Right-handed-hitting outfielder Ken Hunt and one-time major-league single-season home-run leader Roger Maris1 were boyhood friends while growing up in Grand Forks, North Dakota. After the Maris family moved to nearby Fargo, the two all-around athletes were high-school sports rivals. During Hunt’s senior year in football, his team lost one game, a 7-6 setback to Fargo Shanley High School, on a late 70-yard touchdown run by all-state halfback Roger Maris. The two men remained lifelong friends and later roomed together when both were with the 1960 New York Yankees.
Ken Hunt’s baseball career was a dichotomy of extremes. In what should have been the prime of his career, a freak injury, one that he probably could easily have recovered from with modern treatment and rehabilitation, effectively ended his career. But on the other hand, he was also fortunate enough to be in the right place (Wrigley Field in Los Angeles) at the right time (1961 expansion year), and responded with one excellent season among an abbreviated injury-filled career.
Kenneth Lawrence Hunt was born on July 13, 1934, in Grand Forks. His parents were Percy L. and Marie (Geatz) Hunt. He had an older brother, Robert, and a younger sister, Janice. His father was employed by the railroad, working as a fireman. In 1948, as a 14-year old, Hunt began playing for the Grand Forks American Legion and St. James High School baseball teams. He also played semipro ball as a teenager with a team in neighboring Reynolds, North Dakota.
After graduating from high school in 1952 at the age of 17, Hunt was signed by New York Yankees scout Joe McDermott and was paid a $10,000 bonus. He was assigned to Olean in the Class D Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League. In 30 games he tore up league pitching, hitting .500 (29-for-58) and was promoted to the Joplin Miners in the Class C Western Association for the balance of the season.
Hunt spent the 1953 season with the Yankees’ other Class C affiliate, Boise of the Pioneer League, and batted .269 with 16 home runs in 130 games. He continued his rapid ascent through the Yankees’ farm system, moving up to the Quincy Gems in the Class B Three-I League in 1954. He continued to hit for both average (.320) and power (16 home runs and 22 doubles). Hunt was named to the league’s postseason all-star team, joining other future major leaguers on their way up, including Earl Battey, Luis Aparicio, and his friend Roger Maris, playing for rival Keokuk.
Hunt was drafted into the US Army in 1955 but continued to play baseball. Assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, he played on the post team during the summer of 1956 and was named to the Fifth Army All-Star team. In 1956 he was assigned to Fort Crowder, Missouri, where he played baseball for the base team. He did not serve overseas.
Throughout most of Hunt’s career, he played winter ball. During the 1956-57 offseason he played with Kola Roman in the Colombian League. Other winters he played with Gavilanes in Venezuela, Azucareros in Panama, and San Juan in Puerto Rico. During the 1961-1962 offseason Hunt was among a group of major-league players who went to Japan to conduct baseball clinics for American servicemen.
Hunt went to spring training with the Yankees in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1957 and began the season in Triple-A with Richmond of the International League. He struggled at the plate and was sent back to Double-A, finishing the season with the New Orleans Pelicans in the Southern Association. Hunt spent the entire 1958 season in New Orleans batting .282 with 29 home runs and 27 doubles.
Again in 1959 Hunt attended spring training with the Yankees but didn’t make the club. Despite his potential and his success in the minor leagues, Hunt had a difficult time breaking into the Yankees outfield. In addition to Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, and Norm Siebern, manager Casey Stengel liked to use his catchers, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Johnny Blanchard, in the outfield often to keep their bats in the lineup. Hunt was optioned to Triple-A San Diego (Pacific Coast League). After struggling in 26 games with the Padres, he was sent to Shreveport of the Southern Association. In his first game Hunt slugged a grand slam and had three doubles in six at-bats. Despite missing a week in mid-June in order to attend his father’s funeral, he had another strong season, batting .322 with 21 home runs. Hunt was called up by New York and made his major league debut on September 10 as a late-inning defensive replacement against Kansas City in Yankee Stadium.
In 1960 Hunt finally made the Yankees out of spring training, but in mid-May he was optioned to Richmond. On June 5 he set an International League record with seven consecutive hits in a doubleheader against Montreal. Hunt batted .272, and continued to hit for power, slugging 23 home runs. He earned a September call-up by the Yankees and overall hit .273 in 25 games for New York that season.
