Thursday, November 28, 2013

Jim "Catfish" Hunter (#369)

Here is my first card for Jim “Catfish” Hunter. It’s a nice spring training shot, much better than the rather plain photo from 1966, or the ridiculous capless head shots in the ’68 and ’69 sets.

Catfish was signed by the Kansas City Athletics in 1964, and became the last "bonus baby".  (The bonus baby rule became moot with the advent of the amateur draft.) They immediately sent him to the Mayo Clinic to correct a foot injury due to a hunting accident a year earlier.

Hunter never played in the minor leagues, and made his major-league debut at age 19 in early May 1965. Catfish joined the starting rotation permanently 2 months later, and finished his rookie season with a record of 8-8.

In 1966 the Athletics’ starting rotation was rebuilt, with Hunter now joined by Lew Krausse, Blue Moon Odom, Jim Nash, and Chuck Dobson, all in their early 20s. Hunter made more starts (25) than any other A’s pitcher.

The rotation stayed the same in 1967, although Odom and Krausse both alternated between the rotation and the bullpen. Hunter became the team’s ace, leading the staff in wins (13), starts (35), innings (259), and strikeouts (196).

1968 was the Athletics’ first season in Oakland, and Hunter marked the occasion by twirling a perfect game on May 8th against the Minnesota Twins. [Earlier this year, my daughter got me this book about the 20 perfect games pitched in MLB history. So far, I have read the chapters on Jim Bunning and Jim Hunter. I learned from the book that A’s outfielder Joe Rudi (who had played 19 games in 1967) was just recalled from the minors, and was playing his first game of the 1968 season that day. He made a critical defensive play to preserve Hunter’s perfecto.]

Hunter and his rotation mates chugged along for the next few seasons, although Nash and Krausse were traded away after the 1969 season.

In 1971, Catfish was eclipsed by rookie Vida Blue, who won 24 games while striking out 301, on his way to winning both the Cy Young and MVP awards. Hunter did his part, winning 21 games (a feat he would repeat in ’72 and ’73), as the A’s made it to the ALCS, only to be swept by the Orioles.

Hunter continued pitching for the A’s through the 1974 season. The team won the World Series for 3 consecutive seasons (1972-74), and Catfish led the AL in wins (25) and ERA (2.49) in 1974, and won the Cy Young award.

Catfish was granted free agency after the 1974 season, due to owner Charlie Finley botching a provision in Hunter’s contract. He was approached by all the other teams (except the Giants), and signed a 5-year contract with the Yankees for over 3 million dollars – the largest contract at the time.

In his first season with New York, he again led the AL in wins (23), and also in complete games (30), while finishing 2nd in the Cy Young voting to Jim Palmer. After going 17-15 in 1976, Hunter’s workload and performance dropped off over the next 3 seasons due to arm injuries. He was also diagnosed with diabetes early in 1978.

He retired after the 1979 season, at age 33. After his playing career, he returned to his farm in North Carolina, hunting and raising various crops. He was also a spokesman for diabetes awareness.

In early 1998, he was diagnosed with ALS, and died at age 53 on September 9, 1999, a month after falling at home and hitting his head on concrete steps.


My brother (who I’ve referred to several times on this blog) was diagnosed with ALS early in 2012. He continues to battle this disease, and his mobility and speech have been severely impaired. I will be visiting him tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Jay Johnstone (#213)

Jay Johnstone will be appearing on my 1970 blog soon, as part of the “Bat Rack” series, so I’ll focus on his entire career in that post. I wanted to show his 1967 card also, specifically because of the uniform he is wearing.

Here it is 2 years after the Angels moved from Los Angeles to Anaheim, and Jay is shown in his “Los Angeles” uniform. (Maybe the Topps' expert misread this as "Angels", and let it go.) This was brought to my attention about a year ago by fellow blogger Eric C. Loy, as we were discussing Topps’ inability to photograph Angels’ players in a timely fashion. This must have been a spring training photo from 1965, because Johnstone didn’t begin playing for the Angels until 1966, when they were in Anaheim.

This is also Johnstone’s rookie card. He was one of 6 rookies with significant playing time in 1966 that didn’t appear in the 1966 Topps set, even on a Rookie Stars card. I previously posted this list on my 1966 blog in April 2010:

I began paying attention to Jay in the mid-1970s when he was with the Phillies. Johnstone was one of 2 players (along with Bill Robinson) that the Phillies rescued from the minor-league scrap heap during that time, who went on to revive their careers the second time around. Jay was the Phillies’ regular right fielder from late 1974 to mid-1977, when the Phillies acquired Bake McBride from the Cardinals.

Johnstone was known as a character (a “flake” in 1970s’ parlance), and was dubbed “The Jay of Johnstone” by Phillies’ broadcaster Harry Kalas. I remember him specifically for a great defensive play he made against the Pirates during a game in 1975. Playing right field, he ran in and took a snap throw from catcher Johnny Oates, picking runner Frank Taveras off of first base. (I discovered today that this event is mentioned by the sponsor of Johnstone’s page.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Hank Aaron (#250)

Most know that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career home run record.  Many know he also played in the Negro Leagues, but lesser known is that he was offered a contract by the Boston Braves and the New York Giants, but chose the Braves (because they offered him $50 per month more than the Giants), thus missing out on playing in the same outfield as Willie Mays.

While still in high school, Aaron had a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and played in the Negro Leagues with the Mobile Black Bears. In 1952 he played in the Negro League World Series with the Indianapolis Clowns. That same year, he was signed by the Boston Braves.

He was a 2nd baseman in the minors, playing in class C (1952) and class A (1953) before making his major-league debut in April 1954 at age 20. Aaron started 11 of the first 14 games in right field, then moved to left field, where he started 102 games. After August 25th, he only made 1 start, and was primarily used as a pinch-hitter.

Hank finished 4th in the 1954 Rookie of the Year voting (to Cardinals’ outfielder Wally Moon, Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks, and Braves’ pitcher Gene Conley).

“Hammerin’ Hank” only hit 13 homers as a rookie, but his power kicked in beginning in 1955. He hit 20 or more homers in each of the next 20 seasons, while making the all-star team each season, and leading the league in homers 4 times (3 times with 44) and in RBI 4 times (at least 126 RBI each time). He also led the NL in batting twice (once with a .355 average), and was the NL MVP winner in 1957.

Hank hit .393 and .333 in the ’57 and ’58 World Series, and hit .357 in the 1969 NLCS against the Miracle Mets.

Usually the Braves’ right fielder, he played center field for half of the ’57, ’61, and ’62 seasons. Hank was also the Braves’ regular 1st baseman for the 2nd half of 1971 and all of 1972, before returning to the outfield in 1973.

Aaron finished the 1973 season one home run short of tying Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career homers. He tied the record on opening day 1974 in Cincinnati, and broke the record during the Braves’ first home game.

After 21 seasons with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, Aaron was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in November 1974 for outfielder Dave May. Hank played his final 2 seasons as the Brewers’ DH (full-time in ‘75, and part-time in ’76). He finished with 755 career home runs.

After his playing career, Aaron became a front-office executive with the Braves.

Hank's younger brother Tommie was his teammate from 1962 to 1971.