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Today in Oakland A’s history (5/8): Catfish Hunter throws perfect game

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The ninth perfect game in MLB history

Catfish Hunter Photo by Photo File/Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season is on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, so we’ve got some time to burn and a baseball void to fill. Fortunately, there are decades of Oakland A’s history to look back on, and even rerunball is better than no ball at all. Let’s reminisce!

Here’s the latest “this date in history” from A’s info manager Mike Selleck:

Yesterday, we took a look at the anniversary of Mike Fiers’ no-hitter from 2019. Today, we crank it up a notch, as on this date 52 years ago Catfish Hunter threw a perfect game.

The year was 1968, and it was the A’s first season playing in Oakland. After over a decade in Kansas City, the team moved west and played their first game as the Oakland A’s on April 10. A week later, on April 17, they made their debut at their new home ballpark, the Coliseum. Three weeks after that, they properly christened the Coliseum by making some serious history there.

Jim “Catfish” Hunter was 22 years old in 1968, but he had already emerged as a budding star. He reached the majors as a teenager in 1965, and then made two straight All-Star teams in 1966-67, albeit as a lone rep on an atrocious KC squad. That ‘67 campaign (2.81 ERA, 260 innings, 5-ish WAR) proved to be arguably the third or fourth best of his entire Hall of Fame career.

Hunter was off to another solid start in ‘68, including a complete game five-hit victory in his previous outing on May 3. This time he would face the Minnesota Twins, who were pretty good throughout the ‘60s but would settle for a middle-of-the-pack finish that season. These were two .500ish clubs in an evenly matched affair.

How even was it? This was the finale of a three-game series, and in the first two games each team had notched a respective 2-1 victory. Then, for the first six innings of this contest, neither club could find the plate amid a scoreless tie. Through 24 innings of play, the two sides were at a stalemate.

The Twins lineup featured two future Hall of Famers in Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew, but Hunter shut them all down nonetheless. What’s more, he fanned Killebrew all three times he came to the plate, part of Hunter’s 11 strikeouts on the day. He only allowed seven batted balls to even reach the outfield.

Finally, in the bottom of the 7th, the A’s broke through to snap the tie and put themselves on the scoreboard. Better yet, it was Hunter himself who drove in the run — with a man on third and one out, he dropped a bunt, knocking home the runner and also reaching base himself for a single. He came through again in the 8th, singling with the bases loaded to plate two more runs.

Of course Hunter’s pitching was the highlight of this game, but it’s all the more remarkable that he also did most of the work on offense as well. He almost had a perfect day at the plate too, going 3-for-4 with a double and 3 RBI in a 4-0 victory. He was only retired once, on a flyout to center. See the box score below.

Box score from Baseball-Reference

This game is old enough that there’s not a lot of footage out there, but here’s the radio call of the 9th inning, complete with a postgame interview with Hunter. For the final out of the game, he struck out Rich Reese, who was pinch-hitting for the pitcher’s spot. Reese worked a 2-1 count, then fouled off five straight pitches, took Ball 3, and finally watched a called Strike 3 to end it.

“Strike 3, the boy has pitched a no-hitter!” - Al Helfer, play-by-play broadcaster

“My fastball was real alive. My breaking ball wasn’t real good, but at times it was real good and at times it wasn’t. But I relied mostly on my fastball.” - Hunter

And just like that, an all-time franchise memory was forged, although only 6,298 fans were in attendance to see it as the new team in town was still building up a following. In an extra twist, Hunter’s next start was a rematch against the Twins, on the road in Minnesota. This time they pounded him, tagging him with eight runs in six innings, but he still earned the win anyway when his teammates tallied 13 of their own. Hey, nobody’s perfect, at least not all the time.

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For more details and many more good quotes, check out John Hickey’s writeup at Sports Illustrated. He talks about Joe Rudi, who was making his Coliseum debut after opening the season in the minors, as well as catcher Jim Pagliaroni, who was behind the plate for the masterpiece and only got shaken off by Hunter three times on his pitch calling.