Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bob Dylan - "Catfish" From the CDs Bootleg Series Vol. 1 - 3

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series CD cover
It's somewhere to the west of a darned shame, and someplace just east of a moral outrage, that there aren't more good songs about my second great hobby.

Nothing against John Fogerty, and the great songs he's written, "Commotion," and "Eye of the Zombie" and "Proud Mary" and "Fortunate Son," all of them and more are great. But if an uninspired effort of his like "Centerfield" is at the top of our list of notable baseball songs, then the list could use some expansion.

But as plain and generic as "Centerfield" might be, it's still a lot better than that corny and lame "Mickey and the Duke" thing you're always hearing before the pregame shows. . . .

I always liked Jack Bruce's "Boston Ball Game 1967," and I liked it even more when I learned about the Impossible Dream Red Sox of that same year. But even if I'm not being too improbable when I ascribe arcane American sportslore wisdom to Bruce's lyricswriter, the British hippie poet Peter Brown, there's no denying the thing is just a little too . . . abstract . . . to serve as the proper baseball anthem I crave.

I love it when Tom Waits "talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling" in "Shore Leave," but I'm grasping at straws there: the song is hardly about our nation's pasttime.

Jonathan Richman's "Walter Johnson" is pretty admirable in a SABR kind of historical way, but I've always found the manner in which Jonathan twists the character of a legendary competitor to suit his own naive fair play ideals more than a little annoying.

So it may just fall upon tonight's subject to carry the gonfalon as Greatest Baseball Song. Not surprising, I guess, when you consider that its performer has also done up the Greatest Highway Song, the Greatest Memphis Song, and the Greatest Tombstone Song, among many other Greatests.

But on second consideration, it could be found surprising indeed, given that the song was always an unreleased Rolling Thunder outtake until shown the light of day by an Odds and Sods collection in 1991. For a long time I thought this was Kinky Friedman's song: his was the only legitimate version you could listen to for a great long while.

Kinky Friedman Lasso From El Paso Album coverRolling Thunder was '75, and so was the coming of Jim Hunter unto the Yankees. Dylan may or may not still have been rock's greatest singer by this time, but there's no question that in the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and seventy-five, Catfish Hunter was baseball's greatest practitioner of the pitching art.

Hunter never pitched a day in the minors. After dominating the hapless high school batters of North Carolina for three years, Hunter shot his big toe off in a hunting accident after his senior year. Most major league teams subsequently backed off the pitching prospect, but the renegade Charlie O Finley, owner and de facto General Manager of the Kansas City Athletics, sensed a blue-chip--and a bargain.

Though he was rarely successful at it, Finley the showman was always looking to increase the gate. Convinced that folksiness equalled marketability, he paid $300 bonuses to players who would grow those funny old-tyme mustachios. And he renamed his players to fit his own concocted mythology about them; John Odom became "Blue Moon," and Vida Blue would've become True Blue, if Finley'd had his way. Dick Allen became "Wampum" for the one year he played in Oakland.

So it was, Finley the Bluto Blutarsky of his time and place, telling his players their Delta Chi names are "Campy" or "Kooz"--or "Catfish." Finley even made up a cock-and-bull origins story for the media about the new Catfish nickname, how Hunter as a six-year-old had snuck away to go fishing one day, and how when his worried parents finally found him 'round about four o'clock, the boy had already caught two catfish.

Hunter, thrust at the age of 19 into the majors as another of Finley's publicity stunts, was never James Augustus again.

If Hunter had been unready for the AL in 1965, by 1968 he was a two-time All-Star and beginning to dominate. On May 8, 1968, Hunter pitched a perfect game for the newly-moved Oakland A's. I still remember seeing Hunter's picture in all the Guiness Book of Records I bought from the Scholastic Book Club as a kid. Every year a new edition, but the same picture of Catfish, as no-one in the 70's could equal Hunter's record-tying feat. It would be 13 years before another perfecto was pitched, and Hunter remains one of only two men in history to have spent an entire decade as the most recent hurler of perfection.

In 1974, the year before Dylan wrote his song, Hunter had led the American League in victories and in ERA,while leading his Oakland Athletics to their third straight World Series title. Little wonder he was awarded the Cy Young award as his league's best pitcher.

