- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

The Oakland Athletics’ starting pitcher was ready to take another hack when manager Bob Kennedy howled at him to get out of the batting cage and give somebody else a chance. The pitcher was not happy because, he told an Oakland writer, eight of the batting practice pitches had been out of the strike zone.

“That was [nonsense],” the pitcher wrote years later in his autobiography. “I’d always taken great pride in my hitting. … So I grabbed my bat, banged it against the cage and walked out … left in a huff.”

The date was May 8, 1968, at the new and virtually empty Oakland Coliseum, and the A’s pitcher subsequently took out his anger on the Minnesota Twins. That night Jim “Catfish” Hunter tossed the American League’s first regular-season perfect game in 46 years — and, by way of proving a point to his manager, smacked three hits in four at-bats.

At 22, Hunter was a promising but not yet accomplished right-hander. After jumping to the major leagues directly from high school, he took the mound against the Twins with a 32-38 career record for three-plus seasons. Everybody knew he had great stuff, but the great results were still to come.

By the time he retired in 1979 at the relative young age of 33, Hunter had won 224 games, pitched in five World Series for the A’s and New York Yankees and was headed for the Hall of Fame. He also gained considerable notoriety as one of the first stars to cash in big during the free agency era, signing a five-year, $3.75 million contract with the Yankees in 1975. But nothing else he accomplished in baseball quite matched that 5-0 perfecto against the Twins before an intimate gathering of 6,298 in the spring of 1968.

Perfect games were more of a rarity then. Eight have been tossed in the 39 years since Hunter’s gem, the last by Arizona’s Randy Johnson in 2004. Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series effort for the New York Yankees was baseball’s first since Charlie Robertson’s for the Chicago White Sox in 1922. After Larsen, Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies and Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers retired 27 straight batters in the National League.

Charlie Finley, the A’s eccentric owner, gave Hunter a $75,000 bonus and an immediate ticket to the big leagues after the teenager pitched his high school team to the North Carolina state championship in 1965. Finley also gave him a nickname that stuck, concocting a tale about how the boy had skipped school to go fishing one day and came home with a string of catfish.

Although the Oakland Coliseum was a stark, forbidding place when the A’s moved there from Kansas City for the 1968 season, Hunter loved pitching there because “the foul lines were the biggest in baseball and the ball never carried at night.” Yet he faced a formidable challenge against a Twins lineup that included renowned hitters Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Tony Oliva.

Hunter retired the first nine Twins before leadoff man Cesar Tovar ripped a ball to left in the fourth. Luckily, newcomer Joe Rudi made what he called “a tough catch of a sinking, slicing line drive. … I caught it about knee high.” And in the fifth, right fielder Reggie Jackson raced back to the wall to snare a blast by Ted Uhlaender.

After Hunter retired the Twins in the sixth, he returned to a quiet dugout. Baseball superstition decrees that no one mention a potential no-hitter, much less a perfect game. Said Hunter years later: “I knew I was pitching a no-hitter. But I thought maybe I’d walked somebody somewhere.”

During the late innings, Hunter’s teammates made a point of avoiding him.

“What’s the matter — does my uniform stink?” the pitcher asked jokingly.

Sitting in the stands with the wives of other players, Helen Hunter knew.

“I started to cry at the start of the seventh. And I kept crying in the eighth and ninth,” she recalled. “I was really excited.”

In the eighth, with the A’s leading 3-0, Hunter lashed a two-run single. Then the small crowd grew still as he walked to the mound for the ninth.

Pinch hitter John Roseboro grounded to second, and catcher Bruce Look took a called third strike. Now only pinch hitter Rich Reese, a tough out, stood between Hunter and what the media liked to call baseball immortality.

With the count 2-2, Hunter fired a fastball that appeared to be a sure strike, but umpire Jerry Neudecker called it ball three as the crowd groaned.

Now Reese — a good contact hitter — fouled off one, two, three, four, five pitches as the tension grew with each. Said Hunter afterward: “For a while, I thought I was never going to get that boy out.”

Finally, on Hunter’s 107th pitch, Reese swung and missed. Of course, bedlam ensued.

“Suddenly, Sal Bando is sprinting over from third base and screaming, ‘Perfect game! Perfect game!’ ” Hunter recalled. “Until that moment, I actually didn’t know what I had done.”

In the clubhouse, Hunter took a call from Finley, a notorious skinflint. “I’m giving you a $5,000 bonus,” the owner said. “Call your dad and tell him.”

Hunter replied, “Yes, Mr., Finley. Yes, Mr. Finley. Thank you, Mr. Finley.”

The perfect game was not quite the start of something big for Hunter, who finished the season with a 13-13 record and continued to be about a .500 pitcher the next two years. But in 1971, he began a run of five 20-victory seasons. And as the A’s won three straight pennants and World Series from 1972 to 1974, Hunter contributed 67 victories.

After retiring and being elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987, Hunter lived quietly in North Carolina until being stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, in the late 1990s. When he died on Sept. 9, 1999, at 53, he was remembered as a great pitcher and a courageous man, not necessarily in that order.

And on the greatest night of his baseball life, he certainly proved a point to his manager, as well as everyone else. After the game, he visited his manager’s office and asked, tongue in cheek, “Hey, skip, can I hit now?”

Kennedy laughed.

“Kid, he said, “you can do anything you want.”

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