August 27, 1978—A 6-2 win over his old team, the Oakland Athletics, gave New York Yankee starter Jim “Catfish” Hunter a perfect 6-0 record for August. More than ever, the righthander had come to embody the essence of the Bronx Bombers.
Three years before, as the recipient of a five-year, $3.75 million contract from principal owner George Steinbrenner, he had pioneered the entire free-agent era in baseball. Earlier in the spring of 1978, his swelling earned run average and physical problems led some Yankee watchers to believe that his career was over. He had hit a particular nadir on June 21, when, inserted for mop-up work late in a game the Yankees were already losing badly to the archrival Boston Red Sox, he had been torched in only an inning for four hits and two earned runs. The brief but disastrous appearance forced him onto the disabled list for three weeks, as the team pondered what to do with him and how to get back in the pennant race.
Now, with the help of the team orthopedist, Catfish was throwing in the Cy Young Award form displayed on three World Series teams with the A’s. His perfect record in August 1978 was more crucial to his squad of desperate contenders than his perfect game for the also-ran young A’s 10 years before. The Yankees needed every victory he would provide down the stretch. While the 1978 pitching staff is best remembered for Ron Guidry’s astonishing 25-3 record, it all would have been for nothing if Hunter had not reverted to something like his old form. Steinbrenner was famously impatient. Events had already proved there was no telling what he’d do.
Early in the year, the Bombers had made The Boss burn, with pitching a particular problem. Don Gullett, whom Steinbrenner had signed after the lefty silenced Yankee bats for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1976 World Series, found he had no strength in his arm just before the All-Star break; he would never pitch in the majors again. A later Steinbrenner acquisition, Rich “Goose” Gossage, had reduced the playing time and effectiveness of reliever Sparky Lyle. The Goose himself, staggering under the expectations of his lucrative deal, had blown one save after another in the early going. Even Ed Figueroa, so dependable in the ’76 and ’77 seasons, had only eked out a 7-7 record by July 15.
(You’ll notice, of course, that I haven’t even touched on the Steinbrenner-Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson uncivil wars, which I discussed in a prior post a few weeks ago.)
All of this had left the Bombers 14 games behind the Bosox on July 19. In those years, there was not even one playoff spot for a wild card, let alone two. Lose and you went home for the winter.
After a 23-victory, 30-complete game season in 1975, his first season with the Yankees, Hunter’s statistics began to reflect the cumulative weight and tear associated with being the ace—the one to go to when the money was on the line—of two different staffs. Now, by the early summer of 1978, his frustrating, even shocking ineffectiveness embarrassed teammates who had come to like and admire him. But Hunter had borne it all with the kind of equanimity that poet Rudyard Kipling had in mind in “If” when he praised those who “meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same.”
At this point, the Yankees benefited from a mini medical miracle. It didn’t come from the kind of performance-enhancing drugs so prevalent today, but from a shoulder manipulation performed by Dr. Maurice Cowen. With the onetime ace pitcher under anesthesia, the orthopedist moved Hunter’s arm into a cocked position. A loud pop convinced an assistant that Hunter’s arm had broken, and maybe that even worse was in store, since the revolving-door syndrome that affected the Yankee front office was also at work with their medical staff (by July of the following year, the team would be on its third orthopedist in four years). But Cowen continued.
As related by Gary R. Parker in Win or Go Home: Sudden Death Baseball, Cowen then urged Hunter to throw wadded surgical padding at him. The pitcher was surprised that, for the first time in two years, he could throw without pain. That was because a diseased ligament that had prevented his arm from moving fluidly into its socket had fallen away from the arm joint (the source of the popping sound heard in the office).
Soon, Hunter was looking his old self on the mound, working fast and deep into games, producing “quality starts” before they came up with the term for it. The North Carolina native cracked wise about his revived form: “I can remember two Augusts where I didn't win a game, so I don't feel I'm cheatin' anybody."
Hunter continued to be instrumental in September as the Yankees made their astonishing comeback in erasing the Red Sox lead and winning the division in a sudden-death playoff game. Fittingly, he won the deciding game of the World Series by stifling the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Yankees’ 7-2 victory.
At the end of his five-year contract with the Yankees, following another injury-plagued season in 1979, Hunter retired with a career record of 224-166, earning him election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. When he died in 1999 from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, teammates and fans mourned a great professional with the heart of a champion.
(The image accompanying this post shows Hunter in a moment many teammates got used to over the years—about to crack a joke. My favorite was one he unleashed on Reggie Jackson, his teammate with both the A’s and Yankees: “When you unwrap a Reggie Bar, it tells you how good it is.”)