Town honors Catfish Hunter with museum

News & Observer
BY JOSH SHAFFER - STAFF WRITER
josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

HERTFORD -- The world knew Catfish Hunter for his Yankee pinstripes, his million-dollar contracts, his hall-of-fame curveball and the handlebar moustache that grew down his lip like a grizzly bear scowl.

But to Hertford, his hometown, he was always just Jimmy, the country boy who loved a good hunting dog, who drove a pickup truck when he could afford a limousine, and who rushed home from Yankee Stadium every year so he wouldn't miss deer season.

Last fall, with the baseball idol dead for more than a decade, the locals in Hertford decided they ought to share the Jimmy they knew with fans who couldn't pronounce Perquimans County, let alone identify it as the spot where Catfish Hunter first whiffed a batter on three pitches.

So they cleared out a closet-size room in the Chamber of Commerce and built a museum. There, you can see how the World Series winner looked in his high school uniform - a P for Perquimans on his cap. The museum is free, and the double-dip ice-cream cones cost 62 cents down the street at Woodard's Pharmacy, which also boasts a fair Hunter exhibit.

"He was a lot of fun," said Charles Woodard, pharmacy owner and friend from the first grade on. "He lived in the country, and I lived in the city, and on Sunday afternoons we'd have city boys versus country boys."

With Jimmy on the mound, you'd want to bet on the country boys. Woodard recalled that his friend once popped him on the posterior with a curveball that would have crossed the plate for a strike except that he, the frightened batter, had tried to dive out of the way. "Most of the time we kind of stood there," Woodard explained. "Sometimes, you'd feel the ball."

Hunter died in 1999 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and his hometown friends watched him slowly lose the use of his limbs to the point he couldn't hold a baseball. Before he died, the town put up a black marble monument on the courthouse lawn, a tribute that points out both the perfect game he threw for the Oakland A's and his year playing with the local American Legion squad.

Highlighting Hertford

Hertford Mayor Sid Eley points out that the Hunter monument went up before the veterans memorial standing just to the left. But other than the sign on U.S. 17, showing Hunter in mid-pitch, Hertford offered no clue to passers-by about its boy-made-good.

"Visitors would see the sign on the highway and ask, 'Where's your museum?' " said Sylvia Wyatt, executive assistant at the Perquimans Chamber of Commerce. "It was darned embarrassing. He's so important here."

Eley, who acts both as Hertford's chamber director and unofficial Hunter historian, knows the importance a big man lends a small town, especially when the big man captures the town's humility so perfectly. In less than a year, roughly 5,000 people have come to gawk at the Catfish relics - about a quarter of the population.

Hertford may be a small river front town, but Eley shows it off like he's walking Sunset Strip. Here's the historic courthouse, which contains North Carolina's first deed. Here's the wall mural at Grubb and Church streets, which features a painted Yankee hat that Jimmy signed.

Eley tells visitors how Jimmy was a Lion even when he was an all-star, and he brought then-Yankees Manager Bill Virdon to Hertford to help raise money for the blind. Sometimes, he would autograph balls for the Lions' fundraisers, supplying both the balls and the signatures for $5 apiece, keeping none of the money.

Then Eley shows off the museum's small collection, which includes a Catfish action figure with a dirt-stained leg, an autographed A's pennant, and Jimmy's two Sports Illustrated covers blown up huge - both showing his flamboyant, mustachioed years with the A's. Picture of Musem

You can flip open Jimmy's high school yearbook and see that he was voted best looking as a senior, but not most athletic. Then you can thumb through his statistics and marvel that he started 39 games for the Yankees in 1975, finishing 30 of them.

But the best exhibits are behind the storefront windows downtown, where his schoolmates still remember how the two rival seventh-grade classes would fight it out on the diamond every year, and that Jimmy played two years in a row, once as a sixth-grader.

They recall dove-hunting trips. They remember how in the early days of Jimmy's curve, he'd yell "Look out!" when he lost control of the ball. They say how they'd see him up on a neighbor's rooftop after a big storm hit Hertford, cutting up the big limbs with a chain-saw. They tell how he hated to lose, even at Yahtzee.

They talk about him like he just left to go fishing, like he just won the city boy-country boy game, like they just saw him on the TV news, throwing the curve he learned along the Perquimans River.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818