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Two Distinctly Different Hurlers, Except that One Time

The careers of Catfish Hunter and Dallas Braden were like night and day. But 42 years apart, they were equally perfect.

Dallas Braden's Perfect Game, May 9 2010
Dallas Braden's Perfect Game, May 9 2010
Jed Jacobsohn

One grew up on a farm in Hertford, North Carolina; the other roamed the streets of the “209.”

One lost his little toe in a shooting accident; the other lost feeling in several toes after a surgical snafu.

One was a highly touted prospect who made his big-league debut at the age of 19; the other was drafted in the 24th round.

One was given his famous nickname by owner Charlie Finley; the other carried his nickname on his finger.

One reached 25 wins in a single season (1974); the other won 26 games for his entire career.

One played in nearly constant chaotic conditions, but preferred to go unnoticed; the other in obscurity of the Bob Geren regime, but today enjoys the rewards of social media.

One fled Oakland for greener (i.e. George Steinbrenner’s) pastures; the other told one of Steinbrenner’s players to stay off Oakland’s mound.

One used his day of perfection as a springboard to greater success and a Hall-of-Fame career; the other earned him a most unlikely Sports Illustrated cover story.

One was an October baseball staple; the other missed out on the playoffs by entering the league one year too late, and leaving baseball one season too soon.

One left the world too soon

The paths to perfection for Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Dallas Braden could not have been any different, but they are eternally linked by what they accomplished on that lovely round patch of Oakland dirt 42 years and one day apart. And though Braden’s career paled in comparison to the Cooperstown-bound Hunter, it was he who found himself on the cover of a prestigious sports magazine, while that same publication spent just 299 words on Catfish. Here are 222 of them:

As almost all boys do, James Augustus Hunter one day ran away from home. Predictably, he did not stay away from Hertford, N.C. long, and when he returned he had in hand a string of catfish. Ever since, Jimmy Hunter, who is now a 22-year-old right-hander with the Oakland Athletics, has been called Catfish. The name became a household word last week when Catfish pitched the American League's first regular-season perfect game in 46 years. The 4-0 win was all the more impressive since it was made at the expense of the slugging Minnesota Twins. After the game Catfish, who had never played in the minors, was razzed by a teammate. "If you'd had any experience," he said, "you might be pretty good by now." That hurt. Hunter, 3-2 this year, has managed to win 33 games while losing only 38 for the hapless A's. In the perfect game, which was watched by only 6,289 fans, Minnesota came close to a hit just once—a hard smash by Bob Allison in the fifth inning that was scooped up by Third Baseman Sal Bando. The rest was all Catfish. Relying mainly on a fast ball and slider, he struck out 11 batters. The last, Pinch Hitter Rich Reese, was the toughest. He fouled off five pitches before missing one to end the game.

You can say Catfish Hunter – pitching in the club’s 25th game ever in Oakland – put the A’s on the map. He went on to star on five World Series championship teams, including three with Oakland. Following a breach of contract he left the Bay Area for the Big Apple, and helped usher in the era of free agency.

Recently, sabermetricians have not been kind to Hunter, whether on this site or others, one going so far as to say that Catfish sits at the bottom of the pool of all current Hall-of-Fame pitchers, pointing to a matter of impeccable timing as his ticket to Cooperstown:

He had a high profile. He was a very good pitcher for three years -- 1972, 1974 and 1975 -- and probably a below-average pitcher the rest of his career. But, the Oakland A's won the World Series two of those years, and as I (mentioned) before the third was his first year as a high-profile free agent with the Yankees. This made his good years look even better.

Still, Catfish was the first prominent Oakland Athletic to be elected into the Hall (1987) and to have his number (27) retired by the club. He died in 1999 of Lou Gehrig's disease.

The perfect game pitched by Catfish Hunter came well before Athletics Nation; in fact it took place three years before the site’s founder was born. Thus few people here remember that day in May 1968.

I’m guessing that everyone on this site can recall exactly where they were on May 9, 2010, when Dallas Braden took the mound on Mother’s Day against the Tampa Bay Rays. Like a good son, I was celebrating with Mom at my sister Carol’s house.

{sour grapes}

When Braden set down the Rays with such ease in the top of the first, I muttered to my brother John that he had “perfect game stuff.” I don’t even know what the heck that means, to be honest. But it just seemed so effortless that I could envision him doing it eight more times.

And he did.

Just one month after Braden shouted strict orders to Alex Rodriguez to stay off his mound, the left-hander from Stockton made the rubber his domain that stunning Sunday afternoon:

The last inning held little drama. Willy Aybar hit a soft liner to first base. Dioner Navarro lined out to leftfield (one of only two balls Tampa Bay hit squarely). Then, after working the count to 3 and 1, Gabe Kapler hit the ball on two hops to shortstop Cliff Pennington, who threw to first baseman Daric Barton to start the celebration. "It was such an emotional moment for a lot of guys," Breslow says. "Most guys know how important his grandmother is to him. He has so much loyalty to his family and his hometown."

Afterwards, the cameras caught Dallas in an emotional embrace with Peggy Lindsey - the woman who raised him - while tears flowed around the country.

Catfish Hunter. Dallas Braden.

One was widely considered an exceptional human being; the other…well, ditto.