A Portrait of Catfish Hunter in Decline From ALS

This is from the Los Angeles Times of March 14, 1999, a half-year after Catfish Hunter was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease:

A boy scampers up the stadium steps, paper and pen in outstretched hands, toward George Steinbrenner’s box at the Yankees’ Legends Field where Catfish Hunter and his wife sit alone an hour before the game.

“Mr. Hunter,” the boy asks, eagerly holding up his pad.

“I’m sorry,” Catfish says, a penetrating sorrow in his blue eyes. “I can’t sign anymore.”

He can still use his right arm, once the best in baseball, to guide the razor in his left hand when he shaves. Soon, he knows, he may not be able to do that. And he can still get around his beloved farm in a pickup truck, thanks to power steering and a long oak lever a neighbor made to start the ignition.

But he has to rely more and more on Helen, his sweetheart since high school and wife of 32 years. She helps him so much already, cutting up food, buttoning buttons, tucking in his shirttail, tying his shoes. His flaccid arms dangle limply. His hands are soft and puffy, no longer the strong hands of a pitcher or farmer.

“I always used to get up early and leave her in bed. Now I’ve got to wait until she gets up to get me dressed,” says Hunter, who owns 1,000 acres of rich farmland and dense woods in his native Hertford, N.C. “I’m puttin’ a lot of work on her, and she’s been strong. But once in a while we sit there and cry together.”

He gave himself insulin shots three times a day for diabetes since 1978, never complained about it. That’s Helen’s job now.

“I can tell when she’s mad at me,” he said, joking. “She twists the needle the wrong way.”

His smile briefly relieves the sadness in an intimate conversation away from the autograph seekers, reporters and cameras that encircled him last week when he arrived at New York Yankees camp. In this empty room behind home plate, he was dressed casually in a knit shirt and blue jeans and shared his worries about helplessness, about what it means to cede independence, to lose control.

Hunter is one of 30,000 Americans with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. Garbled instructions to brain cells from a perfectly normal gene appear to trigger an attack on nerves in the spinal cord and brain that control muscle movement. So far, the result is unstoppable: progressive paralysis leading to death.

“They’ll find a cure someday, and I just hope I’m still here when they find it,” says Hunter, who turns 53 on April 8. A moment later his eyes brim with tears as he speaks of his children, Todd, 28, Kim, 25, Paul, 18, and a 3-year-old grandson, Taylor.

“I’d like to see them grow up,” he says, his strong, gravelly voice cracking.

Hunter sat in the Yankees dugout a few days ago with two of his high-priced pitching descendants, Roger Clemens and David Cone, showing them how he placed his fingers on his slider and two-seam fastball. They watched with all the respect in the world for what he had accomplished in the game and done for them.

“He paved the way for me,” says Clemens, who will earn $16.1 million over the next two years. “I watched him as a kid and didn’t appreciate the type of pinpoint control he had. It’s great to get a chance to talk to him. But it hurts to know he’s suffering. This disease is very real. It makes you ponder what the future might hold.”

There are lessons of the game and lessons of the farm, and a lifetime split between them has given Hunter an abiding strength and philosophy. From baseball, Hunter has learned to filter out distractions and worries, to focus on the moment. From raising cotton, peanuts, corn and soybeans, he has learned to cope with the vagaries of the weather and the markets.

Hunter is, as he describes himself, “uncomplicated, country born and raised, given to saying ‘rivah’ for river, ‘dat’ for that and droppin’ the ‘g’ from just about everythin’ I say.”

“It’s one-on-one when you’re a pitcher,” he says. “It’s just the hitter and you. I’m not worried about the guy on first or third, just the hitter. If you get the hitter out, you’re gonna get the other guys out and you’re gonna have a chance. A lot of people worry too much about different parts of the game, or different parts of the disease. You should take it one day at a time and go from there.

“A farmer is the biggest gambler in the world. Everythin’ he does is a gamble. You don’t know if he’s gonna get his crop up, you don’t know at harvest time if he’s gonna get the right prices for anythin’. He’s got to depend on everybody else. I’ve got to hope the doctors can prolong this thing until they find a cure. I just sit back and wait.”

He jokes that now he’s like former teammate Ron Guidry, “a farmer who doesn’t do too much hard labor.”

Although most ALS patients die within five years, some live with it for decades. Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, a genius trapped in a feeble body, has had the disease for 30 years. He speaks by touching a computer screen that translates his words through an electronic synthesizer.

Hunter knows he may be just at the beginning of a long ordeal a year after the first symptoms appeared while he was out duck hunting.

“I couldn’t lift my shotgun with my right hand,” Hunter says. “It was a little bit cool that day, and I thought there was somethin’ wrong with me that would go away. But it just kept gettin’ worse.

“I was kinda hoping it was a tick bite. I’m always around dogs and stuff. Three or four doctors sent my blood off to check for a tick bite, but it always come back negative.”

Hunter started going to doctors last March, traveling to Norfolk, Va., and Duke and Johns Hopkins medical centers. It wasn’t until September that he was diagnosed with ALS.