After the 1960 season Hunt got a job at a radio station in East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The American League was expanding, with new teams in Los Angeles and Washington, and he was left unprotected by New York. While reading the news at the station on December 14, he saw on the wire service that he had been the 40th selection in the draft by the Los Angeles Angels. He knew that he would now have the opportunity to be a regular player on a major-league team.
Hunt was a big, powerful (he was listed as 6-feet-1 and 205 pounds) all-around athlete with great speed and a strong throwing arm. One report said that he had perhaps the strongest outfield throwing arm in the majors.2 The Angels were excited about the potential of their new acquisition. General manager Fred Haney said, “He can do everything. He’s fast, covers a lot of ground in center field, has a good arm, and hits with power.”3
Hunt got off to a slow start in spring training with the Angels, but quickly won the center-field job. His emergence allowed the Angels to trade another outfielder, Bob Cerv (whom they had also obtained from the Yankees in the expansion draft), for pitching help. Tommy Lasorda, then a Dodgers scout, who knew Hunt, said, “They’ll be surprised at his power once he really gets going.”4
In their inaugural season, the Angels played in cozy Wrigley Field. With its location near Hollywood, the ballpark served as a backdrop for many movies and television shows, including Pride of the Yankees and TV’s Home Run Derby. Dimensions favored pull hitters, and the 340-foot left-field line and 345-foot left-center alley made an inviting target for right-handed pull hitters like Hunt. During the 1961 season he hit 17 of his 25 homers at home.
The Angels never expected to contend, but did surprisingly well for an expansion team, finishing 70-91 and ending up in eighth place in the ten-team American League, 38½ games behind the powerhouse Yankees. Inserted as the Angels’ regular center fielder, Hunt did well in what technically was his rookie season. In 149 games he hit .255 with 25 home runs and 84 runs batted in. He smacked 29 doubles and scored 70 runs. He held the Angels’ record for most home runs by a rookie until it was broken by Tim Salmon in 1993.
One of Hunt’s personal highlights that season was a home run off the Yankees’ Ralph Terry in the ninth inning to break up Terry’s shutout bid at Yankee Stadium on June 11. Earlier in the game, Roger Maris fell into the right-field stands catching a long drive by Hunt. In early August he was being mentioned as one of the favorites for the American League Rookie of the Year award. But he faded at the end of the season, and received no votes for the award, which was won by Boston Red Sox pitcher Don Schwall.
The only disappointing aspects of the season for Hunt were his fielding (a league-high 14 outfield errors) and strikeouts (120), the second highest total in the American League. Hunt said, “I should have hit 40 homers. I started over-swinging when I had 19 homers with almost half the season to go. And my fielding went sour.”5
By June of 1961, several other teams in baseball were inquiring about the possibility of obtaining Hunt, and two of his fellow outfielders, Leon Wagner and Lee Thomas, in trades. General manager Haney let it be known that his young stars were off-limits, saying “Thomas is only 25 and Hunt 26. They haven’t even begun to reach their full potential yet and I assure you they’re going to be around a long time. I can also assure you they’re going to be with our ballclub.”6 Little did he know what the next year held for Hunt, and how wrong his prediction would be.
Despite the Angels’ move to a less hitter-friendly park in Chavez Ravine in 1962, Hunt seemed poised for another strong season. During the offseason the Angels hired Joe Gordon as a hitting instructor and he planned to work with Hunt to cut down on his swing, especially with two strikes, and hit the ball more to the opposite field. It was thought this approach might cost Hunt some home runs, but would also raise his batting average and cut down on his strikeouts.
Those plans went out the window that spring. Trying to cut down a baserunner in an early April exhibition game against the Angels’ Dallas-Fort Worth farm team, Hunt tore muscles in his right shoulder. The injury limited him to pinch-running and a few pinch-hitting appearances early in the season. On May 4 he was called on to pinch-hit against the Baltimore Orioles. In an attempt to stretch his sore shoulder muscles in the on-deck circle, Hunt flexed his bat behind his neck in what was described as the “Rocky Colavito manner” and separated his right shoulder.
He was placed on the disabled list and returned to Grand Forks to recuperate. One report said Hunt had also fractured his collarbone, and another said he had developed an aneurysm in his shoulder that required surgery.7 In July it was reported that Hunt’s shoulder was slowly responding to treatment,8 but that it was feared he would not return at all that season. He finally returned to the lineup in September but got into only 13 games altogether that year.
