Daily Archives: February 19, 2013

Padre Steve’s Tour Guide: The Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum, Hertford North Carolina

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“He was very low key, a very warm person. He treated everybody the same. If you were an extra man or you were a star, it didn’t matter. Just a down-to-earth guy.” Sal Bando

In Perquimans Country in Eastern North Carolina just off US Highway 17 lies the town of Hertford. The town has was incorporated in 1758 as the county seat for Perquimans county. A lumber town it is about an one hour drive from Norfolk Virginia and under 15 minutes from Elizabethtown North Carolina.

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The traveller who remains on US 17 misses out on the beauty of the town, though not an Interstate Highway, the main route 17 provides the unknowing traveller no reason to think of the treasures that lie within the little town of just over 2100 inhabitants. However, to those that are willing to get off of the main highway the little town is a throwback to a period and time much like the fictional Mayberry of the Andy Griffith Show.

The town is the location of the one of a kind swing “S” bridge in the United States on which North Carolina Highway 37 crosses the Perquimans River. It is the site of a 1825 Federal Style courthouse and a number of Colonial Queen Anne Revival homes. It is also the place where the great American Disc Jockey “Wolfman Jack” made his home, died and is buried.

But to the baseball faithful the little town is the home of a baseball legend, Jim “Catfish” Hunter who died there at the age of 53 in September 1999 to the ravages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) commonly known as Lou Gerhig’s disease.

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Hunter grew up in Hertford where he was a star baseball and football player at Perquimans County High School. His talents led Charlie Finely, the owner of the then Kansas City Athletics to sign him in 1964. Though unable to pitch that year the young Hunter, nicknamed “Catfish” by Finely never played a game in the minors and began his career in the Majors, gaining the first of 224 victories against the Boston Red Sox on July 27th 1965.

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Hunter’s on field performance was nothing short of amazing. At the age of 22 he became the youngest pitcher to pitch a perfect game, the 9th in MLB history on May 8th 1968 against the Minnesota Twins. During the game Hunter was also the hitting star of the game going 3 for 4 with a double and a bunt single RBI that provided the first and what would be the winning run.

In 1975 Hunter signed with the New York Yankees for a landmark 3.75 million dollar 5 year contract. He turned down higher offers from San Diego and Kansas City in order to come back to the East Coast, something that his wife Helen wanted. George Steinbrenner who signed Hunter said of the deal: “Catfish Hunter was the cornerstone of the Yankees’ success over the last quarter century. We were not winning before Catfish arrived. … He exemplified class and dignity and he taught us how to win.”

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Hunter pitched five consecutive twenty game win seasons between 1971 an 1975 with the Athletics and Yankees. He was a 8 time All-Star, 5 time World Series Champion and he won the AL Cy Young award in 1974. I had the pleasure as a kid of seeing him pitch in person on a number of occasions during his time with the Athletics, the first time against the Angels in Anaheim in 1970 and also during the 1972 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers in Oakland.

My visit to the Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum in Hertford was something that I have wanted to do for a couple of years. In Hertford Hunter is still affectionately known as “Jimmy.” This is something that is unique to the people of the area who Hunter was close to. To them, he was and still is “Jimmy” a friend who devoted his life both during and after his baseball career to the people of this quaint town.

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J Sidney “Sid” Eley

Hunter helped raise money for the Lions Club vision program, youth baseball teams and other charities. The stories of his care for his family and community are preserved in the museum, housed in the Perquimans County Chamber of Commerce Building in downtown Hertford. The museum which was founded 10 years after Hunter’s death in 1999 houses various items from Hunter’s life and career, most of which are donated or on loan. J. Sidney “Sid” Eley, the Executive Director of the Chamber, who knew Hunter, taught his children and worked with him over the years spent nearly an hour with me telling me the stories of the man that he and this community lovingly remember simply as “Jimmy.”

To most baseball fans Hunter is remembered as a great player. However, to his friends and neighbors in Hertford he was much more. He was a mentor, friend and helper. His unexpected death in 1999 shook the community and the baseball world, especially his former teammates, a number of whom quickly changed their schedules to be in Hertford to be with Jimmy’s family.   Former teammates present included Lou Piniella, who was then managing the Seattle Mariners, who missed his team’s game in Baltimore to attend the service at Cedarwood Cemetery. Other former teammates who attended the funeral included former A’s Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, Gene Tenace and “Blue Moon” Odom, and Yankees Ron Guidry, Jim Spencer and Reggie Jackson, who took a cab from Norfolk to get to the funeral on time. Attended by over 1000 people the funeral was the largest in the history of Hertford.

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If you are in the area it is a trip worth taking, not because the museum is overwhelming like the Baseball Hall of Fame or other baseball museums that reside in larger baseball cities. However, it is a museum that allows the humanity and goodness of Jimmy Hunter to shine through, even above his on field accomplishments, of which Mr Eley is well versed in telling. I enjoyed my visit to it and my time with Mr Eley tremendously. As a fan of the game who saw “Catfish” pitch in person as a kid it helped me see him as not just a ballplayer or a victim of ALS, but as a man who sought nothing more than taking care of his family, helping his community and the people who entered his life, from the most powerful to the most humble. Reggie Jackson said of Hunter that “He was a fabulous human being. He was a man of honor. He was a man of loyalty.”

