RIP to Willard Hunter, a left-handed reliever who was part of the original Mets team. He died on February 3 in Omaha, Neb., at the age of 85. Hunter played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1962) and the New York Mets (1962, 1964).
Willard Mitchell Hunter was born in Newark, N.J., on March 8, 1935. He lived all over the East Coast in his youth. He starred at Glens Falls High School in New York and also attended the Peddie School, a college prep day school in New Jersey. In either school, he was an impressive athlete. He was part of a tough pitching staff in Glens Falls and competed in baseball, football and track at the Peddie School. By the time he graduated and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a “substantial bonus” in 1954, he and his family were living in Reading, Pa.
Hunter attended Wake Forest University while in the minors, taking a few classes in between baseball seasons. He debuted in professional baseball in 1955 with the Shawnee Hawks of the Sooner State League and win 16 games with a 2.77 ERA. He was a strikeout pitcher, and in 234 innings pitched, he allowed a grand total of 2 home runs, according to Baseball Reference.
Hunter never reached those heights as a starting pitcher again. He won 13 games for Wichita Falls in the Big State League in 1956, but his ERA soared to 4.79. He showed some improvement with Victoria the following season, but he was called away to the military in June of 1957 and didn’t return to pro ball until 1959. When he did, he joined the Green Bay Bluejays of the Three-I League and won 11 games. The Dodgers moved the 25-year-old southpaw to the higher levels of the minors in 1960, and Hunter was converted to a reliever.
Hunter played for the Montreal Royals in 1960 and turned in a 6-6 record and 3.39 in a league-leading 70 appearances. He fanned 97 batters in 109 innings but walked 88. He was invited to the Dodgers spring training camp in 1961, just as the team was looking for a lefty reliever to replace the departed Danny McDevitt. Clay Bryant, a Dodgers coach who managed Montreal in 1960, recommended two of his former pitchers — Ron Perranoski and Hunter. Perranoski ended up with the job, largely due to his better control, and Hunter went to the AAA Omaha Dodgers. He once again pitched well in relief, and his control improved dramatically. He walked 57 batters in 101 innings while striking out 82.
With his control problems seemingly behind him, Hunter pitched his way onto the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster in 1962. His major-league debut, on April 16, 1962, could have gone better. The Giants pounded the Dodgers by a score of 19-8, and the rookie was responsible for 10 of those runs, though only 9 were earned, in 2 innings of work. Before he even retired a batter, Hunter gave up a walk to Harvey Kuenn, a single to Chuck Hiller and a 3-run home run to Willie Mays. In his second inning of work, San Francisco batted around as 7 runs scored. He allowed a total of 6 hits and 4 walks in the barrage. Dodgers manager Walt Alston let the rookie take his lumps because he didn’t want to waste ace reliever Perranoski in a blowout, though eventually he relented and had Perranoski pitch the ninth. It was Hunter’s only appearance in a Dodgers uniform.
Hunter returned briefly to the minors after that disastrous outing. In late May, he was sent to the Mets as the player to be named later from an earlier trade. The ‘62 Mets, destined for infamy as one of the worst teams in modern history, brought him back to the majors. He won 1 game in 7 decisions, and the Mets won just 2 of the 27 games where he appeared. He had a 5.57 ERA, and batters hit .270 off him..Hunter won his first major-league game on June 9, throwing 6 innings in relief against the Cubs in an 8-2 win. He allowed 3 runs but fanned 6. He was then moved into the starting rotation for a spell and lost each of his first 5 starts. He was pounded by the Giants in two of them. In his best start, against Milwaukee on June 20, he worked 6 innings and allowed just 2 hits — a solo and a 2-run homer to Hank Aaron.
Here is a statistical oddity. In 1962, Hunter had a 6.65 ERA, with 48 earned runs allowed in 65 innings. He had 5 appearances against the Giants and allowed 23 earned runs in 14 innings — a whopping 14.79 ERA! Against the rest of the National League, Hunter’s ERA was a much improved 4.41. If his managers had just kept him as far from San Francisco batters as possible, he would have had a pretty fair year.
Hunter spent all of 1963 pitching for Buffalo of the International League. He won 10 games in 29 relief appearances. He started 1964 in Buffalo as well, but when the Mets needed pitching help, he returned to the majors in mid-June. He allowed 1 run in his first 13 innings of work and made himself pretty invaluable to manager Casey Stengel as a lefty stopper for the rest of the season. He went 3-3 with 5 saves in 41 games, with a 4.41 ERA.
Hunter spoke with the Glens Falls Post-Star that July about his baseball career, from high school to the Mets. He admitted some doubts when the Dodgers traded him to the Mets, as he was going from the top of the league to the bottom. “But I’ve loved it,” he added. “This is the greatest team to work with. The guys are terrific, the pitching coaches are more helpful than any I’ve ever encountered, and that Casey! Well, let me just say everything you’ve read about his way of talking and working with the players is true, plus, he’s the greatest and all the fellows love him. They’d do anything for him anytime. I know.”
Hunter picked up half of his career win totals in one day by beating the Cubs in both ends of a doubleheader on August 23, 1964. In the first game, he entered into the 10th inning of a 1-1 tie with runners on first and second. He got Leo Burke to foul out to third base and retired Billy Williams on a grounder to second base. The Mets rallied in the bottom of the inning, with Ed Kranepool driving in the winning run with a single to left. In the second game, he pitched a scoreless top of the ninth after reliever Al Jackson let the tying run score to make the game 4-4. Charley Smith smacked a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the inning for a 5-4 win.
Hunter underwent arm and shoulder surgery after the season. He failed to make the Mets roster in 1965 and pitched ineffectively for Buffalo. He was released in July, ending his professional career.
In 2 seasons, Hunter had a 4-9 record in 68 games, 6 of which were starts. He also had 1 complete game and 5 saves. His ERA was 5.68 but drops all the way to 5.06 if you take away his awful debut with the Dodgers. He struck out 62 batters in 112 innings and walked 43.
I could not find any information about Hunter’s post-baseball life. His brief obituary mentions that he is survived by his wife, Delores, and many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For more information: Dignity Memorial