Many years later, a Los Angeles sportswriter wrote about what he called the “Angel Jinx,” detailing a long list of the team’s players whose careers ended or were curtailed prematurely due to unusual circumstances. The writer, Jeff Mays, claimed that the jinx, or curse, started with Hunt’s shoulder injury in 1962 and continued over the years to include the murder of Lyman Bostock in 1978 and Donnie Moore’s suicide in 1989.9
One bright spot for Hunt in 1962: He met and married Patty Lilley, a single mother with an 8-year old son, Patrick. Patty and the boy’s father had divorced shortly after he was born. Hunt’s stepson was better known by the name he took as a childhood actor, Butch Patrick, and is best remembered for his role as Eddie Munster in the 1960s television show The Munsters.
With Hunt’s shoulder still not 100 percent, Angels manager Bill Rigney considered moving him to first base in 1963. He opened the season with the Angels but got little playing time, and on May 25 was optioned to Triple-A Hawaii. Possibly frustrated by his injury, Hunt was upset with the move and threatened to quit before returning to the minors. “I had ten years in the minors, and that’s enough,” he said, “This club didn’t give me a chance this year.”10 He changed his mind, reported to Hawaii, and hit .263 in 55 games before being recalled by Los Angeles in July. He continued to struggle at the plate and the Angels sold him to Washington for $25,000 on September 12. Hunt impressed in a few games at the end of the season and Senators manager Gil Hodges promised him a fair shot at a regular job the next spring. But in 1964 Hunt hit just .135 in 51 games for the Senators and .206 in a few games for Washington’s Triple-A affiliate in Toronto.
Hunt decided not to play baseball in 1965, and he returned to Los Angeles. He became a member of the Screen Actors Guild and appeared as an extra in a couple of movies. Early in the year, he appeared in an episode of The Munsters filmed in Wrigley Field titled “Herman the Rookie.” He played a baseball catcher who was fearful of Eddie’s TV father, Herman Munster. Leo Durocher also appeared in the episode.
In 1966 Durocher became manager of the Chicago Cubs and obtained Hunt in a trade with Washington on April 2. Hunt was assigned to Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League, but after batting only .235 with just 8 homers, he decided to retire from baseball. He returned to Southern California and found steady work in the aerospace industry. He and Patty divorced, but he kept in close contact with his stepson. While working at an aerospace plant he met Sherry Conklin and they married on October 18, 1969. They had three children, and together they opened a neighborhood bar near the company where they both worked.
In 1984, the City of Fargo inaugurated a golf tournament to raise money for Shanley High School and to honor its local hero, Roger Maris. Along with Maris, other players who participated in the event were Hunt, Mickey Mantle, Bill Skowron, Whitey Ford, and Bob Allison. Each year the the number of celebrities who participated grew. When it was learned that Maris had cancer, money raised from the tournament went toward the MeritCare Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo. Hunt always looked forward to being a part of this tournament, even after Maris died.
In 1997 the Hunts were planning to return to Fargo for his 14th consecutive appearance at the Maris tournament. On June 8 Hunt decided to watch his old team, now the Anaheim Angels, on television. He was particularly interested in following a fellow North Dakotan, Angels outfielder Darin Erstad. When his wife, Sherry, returned home later that evening, she found Ken dead from a heart attack. He was 62 years old.
He was survived by Sherry; their three children (a daughter, Kerry, and two sons, Steve and Chris); and two grandchildren. He was also survived by his brother, Bob, and sister, Janice. In a sense, Hunt and his friend Roger Maris are still roommates. When the charity golf tournament began on June 28, he was buried just a few feet from Maris’s grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fargo.
Eriksmoen, Curt, “Injuries Dogged Ken Hunt During His Baseball Career,” Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, September 5, 2010
“Following a Legend: Ken Hunt’s Friends, Family Return to Golf in Fargo’s Annual Event,” Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald, June 26, 2001
“Reminiscing With a Former Angel,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1980
Ken Hunt’s player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York
1 The record books state otherwise, but many still consider Maris the legitimate single-season home-run leader.
2 St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, April 16, 1960.
3 The Sporting News, August 30, 1961.
4 The Sporting News, April 19, 1961.
5 The Sporting News, January 24, 1962.
6 Milwaukee Journal, June 13, 1961.
8 The Sporting News, July 1, 1962.
10 Toledo Blade, May 27, 1963.