Baseball related songs: Catfish by Bob Dylan

Today we pay attention to a relatively unknown song by Bob Dylan, who is mainly known for his protest songs. The song “Catfish” was written by him and Jacques Levy. It is about former Kansas City and Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees great Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

This wasn’t the first time Dylan wrote about a sports star. Earlier he wrote the song “Hurricane.” Unlike “Catfish” “Hurricane” was a protest song about an Afro-American boxer, named Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was convicted of murder. Allegedly there were racist motives to the verdict. In that song, Dylan describes alleged acts of racism and profiling against Carter which led to a false trial and conviction.

Anyhow, the song “Catfish” was just about a pitcher, who used to pitch for the Oakland A’s but moved on as the owner, Charles Finley, didn’t want to pull his wallet to keep Hunter in Oakland. Indirectly, the song is also about free agency.

The song was written for the album Desire (1976) but was not released until 1991 when it appeared on The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991.

Lyrics of the song:

Lazy stadium night
Catfish on the mound.
“Strike three, ” the umpire said,
Batter have to go back and sit down.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Used to work on Mr. Finley’s farm
But the old man wouldn’t pay
So he packed his glove and took his arm
An’ one day he just ran away.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Come up where the Yankees are,
Dress up in a pinstripe suit,
Smoke a custom-made cigar,
Wear an alligator boot.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Carolina born and bred,
Love to hunt the little quail.
Got a hundred-acre spread,
Got some huntin’ dogs for sale.

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

Reggie Jackson at the plate
Seein’ nothin’ but the curve
Swing too early or too late
Got to eat what Catfish serve

Catfish, million-dollar-man
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can

Even Billy Martin grins
When the Fish is in the game
Every season twenty wins
Gonna make the Hall of Fame

Catfish, million-dollar-man
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can

Unlike many of Dylan’s songs, this one did not have a deeper background. It is just about what the surface of the song shows us.

Former Cream frontman Eric Clapton was present at the recordings of the song. Clapton remembered: “He (Dylan) was just driving around, picking musicians up and bringing them back to sessions. It ended up with something like 24 musicians in the studio, all playing these incredibly incongruous instruments – accordion, violin… It was very hard to keep up with him. He wasn’t sure what he wanted. He was really looking, racing from song to song.”

Jim “Catfish” Hunter was, in fact, one of the first free agents in baseball. At the end of the 1974 season, Hunter (with help from the Major League Baseball Players’ Association) discovered a breach of his contract. Hunter wanted long-term financial stability and his contract stipulated half of his 1974 salary was to be set aside in an annuity (an insurance trust). (Oakland Athletics Owner Charles O.) Finley did not want to make appropriate payments because the cheapskate owner discovered that the deferred payment was not tax-deductible as a normal salary would be. Finley was willing to give Hunter a check for the amount, but Hunter, feeling aggrieved, claimed a breach of contract and sought free agency. The matter went to arbitration which was eventually won by Hunter. He packed his bags and signed a five-year $3.25 million deal with the Yankees including a $1 million signing bonus, life insurance and deferred compensation and a $150,000 annual salary. This was quite a difference with his one-year $100,000 contract with Oakland.

Unfortunately, there is no complete version of this song sung by Bob Dylan available on the internet, therefore this youtube version sung by Nils De Caster

The song “Catfish” was covered several times. The best-known artist, who did so was Joe Cocker, who included the song on his 1976 album Stingray.

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