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On His Perfect Day, Athletics' Catfish Hunter Wasn't Quite Perfect

Always a good hitter, Catfish Hunter had three hits and drove in three run in the A's 4-0 as he threw a perfect game at the Minnesota Twins on this day in 1968. He did, however, make an out, but in the history of MLB's 23 perfect games, no pitcher has dominated a game offensively like Hunter did that May 8.

Catfish Hunter threw a perfect game on this day in 1968. But he wasn’t perfect.

He came to bat in the bottom of the fifth and flew out. Excuse me? On a night when he retired 27 consecutive Minnesota Twins, Hunter also had three of the A’s 10 hits and drove in three of the runs in a 4-0 victory. But he did make an out.

“There was just one thing that he did wrong,” his roommate, Jack Aker, once told the Oakland Tribune. “He flied to center field once.”

He did something else wrong, too. He scared his left fielder, Joe Rudi, “to death.” Rudi had been with the club in 1967, but he began the season in the minor leagues and May 8 was his first game back in the major leagues.

And the 1967 A’s had played in Kansas City’s Memorial Stadium. The 1968 group was in the Coliseum, so Rudi was playing in a park he’d never seen before that day.

“I’d never played there before, and I was scared to death,” Rudi recalled when the A’s honor Hunter years later. “I’m out in left field in a ballpark I’ve never played before. I made the deal, got three or four putouts and fortunately didn’t make any errors.

“It was hard to play my first game in Oakland when it was a perfect game.”

The first 26 outs were mostly routine.

The game was scoreless after a 1-2-3 top of the seventh. Nobody on the bench was going to say anything about a no-hitter, much less a perfect game. At least that’s what Hunter’s catcher that night, Jim Pagliaroni, thought.

“You know how there is that rule in baseball where you are not supposed to talk about a no-hitter?” he said in an interview decades later. “Well, it’s the middle of the seventh inning and I’m sitting at one end of the dugout and Catfish is at the other and all of a sudden, he yells to me, `We got a no-no going. That out to give ‘em something to think about.’ Everybody laughed and that broke the ice.”

Moments later, the A’s would break through on the scoreboard. Hunter, who’d doubled in his first at-bat before flying out the second time up, came up with one out. Rick Monday had doubled and taken third on a Dave Boswell wild pitch. Hunter dropped down a bunt single to get the game’s first run home. He would single to drive in the game’s last two runs an inning later.

But the 27th out would prove to be more than a bit perilous. Left-handed hitting first baseman Rich Reese came on as a pinch-hitter, and when he ran the count to 3-2, it was just the second three-ball count of the night for Hunter, who even at the age of 22, walked few men.

“You know what was amazing about Catfish was his control,” Rudi said. “He had amazing control.”

Reese would go on to foul off five consecutive 3-2 pitches. Each one pumped up the energy in both dugouts and the stands.

“Three times he shook off my calls,” Pagliaroni said after the game. “I wanted him to gamble a few times on breaking pitcher. But he insisted on throwing fastballs. The last breaking pitch he threw made the count three balls and two strikes (to Reese in the ninth).”

After Reese got into his foul ball rhythm, Pagliaroni said he let Catfish be Catfish.

“Finally, I told him it was his game,” the catcher said. “I told him to call anything he wanted.”

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Fastball. Reese swung and missed. In the midst of the celebration, Hunter made sure he got the ball from Pagliaroni.

“That last ball belongs to me,” Hunter would say later. “I’ll keep it as long as I live because it sure took me a long time to get that final out.”

After the game, New York Yankees’ legend Joe DiMaggio, who was with the A’s for the 1968 season as a coach, asked Hunter to sign a baseball – a different baseball – for him.

“I’ve seen terrific competitors on those great Yankee teams of the past,” DiMaggio said at the time. “But this kid wouldn’t have to take a back seat to any of them.”

This was the game that put the Oakland Coliseum on the baseball map. Nothing much had happened in the first month of the first year of the A’s in Oakland. Heading into May 8, manager Bob Kennedy’s team was 12-12, and after 50,164 jammed the Coliseum for the April 17 home opener, five of the next nine Coliseum games had drawn fewer than 10,000 fans.

And on that Monday night, there were just 6,298 aboard to watch Hunter put Oakland on the map. The Twins’ lineup included two future Hall of Fame hitters, Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew, and another who might have gotten there were it not for injury issues, Tony Oliva, an eight-time All-Star and career .304 hitter.

The A’s were due to be on national television the following Saturday against the White Sox. Pagliaroni, who died in 2010, remembered that day almost as well.

“This tells you what kind of guy he was,” Pagliaroni would say later. “After the perfect game, the A’s were going to be on national TV that Saturday. Never one to miss an opportunity, Charlie Finley cane in and told Jim he was going to present him with a $5,000 check on national TV, that he’d gotten the OK and the air time.

“I said something to Jim that Saturday about being on TV and he said, “you’re going to be on, too. You’re my catcher, and I told Finley you needed a check, too, or I wasn’t going to do it.’ He had Finley in a bind, so I ended up getting a check for $2,500, which was nice, but I think Charlie took it back out of my salary the next season.”

Hunter later gave Pagliaroni an inscribed gold watch to thank him for his part in the perfect game.

A's equipment manager Steve Vucinich was the left field ball boy that night, and he remembers reliever Paul Lindblad chiding Hunter that now he could go out and buy a Cadillac. Hunter, understanding the joke, said for him, it would just be a bigger truck.

Jim Hunter, who’d been given the name Catfish by Finley, never pitched in the minor leagues. So, at 22, he was already a four-year veteran. He would pitch for the A’s for 10 seasons, win 20 or more games five straight years (the last of those with the Yankees) and became baseball’s first big-name free agent when he signed with New York in 1975.

He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1987 after going 224-166 in 15 big league seasons. He won the Cy Young Award in 1974 after a 25-11 season. And, perhaps most remarkably, he earned five World Series rings in the space of seven years, three with the A’s in 1972-73-74 and two with the Yankees in 1977-78.

At the time, his perfect game was the first in the regular season in 46 seasons and the ninth of all-time. Since then, the number has risen to 23, including a second one by an A’s pitcher, Dallas Braden, on May 9, 2010.

He died back home in North Carolina on Sept. 9, 1999, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).

The A’s retired his No. 27 on June 9, 1991. It was the first number retired by the club.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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