- Catfish and Home
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I was never much for baseball. It wasn’t that I hated the sport. I simply had no skill for it. A pop-fly to my left field usually went uncaught—never mind my batting. I was tall, arms hung apelike from my body, and my movements were too stretched out, languid flourishes that were useless. I wasn’t built for it. But in Hertford, North Carolina, where baseball hung in every home, office, classroom, and service station, a boy like me had little else to choose from. Hertford was baseball.
Some would say our sleepy hometown fell in love with the game when America fell for Catfish in the 1960s and ’70s. Jimmy “Catfish” Hunter, a local hero, pitched for the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees (helping them to three straight pennants), played in the World Series six times, made eight All-Star teams, won 224 games, and in 1987 was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame—all the while maintaining his small-town farming roots: his Hertford roots. His professional career spanned 1965 to 1979, and in that time, he became Hertford’s Prometheus, our link to the gods. He played every game with the shotgun pellets from a childhood hunting accident lodged in his foot, the result of winter mornings in the woods, doe-urine-splashed boots from stalking prey until nightfall, and natives imagined he held a major piece of them in his cleats. When he came back home for good at the age of thirty-three, he was royalty. The winner of the Cy Young Award, pitcher of a perfect game in ’68, the subject of a Bob Dylan song, a titan in our town. Because of Catfish, Hertford had a name. It would be remembered.
Hertford did have its own appeal, most of which was lost on me growing up. It’s a simple town. It still retains a kind of calm, a repose all too swiftly fading (yet still lingering on southern back roads). It’s one of the first permanent settlements in North Carolina, dating to the late 1600s, and home to one of the oldest buildings in the state: the Newbold-White House. Impressive Victorian and Georgian homes still mark the road winding along the Perquimans River. Tall, pillared structures framed by magnolias or weeping willows. Adorned in Spanish moss, cypress trees, melancholy and stoic, stand in the shallow water, osprey nesting in their limbs. An old 1950s-style malt shop thrives downtown. Dogbox-equipped flatbeds line the shoulders of various side roads, as hunters discuss the goings-on of whatever game is in season. There’s racial tension, to be sure, but it simmers quietly—the surface somehow mostly still. The air practically carries southern ease, a cliché aura of small-town familiarity, as people meet and greet with smiles and how do’s comfortable in their everyday routine.
And that might’ve been image enough, but legislators and local business owners wanted to parade Hertford’s quality. What would Hertford be without Catfish? A great mural now greets all who drive through downtown, homage to various aspects of our town’s history and so-called progress. There is, of course, a [End Page 112] giant Yankees cap with a ball poised before it in the very center of the painted wall, a peculiar icon for a small, southern town if you don’t know its history. Beside it stands a Civil War soldier saluting an imposing Confederate flag, the source of much debate today. A silhouette of two Pilgrim settlers in the foreground, and to the left a Native American perches on a cliff above the river, watching two boys play...