Jim "Catfish" Hunter, the Hall of Fame pitcher who ushered in baseball's era of big bucks for free agents, died yesterday at age 53 after battling the disease named after another New York Yankees great, Lou Gehrig.

Hunter died at his home in Hertford, N.C., according to George Byrum of Swindell Funeral Home. Hunter fell and hit his head on concrete steps at his home Aug. 8. He was unconscious for several days, but improved enough to be sent home Saturday, according to the Rev. Keith Vaughan, a family spokesman.

Hunter was one of baseball's most dominant pitchers during a 15-year career that brought him five World Series rings with the Oakland Athletics and the Yankees. He strung together five straight 20-victory seasons, pitched a perfect game and won a Cy Young Award.

He became the first multimillionaire player when he was declared a free agent on a technicality after the 1974 season, then became the Yankees' workhorse the following two years, completing 51 of 75 starts and leading them to their first pennant in 12 seasons.

"I was probably the first player who broke it open for other players to be paid what they're worth," he said in 1987, a few hours after he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner never doubted Hunter was worth every penny he got, calling him the cornerstone of the team's 1970s championships. More than simply a crafty pitcher with a range of speeds and exquisite control, Hunter gave the fractious Athletics and Yankees leadership.

"He exemplified class and dignity and taught us how to win," Steinbrenner said.

Hunter was a player's player, fiercely competitive on the field, a prankster who loved to have fun with teammates after the game. He grew a mustache and wore his hair long like them in the fashion of the late '60s and early '70s, but he retained his farm boy values and spun stories with a country drawl.

In September 1998, Hunter learned he had amyothropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurological disease that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brain that control muscle movement, causing progressive paralysis and leading to death. There is no cure for the condition, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

A funeral was scheduled at 3 p.m. Sunday in Cedar Wood Cemetery in Hertford, behind the field where Hunter played high school baseball.