But at the same time, even as he was decimating the A's' opponents, Hunter was missing paychecks. Finley and Hunter had come to an agreement where half of Hunter's salary would be paid to an insurance company in trust for their client, but Finley had second thoughts about the arrangement when he found out that such payments were not immediately tax deductible. Finley spent most of Hunter's Cy Young season in arrears to the All-Star pitcher, and Hunter filed a grievance with the player's union after the season. In December 1974 an arbitrator ruled that Hunter's contract with the A's was null and void, and that Catfish could leave Mr. Finley's farm and become a free agent.

Then, as now, all the money was in New York, and on December 31, 1974, Hunter signed a five-year, 3-3/4 million dollar contract with the Yankees. The players and their counsel saw what a good player might make on the open market, and the Reserve Clause--which had tied players to their teams forever at the club's sole option--was not dead. But it was severely wounded, and would be overturned for good within two years of the Hunter deal.

Not sure how savvy Dylan was to all of this. The tone and cadence of the song suggests that Dylan bought into the fake "Catfish" nickname hook line and sinker, as it were.

But regardless, as Charlie Finley would have surely understood, a song entitled "Jim Hunter" wouldn't have been so redolent. And once you name it "Catfish," you've begun to channel the blues standard performed so famously by Elmore James and Muddy Waters (and later by Taste and Jimi Hendrix). In addition to his folk roots and the Newport Rock thing and the country stuff he did during the Nashville Skyline period, Dylan, of course, had a working familiarity with the blues. I'd say he was more or less obligated to write "Catfish" not as a rag or as a ballad, but as a blues. He does it so well that "Lazy stadium night"--in a 50,000 seat arena in The Bronx New York, mind you--somehow sounds as if it could be in a cozy amphitheatre located on the Mississippi bayous.

Funny how Finley's Fish Story ended up evoking something so much larger.

And funny how Hunter's simple quest for back pay owed from a flaky tightwad ended up toppling an unfair labor practice that stretched back 100 years. Here too, I wonder if Dylan is picking up on everything, whether he's aware of the momentousness of the Hunter signing.

The whole thing was big news back then, and as Dylan recorded the tune in July of '75 while recording what would become Desire, Hunter had just made yet another American League All-Star squad. So the Catfish name was on everyone's lips. Million dollar arm, pinstripe suits, all that, all that. But not everyone understood what it all meant, what it all would mean in the history of the game. Marvin Miller, head of the Player's Union, understood immediately. So did Charlie Finley, for that matter.

But did Bobby Dylan? Is this song a You-Are-There kind of thing, the always-savvy Dylan aware of the history he's been watching? Or is it just another gawk at a badass dude who makes the batter go sit down and smokes custom-made cigars?

Either way, there aren't too many songs tackling the subject matter that are any better.

No offense to the tasty song at hand, but I wish there were.

Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series Vol 1 - 3 - Catfish.mp3

This file was removed May 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File under: Outtakes, Baseball Songs


tad said...

Rastro: Thanx 4 the history lesson, as clearly & smoothly written as ever.
4 other possible Great Baseball Songs, I don't spose U'd consider Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," or at least the middle section w/ the play-by-play by Phil Rizzuto or whoever? Diffrent kinda game going on there, right?
I don't know NE other baseball songs either, Byond the 1's U've named. The Nat'l Pastime don't Cm 2 lend itself 2 this art4m. Strange....
Great Cricket Songs I could suggest: Roy Harper's "When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease," if transplanted 2 America, would make a great farewell-2-a-great-homerun-hitter-type song, lyrical & yearning & grand & nostalgic, bit of a Pink Floyd sound 2 it. But that'll havta B a Not Quite. Worth hearing, tho.... - TAD.

rastronomicals said...

Tad --

Thanks as always for the visit and for the comment.

Phil Rizzuto was always entertaining as you were watching or listening to a Yankee game-and I hear his restaurant recommendations were always spot on, too.

But though I'll grant the song is clever, the Meat Loaf song doesn't do it for me, never has. It's not my kind of music. Even the music underneath Rizzuto's call is annoying to me--which is sort of a shame.

I've never heard Roy Harper, and know the name only because of his high-profile fans, like Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton. "When An Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease" could be a good place to start, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece for me as an Englishman - baseball history is a bit sketchy over here and it was a few years before I realised what the song was about. For me, the best version is by Joe Cocker on his criminally underrated 'Stingray' album from about 1976.