Like almost everyone else who grew up in Perquimans County during the 1950s and ’60s, Francis Combs didn’t refer to Catfish Hunter as “Catfish.”
“He was just Jimmy,” Combs said Friday. “There wasn’t a ‘Catfish’ when we were growing up.”
In fact, the nickname was an invention by one-time Kansas City/Oakland Athletics owner Charles (“Charlie O”) Finley.
When the A’s spent $75,000 to sign the right-handed pitching star at age 18 out of Perquimans High in 1965, the flamboyant Finley thought future stars needed catchy nicknames. Hence, Catfish.
It was the same gimmick Finley used to turn pitcher John Odom into Johnny “Blue Moon” Odom.
Genuine stardom eluded Odom, but not Hunter. Before he died in 1999 at age 53 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Hunter won 224 games in 14 major league seasons with the A’s and New York Yankees. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987 after getting 76 percent of the vote by electors.
Combs, who caught every game Hunter pitched in high school, wasn’t surprised his good friend made it to Cooperstown.
But Combs was surprised earlier this week when he read that Hunter had defeated racing’s Richard Petty to reach the championship round of The News & Observer’s online vote to determine North Carolina’s best native born athlete.
“I was surprised, very surprised,” Combs said. “I’ve been voting every week, and I thought Jimmy would do pretty good. But getting more votes than Richard Petty is pretty amazing to me. I bet Jimmy would really be shocked.”
In the final week of the contest, it will be Hunter (seeded fourth in Region 4) against former N.C. State basketball star David Thompson (seeded first in Region 1).
“I thought when the voting first started that David would probably eventually win,” Combs said. “But you know, I think it does say a lot about Jimmy that so many people still hold (him) in this high regard. I just wish he was still around to know about this voting.”
In high school, Combs was behind the plate when Hunter pitched five no-hitters and one perfect game. When Hunter was in six World Series with the A’s and Yankees, Combs was regularly invited to sit in the dugout and work out with the team in batting practice.
“We were close to the end,” said Combs, a retired Raleigh businessman. “It was very sad those last months. Jimmy had always been the person doing things for other people, but he needed people to do things for him at the end. He didn’t complain. I can’t imagine what he was going through, but he adjusted the best he could.”
Fortunately, Hunter had his memories to the end, but Combs said he never mentioned his baseball career unless someone asked a direct question.
“He was always modest. I guess he learned to be that way right off, because he was always a better athlete than anyone else,” Combs said. “Not many people know it, I guess, but he was an all-state football player at linebacker and offensive end. I spent a lot of time with him, and I never once heard him brag about anything he did in any sport at any level. And obviously, he did a whole lot.”
And although Hunter’s success in the online vote is somewhat of a surprise, it’s important to remember that he was among the most popular players in baseball during an era when baseball was still king.
When Hunter pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins on May 8, 1968, the opposing batting order included Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and Rod Carew.
When Hunter was selected to the American League All-Star team as a second-year player in 1966, the rosters included Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Sandy Koufax, among many others.
As a Yankee standout in the late 1970s, Hunter, catcher Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson were among the most popular performers in the country.
The song “Catfish” by Bob Dylan had the line “Catfish, million-dollar-man. Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.”
At Hunter’s funeral, Sept. 13, 1999, in Hertford, the Rev. Keith Vaughan was quoted by The Associated Press as saying, “He never ever acted as if he was too busy for us. … He never ever gave into the fact that he was famous. … That’s not the kind of man he was.”
No wonder so many people still remember him and want to vote one last time for an all-star for the ages.