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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published August 29 2010

Eriksmoen: Hunt good friend, competitive rival of Maris

Two youngsters who knew each other in Grand Forks later played together on the pennant-winning 1960 New York Yankees.

Besides their Grand Forks roots, Roger Maris and Ken Hunt shared other remarkable similarities: Both were born in 1934, excelled in football, attended parochial Catholic high schools, played the outfield and pitched, had their best seasons in 1961, died at a relatively early age and were buried in the same cemetery.

Hunt and Maris were considered sluggers who were also excellent outfielders. Maris gained most of his fame after he was traded to the Yankees, whereas Hunt originally signed with the Yankees but gained most of his fame while playing with the Los Angeles Angels.

Hunt was born July 13, 1934, in Grand Forks. He likely first met Maris at church because both attended St. James Catholic Church. Maris moved to Fargo in the mid-1940s, and he and Hunt then became fierce competitors. Maris attended Sacred Heart (which changed its named to Shanley High School), and Hunt attended St. James Academy. Both were gifted athletes in all sports, playing basketball and football at school, and Legion baseball.

Their rivalry seemed to catch the most press on the football field. St. James had never defeated Shanley. In 1950, Hunt gave St. James an opportunity. During the first quarter, he intercepted a pass, and when the team got the ball down to the two-yard line, Hunt punched it in for a touchdown. The extra point was missed, and St. James led 6-0. Later in the game, the Shanley quarterback connected on a pass to Maris, who ran 52 yards for a touchdown. Shanley won 7-6. The next season, Hunt scored two touchdowns to lead St. James to its first victory over Shanley. Because both played football so well, Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy made a special trip to recruit them to play for the “Fighting Irish.”

Major league baseball scouts also kept their eyes on Hunt and Maris. When Hunt graduated from St. James, the Chicago White Sox offered him a $500 signing bonus to play for them. Soon, three other teams made offers. Joe McDermott, the area scout for the Yankees, had watched center-fielder Hunt in an American Legion game. What he saw made his jaw drop.

Grand Forks was playing a team that had a runner on third with one out. The batter hit a ball just short of the center field fence, which Hunt raced back to catch. The runner on third tagged up and attempted to score after the catch, but “Hunt threw a bullet to the plate – probably never more than 12 feet off the ground,” and the runner was easily tagged out. McDermott said, “I gotta have this kid.”

McDermott knew raw talent. Earlier he had signed Bill Skowron, Bob Cerv and John Blanchard, three sluggers for the Yankees. He sent Hunt to work out with the Kansas City Blues in the American Association and, on June 3, 1952, offered Hunt a $10,000 signing bonus. In just a few days, Hunt suited up to play for the Joplin Miners in the Western Association, a Class C farm team of the Yankees. He did something most professional players never accomplish in a career – he hit for the cycle with a single, double, triple and home run.

Hunt batted .286 at Joplin in 49 games. Since he was only 17, management wanted to see what he could do against players his own age, so he was sent to Olean in the Pony League. Hunt batted .500 in the remaining 30 games. In 1953, he was assigned to Boise in the Pioneer League, where he batted .269 with 18 home runs. In 1954, Hunt was promoted to Quincy in the Three-I League and hit .320 with 16 homers.

Hunt appeared to be on the fast-track to the major leagues, but he drew a low number in the draft lottery and was notified that he needed to spend two years in the military. He was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in 1955 and Fort Crowder in 1956, and was able to play baseball for military teams.

Following his discharge, the Yankees invited Hunt to spring training in 1957. Manager Casey Stengel was impressed with Hunt, the player with the rifle arm, but sent him back to the minor leagues for more seasoning. Hunt hit .240 for New Orleans in the Southern Association. In 1958, he returned to New Orleans, batting .282 with 29 home runs. In 1959, Hunt improved his average to .322 with Shreveport and was promoted to the Yankees late in the season.

The Yankee outfield consisted of Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer and Norm Sieburn. On Dec. 11, Hunt received the news that the Yankees had traded Bauer and Sieburn to the Kansas City Athletics for Maris.

He thought he would be rejoining his old friend, and thought an outfield position would open up. Instead, the Yankees converted Hector Lopez, their former third baseman, to the outfield, and Hunt was sent to Richmond in the International League. Hunt returned to the Yankees later in the season, hitting .273 in 25 games. His roommate was Roger Maris.

Next week, we will conclude our article about Ken Hunt as we examine his 1961 breakout season with the Los Angeles Angels, how his pre-teen stepson not only got Hunt an appearance on a popular television sitcom but also negotiated his return to professional baseball, and his passionate involvement in Fargo’s annual Roger Maris Golf Tournament.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.