Todd Hunter, a 10-year-old pitcher in the Perquimans County (N.C.) Youth League, gave up a home run to the first batter he faced one night last week, but his coach voiced great empathy. "Don't you worry none," he said. "You pitched just like me." Glory be if that actually turns out to be true.
The pitcher's coach—and father—is Jim (Catfish) Hunter, 34, a Hertford, N.C. farmer who retired from the major leagues in 1979 after a 15-year career with Kansas City/Oakland and New York (he never played in the minors) that produced 224 wins and 166 losses. He pitched a perfect game, had five consecutive seasons of 20 or more wins, and in 1974 received the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the American League.
But Hunter also established a league record for most home runs allowed in a career (374), the record for most home runs allowed in World Series competition (9) and tied the major league records for surrendering most homers in one inning (4) and in All-Star Games (4).
The other day Hunter was chewin' and spittin' (he gives his 6-year-old daughter, Kim, a chaw so she can chew along) and recalling that he used to give up so many homers early in a game that when the Yankee manager would come to the mound and ask the late Thurman Munson how he was throwing, Thurman would grouse, "How the hell do I know? I ain't caught a pitch yet."
And until last Thursday night, Hunter's team—Bethel, named for an area of Perquimans County—had yet to catch a win, having gone 0-4. After one debacle, Hunter pointed out some of baseball's finer points to his team of 9-to 12-year-olds: "You can't blow bubbles and hit at the same time and you can't let all them balls roll between your legs. It ain't funny to get beat."
But Hunter doesn't launch into tirades. "You get on these kids," he says, "and they cry. You get on older guys and they want to fight you. It's best not to get on nobody." One parent, Mary Corprew, sitting in the stands snapping beans, says, "Having Jimmy as coach gives us a big advantage. Of course, the scores haven't shown that." The scores to date were 5-6, 6-24, 3-14 and 7-16. "What this has taught me," says Hunter, "is that I don't never want to coach no higher than Little League."
Bethel finally won a game, 9-8 over Belvidere Whiteston, by scoring three runs in the bottom half of the last inning. "I must be dreaming," exulted Hunter. Then he turned around to notify his players, unaccustomed as they were to such things, that they had won. "How did we win?" one asked.
For many big-leaguers, it would be a long descent from Yankee Stadium to a field outside Hertford, a town of 2,000 that prides itself as being the home of the world's largest S-shaped bridge. For Jim Hunter (no Carolinian who knows him well calls him Catfish), it's an ascent to Heaven. He was born there, raised there, played baseball there and was chopping peanuts there when a scout for Charlie Finley signed him to a major league contract with Kansas City in 1964. It was also Finley's idea to give Hunter the attention-getting name Catfish. In 1974, as the first free agent, Hunter signed a $2.9 million contract to pitch five years for the Yankees. Afterward, he said, he would go home to Hertford, his wife, kids, friends and the land he loves. And he did. "He knew everybody when he left," says another Youth League parent, Wilbur Ray Bass, "and he remembered everybody when he come home." There is not an ounce of the big-time star in this good ol' country boy. One of his best friends, pharmacist Charles Woodard, says, "The only way he'll leave here is if they bury him somewheres else."
Folks thereabouts pride themselves in saying that Jimmy is no rich celebrity to them. Mayor Bill Cox says, "We don't think about his money. After all, when you've never been rich, it's not so bad being poor." Still, truth be known, heads do turn a bit when Jimmy Hunter shows up. Carolyn Trueblood, mother of two youngsters on the team, says, "The other teams all envy us that we've got Jimmy. And anybody who could make all that money must be good, right?" Her husband, Ricky, suggests, "If they cain't learn from him, they ain't got no chance at all."
Hunter says he volunteered to mow the baseball field so he wouldn't have to coach. He even bought a $7,000 John Deere mower to do the job right. But not only did his caretaker duties expand to include raking and dragging, fertilizing, lining and picking up trash, but he was also strong-armed into being a co-coach with Wayne Perry. "I told 'em the only way I'd do it is to be equal with Wayne," says Hunter. "That way, if a mama yells, she'll have to yell at both of us." However, in practice Hunter is more equal than Perry, a building contractor who laments, "If only the boys would do just what Jimmy tells them." But, of course, being kids they don't. Hunter says, "Nobody wants to listen. Everybody knows too much." It's easy to see that the kids aren't awed. Says Tim Corprew, nine, "I never think about who he is. I'm just glad to play baseball, no matter who's coaching."
Hunter hollers at his youngsters ("You look like the Bad News Bears") and entreats them to watch the ball and not to duck their heads when hitting or turn away when fielding. "I do this," he says, "because I just like being around 'em."
Belvidere Whiteston's coach, Richard Stallings, insists, "He's no different than any of the rest of us. He says exactly the same things we do. We don't want to beat him particularly. We just want to beat the best team." Of course, by that definition, this excludes Hunter's hardy band of heroes. One of Hunter's brothers, Marvin, says, "I think Jimmy is a good pitching instructor. Hitting? I'm not sure." Helen Hunter assesses her husband's coaching this way: "Well, he tries hard."
As if it's not bad enough that your brother and wife don't give you raves, son Todd, the best player on the team, says, "Aw, he's not much good." But Todd's view is tainted because he mostly plays catcher, pitcher and third base, which he doesn't like, and shortstop only a little, a position he likes a lot.
While Hunter regrets that kids today don't play baseball nearly as much as they used to, he has learned enough about coaching to talk optimistically about next season. "These other teams better laugh now," he says, "because next year they might beat us once and the year after, no times."
Later, Hunter gives some visitors a detailed look around his 230 acres of farmland, it never occurring to him that to an outsider, all soybeans look alike. He allows that while he misses the fun in the clubhouse ("playing cards in your underwear and spitting across the room"), he has no fond memories of last season, when he struggled to a 2-9 record and had persistent shoulder troubles.
He follows the Yankees casually (they will pay him for 17 more years) by looking at the box scores and laughs when reminded of his famous quote about a candy bar named after Reggie Jackson: "When you unwrap one, it tells you how good it is." How good Jimmy Hunter is as a coach may take a while to figure, but he is already a very good example of down-home values for the kids of Perquimans County.
Jim and Kim are chewsy about their tobacco.