether working the land or working the mound. Hunter claimed Charles O. Finley, owner of The Oakland Athletics, breached the contract he signed prior to the ’74 major league baseball season. An arbitrator agreed, clearing the way for Hunter to leave Finley’s farm for work at a more palatial estate. A few months before the ’75 season, Catfish Hunter settled for Yankee Stadium and the 3.3 million bucks the New York Yankees offered. In Bob Dylan’s words, Catfish “packed his bags and took his arm,” becoming, due to Finley’s high-handed blunder, baseball’s first big-time free agent. The sharecropper’s son could now buy lots of his own farm land. Catfish Hunter was, according to Dylan’s song, a “million dollar man,” armed with an assortment of pitches and a big contract.
Charles O. Finley was a baseball innovator. He was the rare owner who shaped his team. He irritated people along the way, but he could spot talent, assembling one of the greatest teams in baseball history. When Catfish Hunter agreed to pitch for the Yankees, he left behind a team that had won the last three World Series. The Oakland Athletics were one of the last baseball dynasties before veteran players gained leeway in determining which teams they would play for. The players would also make a lot more money. Catfish Hunter, “the million dollar man,” was a quiet but vital part of those great Athletics teams. His departure was a tough loss for Finley and team management to absorb. But Hunter’s new-found freedom had a different effect on players. How much more could they make if they could offer their services on the open market? The genie was out of the bottle.
Hunter’s case against Finley didn’t eliminate baseball’s reserve clause, which kept players bound — for their entire careers — wherever their teams determined. Still the case likely hastened changes the players were advocating. Under MLB Executive Director Marvin Miller, players began taking seriously their rights as workers in a free country. Baseball players, generally a conservative group, now seemed radical to many observers. But players learned how much money their teams were making and demanded a more equitable arrangement. Little more than a year after Hunter signed with the Yankees, the reserve clause was struck down. More players began entertaining offers like the ones Hunter received.
In his first season with the Yankees, Hunter was as terrific as the year before, leading the American League in victories and innings pitched. Saddled with the wear and tear that comes from throwing so hard so much, Hunter’s dominance tailed off in the late ’70s and he retired from the game after the ’79 season at the age of 33. True to his roots, he went back to North Carolina where he spent the next 10 years working his thousand-acre farm.
In 1987, Catfish Hunter was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not only was he acclaimed for his 224 career victories but also for his easy-going, unassuming nature. The mood conveyed in Bob Dylan’s “Catfish” mirrors the image baseball fans have of Hunter’s temperament and style.
In a bright and bluesy manner, Dylan sings of Hunter in command at the ballpark.
Lazy stadium night
Catfish on the mound.
“Strike three,” the umpire said
Batter have to go back and sit down.
On both the Athletics and the Yankees, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson were teammates. In 1977, Jackson became a “million dollar man” with the Yankees himself, but there were a couple of seasons that Jackson had to face Hunter. Mr. Dylan has the play-by-play.
Reggie Jackson at the plate
Seein’ nothin’ but the curve,
Swing too early or too late
Got to eat what Catfish serve.
Dylan recorded “Catfish” in 1975 but it wasn’t officially released until 16 years later when it appeared on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961–1991. On “Catfish,” Dylan shared writing credits with Jacques Levy. A theater director, Levy wrote 10 songs with Dylan, most of them on Dylan’s album, “Desire,” released in early ’76. Levy proved a valuable collaborator. His theater background gave him a unique perspective on songwriting. In Clinton Heylin’s Dylan biography, Behind The Shades, Levy discussed working with Dylan on “Hurricane.” The first step, he said, “was putting the song in a storytelling mode.” Levy and Dylan came up with a stunning story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s life. Some of their other collaborations were dramatic as well, drawing on the innate talents both men possessed. Levy said, “Bob loves movies, and he can write these movies that take place in eight to ten minutes, yet seem as full or fuller than regular movies.”
