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Homage to a Hometown Hero: The Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum in Hertford

Posted on 03/13/2018 by William Broussard

Small towns like Hertford dot the landscape of the United States, sharing in common a downshift in pace from larger cities down the highway, mom and pop shops all along main streets (often literally named “Main Street”) and the feeling that, even though you are a visitor, that you’re never a stranger. Store owners and locals are as excited to welcome in visitors taking in the sights and scenes (and spending a few dollars) as they are their oldest friends largely because of the pride they feel in their hometown. What ultimately makes them unique is the creative and idiosyncratic ways that they express that pride—distinctive shops featuring local fare and crafts, historical markers featuring the town’s history, and of course, museums featuring the exploits and accomplishments of hometown heroes. And few hometowns in North Carolina have heroes as big as Major League Baseball Hall of Famer James “Catfish” Hunter—the proof of which can be found in the Jim “Catfish” Hunter Museum located at the Hertford Chamber of Commerce. North Carolina is the hometown of several MLB Hall of Famers and all-stars, such as Mark Grace, Gaylord Perry, and current stars such as World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner and American League MVP Josh Hamilton, but it can be argued that none of them exude small town North Carolina as much as Catfish Hunter.  A graduate of and baseball/football standout at Perquimans High School, his legend almost never came to fruition. A hunting accident his senior year resulted in him losing a toe and while it lessened his prospects in the major leagues, he was eventually drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 and recovered from surgery at the A’s owners’ home in Indiana. That owner-Charles Finley-not only gave him his shot in the bigs and helped him recover, he also gave him the distinctive nickname by which he’d be known, “Catfish.” Over the course of the next 15 years of his career, pitching for the Kansas City/Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees, he’d go on to win 224 games, pitch a perfect game in 1968, win the Cy Young Award in 1974, appear as an All-Star eight times and win five World Championships.  Upon his retirement as a baseball all-star and having lived on both coasts in California and New York, and at one point being the highest paid player in the MLB, he returned to his boyhood home of Hertford. He farmed and appeared at fundraisers and local events and was an ambassador of both baseball and his home state. He was diagnosed, tragically, with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) and died at the young age of 53 in 1999. He was born in and died in Hertford and embodied the small town from his humble roots as one of eight children growing up on a farm to the heights of his superstardom in the big leagues. The Catfish Hunter Museum, though small in size, is filled to the brim with memorabilia. Everything from pictures with MLB icons, A’s and Yankees paraphernalia, baseball cards from every year he appeared in the league, magazine covers, letterman jackets, and so much more. Over the loud speakers, the 1975 Bob Dylan tune “Catfish,” recorded as an homage to him, plays. It also includes autographed pictures, advertisements which featured his likeness, and books written about his life and accomplishments. At the entrance of the Visitors Center, you’ll also find a gift shop featuring t-shirts, polos, and ball caps featuring his signature.

So next time you’re heading to downtown Hertford for a quick bite or simply passing through, stop by at the Chamber of Commerce to pick up some information on sites in Historic Hertford or nearby Winfall, spend a half-hour or so at the Catfish Hunter Museum. A friendly Perquimans County Visitors Center staffer will likely show you around and explain many of the artifacts in detail. For more information, visit email them at [email protected], or stop by Monday-Friday 9:30 am - 4:30 pm. The museum/PCVC is located at 118 W. Market Street in Hertford, and you can give them a call in advance at (252) 426-5657. While donations are accepted, admission is advertised as free to the public.

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Will Broussard is a higher education administrator, professor, and essayist. He recently moved to Elizabeth City from Acadiana (a heavily Black creole and French-influenced region of south Louisiana). His essays, op-eds, and reflections on college writing, HBCU leadership, college athletics, and Louisiana politics have appeared in peer-reviewed journals, magazines, newspapers, and least-interestingly (but much more snarkily) on his Twitter feed (@DeadLecturer).  

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