It is open from 9:30-4:30 Monday through Friday or by appointment. It is located at 118 Market Street in Hertford. The museum can be contacted at (252) 426-5657 and the website is www.visitperquimans.com

Two short but interesting television segments about the museum are provided in the links below.

http://www.bladi8.tv/watch_A61hEGlrwao_-_NC-WEEKEND-%7C-Jim–Catfish–Hunter-Museum-%7C-UNC-TV.html

http://www.wral.com/lifestyles/travel/video/8260577/#/vid8260577

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“To Remain Oneself” A Review of “Prague Winter” by Madeline Albright

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“The main thing is to remain oneself,under any circumstances; that was and is our common purpose.” From an unpublished novel by Josef Korbel, the father of Madeline Albright

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Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War 1937-1948, Harper Collins Books New York, 2012.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s book Prague Spring provides an important look at the history of Czechoslovakia during the period between 1937 and 1948. It also provides the reader a succinct history of the Czech people and nation throughout the history of Europe going back to Charles IV (1316-1378) King Wenceslas, the pre-reformation martyr John Hus and revolutionary leader Jan Zizka.

Albright is the daughter of one of Czechoslovakia’s most distinguished diplomats and advocates for Czech independence, democracy, religious and ethnic pluralism. Her father, Josef Korbel was raised during the latter years of Bohemia and Moravia’s subjugation under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He would become a diplomat in the years just prior to the dismemberment and occupation of his homeland by Nazi Germany. Serving as a press-attache at the Czech embassy in Belgrade Yugoslavia he and his family, including his young daughter, the future Secretary of State were forced into exile in Britain.

The book is a history written from the very personal perspective of a woman who when most of the events transpired was a child who experienced her first memories of life as an exile. She would not be able to return to her country of origin until after the fall of Soviet Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.

The book fills a void for many Americans whose understanding of European history is limited to the popular coverage of British monarchy or the barbarity of the Hitler regime. The book provides a look at the relationships of the men who made Czechoslovakia beginning with Tomas Masaryk, the founder of the newly independent republic in 1918. Masaryk stressed that “love of nation does not imply hatred toward another.” In an age where xenophobic nationalism and race hatred was a staple of politics in much of Europe Masaryk emphasized tolerance, good relations between religions, peoples, and the equality of religion. Albright notes that the solution of Masaryk to the ways that the settled order of civilization, political order, religious convictions and economic status were under attack was “to embrace religion without the straightjacket of the Church, social revolution without the excesses of Bolshevism, and national pride without bigotry.”

Masaryk would die shortly before the deal cut by the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and Germany at Munich to dismember Czechoslovakia in 1938. His successor, Edvard Benes would be left to deal with a situation where despite the strengths of his nation would be abandoned by the leaders of nations that he, and many of his countrymen felt abandoned by the world. That was the world that Madeline Albright came to age in.

Albright would grow up to see her father working on behalf of Benes and the exiled Czech government during the war, and the post war struggles in the nation between Democrats of various parties against the Communist Party led by Klement Gottwald supported by the occupying Soviet Red Army.

Her narrative provides a very effective and history of the period meshed with the experiences of her family, both in exile and those who remained. Her family, of Jewish origin, though largely secular and Czech in outlook faced deportation to the Theresienstadt Concentration camp and extermination camps and many died. While in England her parents converted to Catholicism and she was baptized into the Catholic Church. Her own story is fascinating, though remaining a Christian in the Episcopal Church she honors her family who died as Jews at the hand of the Nazis and her own countrymen.

The book provides a badly needed narrative of a small but critical country which for much of the 20th Century was ground zero of the struggle between Democracy and Totalitarianism. It does not seek to make heroes of those that were not, but it does seek to understand the dilemmas faced by people whose existence is threatened by larger neighbors and how the experience of victimhood can lead to retribution and revenge. It points out the dangers of ideologues who have no other agenda but their own and the crushing of any opposition. Albright’s father, Josef would again have to go into exile following the Communist takeover of his country. His daughter, raised in that exile would go on to become an American citizen and rise to the pinnacle of the diplomatic world, as Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State, the first woman to become Secretary of State.

She touches on her own connections to her family’s Holocaust experiences in this book, though they are secondary to the history of Czechoslovakia before, during and after the Second World War and the work of her father in that critical period.

I have always admired Secretary Albright and has the honor of meeting her and conversing with her on a flight between Madrid and London in March of 2005. I was traveling in connection with a trip to visit my Marines in Spain, Bahrain and Scotland and she, accompanied by former Senator Gary Hart were traveling between Madrid and London for a security conference on the anniversary of the March 11th 2004 Islamic terrorist bombings in Madrid. She was a most gracious woman and interested in what I was doing. I will not forget that trip.

In reading it I felt that I began to feel that I was beginning to know and understand men who were instrumental in history but always have been regulated to bit parts by American and British histories of the period. It is hard to imagine what those men placed in such and unenviable position had to endure, particularly the tragic story of Jan Masaryk, the son of Tomas Masaryk who would serve as foreign minister under Benes before and after the war and be murdered by the Communists shortly after the takeover.

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I think that the message that I took away from the book was the message penned by Secretary Albright’s father Josef in his unpublished novel: “The main thing is to remain oneself,under any circumstances…” I believe that in an age where political, racial and religious ideologues of various persuasions seek to divide the peoples of nations against each other it is an important work. What the Nazi leaders of the German minority in the country led by Konrad Henlein did was to divide and destroy a people who had lived in peaceful co-existence for centuries. Their actions led to the Nazi seizure and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Following the war 9/10ths of the pre-war German population of the country would be forced out by the Czechs and Slovaks now under the control of Soviet agents, something that occurred throughout Eastern Europe following the war.

To remain oneself, under any circumstances.

I highly recommend this book. Secretary Albright has written a fitting companion to the other histories of the period that fills a critical gap for American readers about the history of Czechoslovakia.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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