The doctor’s words took Hunter’s breath away.

“Right then,” the voluble Hunter says, “I couldn’t even talk.”

Hunter retreated with his family and friends, emerging only last week to accept an invitation to visit the Yankees in spring training. He’s heard by letter or telephone from virtually everyone he played with and some he didn’t, including Henry Aaron.

Hunter’s legs and lungs are still strong enough to allow him to find tranquility in the familiar woods around the clear streams of Perquimans County, N.C., where he has fished and hunted since his boyhood. He was just Jim or Jimmy then, a boy who learned to pitch by throwing to his brothers from a mound by their daddy’s smokehouse. The Catfish part of his name came later, courtesy of publicity-minded Finley, who wanted his new pitcher to have a homespun image. Around Hertford, 60 miles southeast of Norfolk, he’s still just Jimmy.

When Hunter goes hunting now, for the exercise and the pleasure of being with friends, he leaves his gun behind.

“I took a gun last year the first day, and I was standin’ on top of my truck because you’ve got to be a certain height off the ground,” he says. “My dogs barked and I dropped my rifle. I got down, picked it up, unloaded it, and didn’t take a gun anymore. I just took my dogs.”

The beautiful hunting hounds he bred are another part of a life that’s disappearing. He used to keep about 40 dogs in two kennels on the farm but started giving them away this winter.

“I’ve given away all my dogs but eight,” he says. “I’m tryin’ to find good homes for them. I never sold a dog, because I know if you give them away you give them a good home.

“I had names for every one of them. I named some after ballplayers, and they turned out just like the ballplayer. I had two named after Jim Nash, who I started in the big leagues with. The dogs were big, just like Jim Nash. I called one of ’em Big Jim, and one of ’em Nash. Both those two were good dogs.

“And I named some of ’em after ballplayers who weren’t that good. But I better not say who those were.”

Hunter played with some of the best of his era–Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella in New York; Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi in Oakland. Hunter’s gifts, perhaps more valuable than his control on the mound, were a competitive streak that made those around him better and a fun-loving nature that brought sometimes-battling teammates together.

“I never thought I’d be 50 years old,” Hunter says, thinking back on those days of pranks and parties. “I thought I’d die before then. Because ballplayers when I played ball loved to have a good time, go out together. I loved it. I think the guys today don’t have as much fun as we did.”

If we take Catfish at his word, we shouldn’t feel too sorry for his death on September 9 of 1999. A month before his death, a Los Angeles Times story described the early August accident that apparently led to Catfish’s death, although he was released from the hospital and died at home in Hertford:

Baseball Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter was unconscious and in critical condition in a neuro-intensive care unit after falling and hitting his head, a hospital spokesman said Tuesday.

Hunter, 53, who suffers from amyothropic lateral sclerosis–an irreversible deterioration of the muscles–fell Sunday while negotiating cement steps outside his home in Hertford, a friend said.

“We just need everybody to keep him in your prayers,” Hunter’s wife, Helen, said Tuesday. “We need everybody’s prayers right now, and we need them strong.”

Hunter was taken to a hospital in Edenton and transferred early Monday to Pitt County Memorial Hospital, which serves the East Carolina University medical school.

Hunter was unconscious and on a ventilator Tuesday, hospital spokesman Doug Boyd said. His condition was downgraded to critical from serious Monday, when he was awake, Boyd said.

Hunter’s family was at the hospital with their minister, Boyd said. “The family is very private right now,” he said.

Childhood friend Charles Woodard said Hunter fell around 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

“He was outside seeing off a friend and was going back up the steps to his house when his feet got tangled,” Woodard said. “He just fell backward and hit his head.”

Published in: Uncategorized on July 28, 2013 at 4:54 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Extremely touching revisit of one the most fascinating, sincere, down-to-earth players of that great 1960s-70s era. Great source material, Arne.

  2. Great stuff. I reblogged it on my site.
    Cheers,
    Bill

  3. Very moving stuff. I remember I had found his autobiography in a used bookstore and was in the middle of reading it when his diagnosis was made public. Kind of shocking. I was only around for the tail end of his career; wish I’d gotten to see more of him in action.

  4. One of the first longer-form pieces I ever wrote was while attending a Yankees-Mariners game at the Dome a day before my 20th birthday (in Roger Angell’s style and still one of my personal favorites), and Catfish was pitching. He was masterful that night in a ballpark that wasn’t very friendly to pitchers, and I knew just enough to notice. Catfish never blew batters away…that was Guidry’s thing. He’d beat them by mixing up his pitch selection and speeds while always being around the plate, sort of like Jamie Moyer at his best. There’s a good reason he’s in Cooperstown.

    ALS is a horrible, horrible disease and it was awful the way Catfish wasted away. He was very well-liked by his teammates and a consummate pro on the mound.

    Good work, Arne.

  5. We at A Real Meal are going to keep his name
    alive. Come join us! Across from his memorial. Hall of Fame building downtown Hertford NC.( 252)426-2984


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