By Sam McPherson
Only 6,298 fans showed up to the Oakland Coliseum on May 8, 1968, but the people who were there that night will never forget what they saw: perfection. Young Catfish Hunter, all of 22 years old, tossed just the seventh perfect game in Major League Baseball history that night, and the Oakland Athletics had a new rising star to build around for the next few years.
This was the A's first season in Oakland after moving from Kansas City, where the franchise had been a pipeline of talent for the New York Yankees. There was nothing spectacular about the Athletics in 1968, either—they would go on to win three straight World Series in the next decade, but during this season, they were pretty average.
Oakland finished 82-80, placing sixth in the 10-team American League (this was the last year without divisional play). Only one A's hitter delivered double-digit home runs in 1968, and that was a 22-year-old right fielder named Reggie Jackson. He hit 29 HRs while batting just .250 with 171 strikeouts.
Hunter himself finished just 13-13 in 1968, with a 3.35 ERA that was the worst one among the A's starters that season. This made what he did on the night of May 8 all the more remarkable: Catfish became immortal before anyone really knew who he was. It was his fourth year in the bigs, and Hunter had won 30 games during the prior three seasons in Kansas City.
This was his coming-out party, as Catfish would win 20-plus games for five consecutive seasons (1971-75) on his way to a Hall of Fame career that included eight All-Star appearances, five World Series titles and one Cy Young Award. However, no one knew this would be his pathway on May 8, 1968.
Hunter was 2-2 with a 2.95 ERA through his first five starts when the Minnesota Twins came to the Coliseum on that Wednesday night in early May—47 years ago Friday, actually. The Twinkies weren't a good team in 1968, as they finished under .500 and in seventh place just behind the A's.
Minnesota was coming off three straight winning seasons, though, and they had lost in Game Seven of the 1965 World Series. The Twins still had strong hitters on their roster, too: Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Tony Oilva, for example. They weren't pushovers at this point in the season. In fact, the Twins were 13-11 when Hunter took the mound that night, and the A's were 12-12.
Hunter struck out Killebrew to end the first inning, and in the second inning, Catfish K'd Oliva and Bob Allison, too. He struck out Killebrew to end the fourth inning as well, but the A's hadn't scored for Catfish, so the game still tied at 0-0 after the top of the sixth when Hunter struck out the side.
Killebrew whiffed again to end the seventh inning (Catfish's ninth K so far), and Hunter himself had to drive in the first run of the game for the A's: He bunted with Rick Monday on third and one out to reach first safely and plate the Oakland run. The A's added three more runs in the bottom of the eighth inning—including two more off the bat of Catfish himself—to make the margin more comfortable for Hunter to finish the game in the top of the ninth inning.
John Roseboro, more famous for other moments when he was with the Los Angels Dodgers, pinch hit to lead off the final inning for the Twins, but he grounded out to second baseman John Donaldson. After Minnesota catcher Bruce Look struck out for the second out, it all came down to pinch hitter Rich Reese.
There's a reason you've never heard of Reese, a .253 hitter over 10 MLB seasons with Minnesota and Detroit. Of course, he struck out looking to end the game, Hunter's 11th strikeout victim on the night. Just like that, the A's had a new hero and a spark that would lead them to so much success in the seasons to come.
Catfish also went 3-for-4 at the plate with three RBI on the night, proving himself to be quite the double threat. Of course, he would famously leave Oakland to go to New York in 1975, and the A's would never see his like again.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball and fantasy sports for many online sites, including CBS, AXS and Examiner.
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