DURHAM — Baseball fans are mourning the death of Jim "Catfish" Hunter. The North Carolina native died Thursday ofALS, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Hunter passed away at his home in Hertford. He was 53.
The baseball great was remembered in Durham Thursday night, where the Durham Bulls took on the Columbus Clippers, the farm team of the New York Yankees.
The Yankees were the last team Hunter played for before retiring from baseball almost 20 years ago.
A silent tribute was paid at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to the man whose fastball popped like a cork on a newly opened bottle of champagne.
"I remember him as a kid. He was one of the first baseball players with that unusual name Catfish," says baseball fan Sue Phillips.
"I was really saddened when I heard he passed away. I think he's a real hero of our time. He was somebody young people can really look up to," says baseball fan Vern Winger.
Hunter is not only being remembered as a baseball legend, but as a good old country boy whose heart was always home in Hertford.
Jim Spencer was Hunter's teammate when the Yankees won the 1978 World Series. He remembers a player who dimmed the glare of the media spotlight by staying humble and true to his rural roots.
"When we won in '78, the team headed to New York for a ticker tape parade -- 27 blocks, 27 million people. I was in it, Jimmy was only interested in coming home to Hertford. Deer hunting season opened the next day," remembers Spencer. "He was the kind of player whose competitive drive spilled over to his teammates."
Hunter's New York Yankees jersey hangs in theNorth Carolina Museum of History. Museum curator Jim Sumner says if each pinstripe on the jersey could tell a story about Hunter's career, they would read like lyrics to a country music song with a happy ending.
"I think what's fascinating about him [is] after he retired he didn't go Hollywood," says Sumner. "He went back home to Hertford, the community where he grew up. He coached Little League ball, he maintained a low profile. He did lots of things in his community."
Sumner says Hunter was the first real free agent. He set the standard when his contract was up with the Oakland A's and he went to the highest bidder. He went to the Yankees for $3.5 million dollars, an amount unheard of in 1975.
Hunter won 224 games and five world championships in his 15-year big league career.
Funeral services are set for Sunday in Hertford.