Catfish Hunter’s Perfect Game

Not long after his death in 1999, USA Today took a look back at the perfect game Catfish Hunter threw in the A’s first season in Oakland, on May 8, 1968. The newspaper wrote:
“Hunter struck out 11 batters, including [Harmon] Killebrew three times, and went 3-for-4 at the plate, with three runs batted in. He needed only one outstanding defensive play — third baseman Sal Bando’s stab of Allison’s grounder in the fifth inning. Only five balls were hit out of the infield. His closest call came in the second inning when he went 3-0 on [Tony] Oliva, then struck him out. He ended the game by striking out pinch-hitter Rich Reese, who had fouled off five consecutive pitches.”

Catfish said: “I just tried to throw strikes to everybody; control is the name of the game.”

In 1998, 30 years after the game, Lowell Cohn remembered attending it as a grad student at Stanford. He said:

I was walking to the library with a friend named John, and I said, “I just can’t do this. Let’s go to an Oakland Athletics game, instead.”

This was a radical suggestion when you consider it was the A’s first season in Oakland. In fact, it was only their 12th home game in the East Bay. Before that, they’d played in Kansas City. So they weren’t exactly a sports staple in the area- not that they are now. Only 6,280 were to show up that night, but I’m getting ahead of my story.

My friend John said, sure, he’d like to see some baseball.

So we drove to Oakland and arrived in the second or third inning. Immediately, we bought beers and we might have gotten blitzed, although I’m not sure we did. But something was definitely screwy, because I can’t really explain what happened next.

We were watching the game, and it was kind of dull. No one scored until the seventh inning when Hunter squeezed in a run on a bunt single. . . .

In the top of the ninth, everyone in the ballpark got loud and restless. People shouted and clapped their hands.

I didn’t know why.

Sure, I noticed that Hunter seemed to be striking out his share of guys — he struck out 11. But I’d seen strikeouts before and I’d seen shutouts. And what was the big deal, anyway?

When the Twins Rich Reese made the final out, hitting a foul-tip third strike into catcher Jim Pagliaroni’s glove, the crowd erupted in a loud cheer and all the A’s ran onto the field to hug Hunter as if they had just won the World Series. . . .

The next morning, of course, I looked at the newspaper and saw headlines as big as a house saying Hunter had thrown a perfect game. And I felt like a fool. So here’s what I want to know. Can I take credit for watching Hunter’s famous performance, the first American-League perfect game in 46 years?

I was definitely there. Honest, I was. But I had no idea what was going on.”

Cohn, who was a longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist, inspired me to track down the Chronicle for the day after the game. Here’s its banner headline:

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And, here’s the cover of the Chronicle’s sports section, with a shot of Catfish getting surrounded by happy teammates after finishing his perfect game:
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