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Perfection, thy name was Catfish

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Oakland pitcher's spectacular outing makes history

From the beginning of the game, it was as if the Minnesota Twins never had a chance.

It was only the first inning and 22-year-old Oakland Athletics pitcher James Augustus Hunter, known by the nickname "Catfish," had already sent two scoreless Twins' trudging back into the dugout.

Up next was Harmon "Killer" Killebrew, one of the team's most feared hitters. He too never made it to first base.

Inning after inning, the story was the same. On May 8, 1968, batters watched ball after ball zoom past them and land, untouched, in the catcher's mitt. Others were able to hit, but their mad dashes towards first base were thwarted by the A's outfield. By the time the competition was over, none of the 27 ball players who faced the Catfish had scored a single run or even made it onto base; the first perfect game in the American League regular season since Chicago White Sox pitcher Charlie Robertson's stunning outing in 1922 had happened that spring night in Oakland.

Those who knew Hunter had probably seen it coming. The North Carolina native was a natural talent whose skill was nurtured, he said, by older brothers who taught him how to pitch. America's favorite pastime captivated him as a child, and his family would travel to Baltimore, Maryland to watch Major League baseball games.

He was so gifted that he bypassed the minor leagues and in 1965, started his first season as a professional ballplayer with the Kansas City Athletics. He scored the historic win just three years later during the A's first season in Oakland.

A story in the May 9, 1968 edition of the Oakland Tribune paints a vivid picture of that electric night. There were nail-biting moments and close calls such as high, powerful hits that soared towards the bleachers but never made it out of the park. At one point, Killebrew lost his bat while swinging at the ball.

The end came with Twins pinch hitter Rich Reese on the plate, his eyes fixed on his target during a 2-strike, 3-ball count. Catfish aimed and pitched. Reese swung and missed. The Coliseum erupted in cheers.

The win, in which the A's scored four runs thanks to one batted in by left-fielder Danny Cater and three by Catfish, cemented Catfish's reputation. He was given a $5,000 raise and years later, as a New York Yankee, his $3.75 million paycheck set a precedent for the salaries ballplayers command today. Through it all, he remained humble and spent the off-season farming and fishing.

Iconic singer Bob Dylan, who achieved his own fame in the 1960s, even wrote a tune about Hunter. The 1974 song opens with the following lyrics:

"Lazy stadium night

Catfish on the mound

"Strike three," the umpire said

Batter have to go back and sit down

Catfish, million-dollar-man

Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can."

 

All images provided by the Oakland
Museum of California, the Minnesota History Center, the Chicago History
Museum, and the Atlanta History Center.