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Catfish Hunter Dead At 53

Jim "Catfish" Hunter, the Hall of Fame pitcher who ushered in baseball's era of big bucks for free agents, died today at age 53 after battling the disease named after another New York Yankees great, Lou Gehrig.

Hunter died at his home in Hertford, N.C., according to George Byrum of Swindell Funeral Home. Hunter fell and hit his head on concrete steps at his home on Aug. 8. He was unconscious for several days, but improved enough to be sent home Saturday, according to the Rev. Keith Vaughan, a family spokesman.

Hunter was one of baseball's most dominant pitchers during a 15-year career that brought him five World Series rings with the Oakland Athletics and the Yankees. He strung together five straight 20-victory seasons, pitched a perfect game and won a Cy Young Award.

He became the first multimillionaire player when he was declared a free agent on a technicality after the 1974 season, then became the Yankees' workhorse the following two years, completing 51 of 75 starts and leading them to their first pennant in 12 seasons.

"I was probably the first player who broke it open for other players to be paid what they're worth," he said in 1987, a few hours after he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner never doubted Hunter was worth every penny he got, calling him the cornerstone of the team's 1970s championships. More than simply a crafty pitcher with a range of speeds and exquisite control, Hunter gave the fractious Athletics and Yankees leadership.

"He exemplified class and dignity and taught us how to win," Steinbrenner said.

Hunter was a player's player, fiercely competitive on the field, a prankster who loved to have fun with teammates after the game. He grew a mustache and wore his hair long like them in the fashion of the late '60s and early '70s, but he retained his farmboy values and spun stories with a country drawl.

In September 1998, Hunter learned he had amyothropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurological disease that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brain that control muscle movement, causing progressive paralysis and leading to death. There is no cure for the condition, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Hunter, also had diabetes and required insulin injections three times a day since 1978.

A dedicated outdoorsman, Hunter first noticed the neurological condition in the winter of 1997-98 when he was out hunting near his farm.

"I couldn't lift my shotgun with my right hand," Hunter said. "It was a little bit cool that day, and I thought there was something wrong with me that would go away. But it just kept getting worse."

At first, he thought it might be a tick bite, but after repeated visits to doctors in Norfolk, Va.and the Duke and Johns Hopkins medical centers, Hunter got the dreaded diagnosis.

He knew the story of Gehrig, the Yankees' Hall of Famer who died of ALS at age 37 in 1941.

"Right then," Hunter said, "I couldn't even talk."

Doctors put Hunter on a drug regimen to slow the disease but it progressed quickly, leaving the once strong-armed pitcher unable to function without help. He talked of how Helen, his high school sweetheart and wife of more than 30 years, helped him through each day, dressing him and cutting his food.

"Once in a while," he said, "we sit there and cry together."

Hunter made a brief visit to the Yankees' training base in Tampa, Fla., last spring. He was barely able to shake hands with old teammates.

"I'm doing all right," he said at the time. "It's just my hands and arms don't work right."

He said he thought of his three children, Todd, then 28, Kim, 25, and Paul, 18. He also thought of a 3-year-old grandson, Taylor.

"I'd like to see them grow up," he said.

Old friends were shocked when they saw him. His arms hung limp at his side. His hands seemed soft and puffy, a far cry from the powerful hands of the pitcher and farmer he had been.

The Kansas City Athletics found Hunter in Hertford, and owner Charles O. Finley, intent on promoting his players to the hilt, pinned the nickname "Catfish" on him. To friends and family, however, he always remained Jim.

Hunter came up with the A's in 1965 and punctuated the team's move to Oakland in 1968 with a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. At the time, it was just the seventh perfect game in modern baseball history.

Starting in 1971, Hunter strung together five straight 20-victory seasons, winning the AL Cy Young Award in 1974. After that season, he was declared a free agent by arbitrator Peter Seitz because Finley had failed to make payments on an annuity that was part of his contract.

At the time, with baseball's reserve clause still in place, it was unprecedented to have a star of Hunter's magnitude available on the open market. That autumn, major league club executives trudged into Hertford to recruit Hunter, who was more interested in going out to hunt than talking contract.

Finally, Hunter agreed to $3.75 million, five-year deal with the Yankees that, for tax reasons, was announced on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 1974.

"That was certainly the wakeup call about how underpaid players were," said Marvin Miller, the head of the players' association at the time.

It was a move from one raucous team to another, and Hunter was a central figure on both franchises.

"I never thought I'd be 50 years old," he said, thinking back on his some of the wild times he spent with the A's and Yankees. "I thought I'd die before then becase ballplayers when I played ball loved to have a good time, go out together. I loved it."

In today's baseball economics, Hunter's contract was a small-change deal. But it made him the highest-paid player in baseball history at the time, and set the stage for full-scale free agency, which began after the 1976 season.

Hunter finished his career with the Yankees in 1979, winning 224 games in 15 seasons and pitching in five World Series. He returned to his hometown and his farm and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987.

"I would trade all of that for good health," Hunter said as he battled ALS. "I'd be a groundskeeper and not let anybody know me."

Last May 8, on the 31st anniversary of his perfect game, Hunter attended the kickoff event for the Jim "Catfish" Hunter ALS Foundation in Hertford. Throughout the day, he walked through the crowds talking to people and hugging friends.

"At times you think you might go the next day, but you're not. The main thing is that everyone is here and I appreciate it," an emotional Hunter said during a ceremony honoring him on the baseball field at Perquimans County High School, his alma mater.

In an interview with reporters before the ceremony, he said, "A lot of people are good for a long time with it (ALS), a lot of people don't."

"The main thing is to keep on hoping, keep on trying, keep on believing."

A funeral was scheduled at 3 p.m. Sunday in Cedar Wood Cemetery in Hertford, behind the field where Hunter played high school baseball.

©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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