Print and Go Back Baseball [Print without images]

Sunday, September 12, 1999
More than 1,000 turn out for Hunter's funeral

Associated Press

HERTFORD, N.C. -- Jim "Catfish" Hunter probably would have despised this -- people dressed in suits making a fuss over him.

He was buried Sunday several hundred yards from the high school field where he began a baseball career that would send him to the Hall of Fame.

More than 1,000 family, friends and former major league teammates turned out for the funeral of the pitcher who won five World Series titles with the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees.

Hunter died Thursday at 53, one year after learning he had Lou Gehrig's disease.

Former teammate and Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella missed his team's game in Baltimore to attend the service at Cedarwood Cemetery. Other former teammates in attendance included A's Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, Gene Tenace and "Blue Moon" Odom, and Yankees Ron Guidry and Reggie Jackson.

The Yankees sent general manager Brian Cashman and former manager and scout Gene Michael as their representative.

"I was looking forward to spending time with Catfish after the season. It didn't quite get to that," said Piniella, his eyes teary. "My wife and I and my young son are here to pay tribute to him. He was a great guy."

A 15-year-old Hertford boy stood outside the cemetery gate wearing a Yankees hat as the hearse carrying Hunter's drove by. Players placed flowers on Hunter's casket as they filed out of the cemetery.

Despite being baseball's first big free agent, Hunter always returned to this small eastern North Carolina town to live, and eventually retire.

"It's like taking out a part of your body, like ripping out your heart," former high school teammate Eddie Miller said.

Bill Crawford drove about 70 miles from Virginia Beach to stop by the cemetery and walk past Hunter's marble shrine on the town's main street, which had flowers sprawled along it's base.

"I'm not much into baseball. I just know the man and I understand he was a great guy," Crawford said. "I heard he was just a straight and honest man, and had one hellacious career as a pitcher. I just thought I would come down to see where he lived."

In one store, there was a baseball autographed by Hunter that had a sticker on the outside of the plastic case that read: "Ball not for sale."

The most striking floral arrangement at Hertford Baptist Church came from Hunter's three children and grandchild. It was a huge baseball arrangement with white mums and roses as the seams of the ball.

Another arrangement at the church came from the family of late A's owner Charlie O. Finley, who signed Hunter and brought him right to the majors without a day spent in the minors.

Hunter was unconscious for several days last month after falling and hitting his head on concrete steps. But he improved and was sent home to his Perquimans County farm on Saturday. However, he died in less than a week.

As the centerpiece of pitching staffs, first with the Athletics and then with the Yankees, Hunter won 224 games, produced five straight 20-victory seasons, a perfect game and a Cy Young Award.

The Rev. Keith Vaughan eulogized Hunter as a common man who cared deeply for others.

"He never ever acted as if he was too busy for us. He never acted like we were a bother to him -- I know sometimes we probably were," Vaughan said. "He never ever gave into the fact that he was famous and we weren't. He could just as easily slammed the door on us and told us to go on our way. That's not the kind of man he was.

"In all of my ministry this is perhaps the toughest day I have ever had because all of my life Catfish Hunter was my hero."

Hunter was the second Yankees Hall of Famer to die this year. Joe DiMaggio died March 8 at 84.

"It seems like: 'Am I dreaming or is this real?' " said Francis Combs, Hunter's high school catcher and pall bearer. "It just feels like it's a dream. It's going to seem funny to go to his house and he's not going to be there."