Catfish Hunter’s life never made the silver screen. His life story wasn’t fully revealed in Dylan’s song either, but it captured Hunter’s spirit. Levy and Dylan might have enjoyed incorporating other aspects of Hunter’s life into song. In high school baseball, he pitched 5 no-hitters. Just prior to signing with the Kansas City Athletics in ’64 (they moved to Oakland in ’68), he endured injury while hunting as his brother’s gun went off accidentally. That left 60 buckshot pellets in his right foot and it left Charles O. Finley mighty concerned. According to Tom Clark in “Champagne and Baloney: The Rise and Fall of Finley’s A’s,” the owner said, “It scared the hell out of me.”
Taking advice from one of his scouts, Finley flew to North Carolina and watched Hunter, 60 pellets and all, pitch his team to the state high school championship. He had already offered Hunter $75,000 to sign and was relieved that his investment was sound after all. But taking no chances, he sent Hunter to the Mayo clinic where surgeons removed the 45 pellets they could get to. To paraphrase Clark, Hunter took the other 15 pellets with him to six World Series, pitching a perfect game along the way.
In his native Hertford, North Carolina, Hunter was known as Jimmy. “Catfish” was a moniker given him by Finley. The owner contrived a story to add color to the pitcher’s bucolic youth. Finley’s story had Hunter receiving the nickname as a child when he ran away from home but returned the same day with a string of catfish he had caught. It would be at least a decade before Hunter really challenged Charles O. Finley. Then, as we all learned, it would be over an important matter. Regarding the nickname, he let Finley have his way.
It’s not that far from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to Greenwich Village or the theater district in Manhattan. As always, there was much to see and do there, but Catfish Hunter’s New York experiences pretty much started and ended on the pitching mound. He was not inclined to check out the club scene where Bob Dylan made his breakthrough in the early ’60s. Nor was he apt to see Broadway plays such as Oh Calcutta, directed by Jacques Levy. His heart was in Hertford, North Carolina. For him, working in New York, as in Kansas City and Oakland before, simply led to a good life for his family. He looked forward to several decades back home after leaving the bright lights of the big leagues. It was to be an ideal retirement, one well-earned.
James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter lived only 20 years after his retirement from baseball. The stoic and hard working pitcher died at 53, succumbing to ALS. The disease is known in North America as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after another great New York Yankee who died from its effects in 1941. Gehrig was known as “The Iron Horse,” having played in 2,130 consecutive games over 15 years, beginning during the 1925 season. He passed away at 36, little more than two years after he played his last game. Amazingly, both Gehrig and Hunter, durable and dominant, always ready to play, fell to a disease that causes the central nervous system to break down, resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy.
Sal Bando, who emerged as an All Star third baseman for the Oakland Athletics in the same years that Hunter became one of baseball’s top pitchers, had fond memories of his old teammate. He remembered Hunter treating everyone alike, saying, “If you were an extra man, or you were a star, it didn’t matter, (he was) just a down to earth guy.” Bando also took note of what brought pleasure to Catfish, recalling, “He was up by 4 or 5 and went fishing. He got in about noon, showered, went to the ballpark, pitched 10 innings and drove in the winning run.”
Hunter’s life was a mix of old and new. He thrived in a time of change in professional sports but still concerned himself with his crops back home. He enjoyed needling fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, particularly about Jackson’s flamboyance. He once told New York Post reporter Maury Allen that Reggie wasn’t such a bad guy. Hunter said, “He would give you the shirt off his back. But then, of course, he would call a press conference to announce it.” One can imagine Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson at Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, New York. They might discuss Jackson hitting a home run in the last World Series game they played in as teammates. Hunter was the winning pitcher in that game, the one that clinched the ’78 World Series for The New York Yankees. Jackson might have preferred to talk about his homer. Yet Hunter could remind Jackson of how he struck him out in Bob Dylan’s song. That may or may not have fazed Jackson. After all, he struck out 2597 times, the most in major league history. But he also hit 563 home runs, some putting Hunter in the lead during big games. As with much in life, baseball has great symmetry: a couple of million dollar men helping each other out.
Author’s note: A follow-up to this story, will appear in Like The Dew the week of November 8, 2010.
“Catfish” by Bob Dylan on Baseball Almanac: