Bob Dylan's "Catfish" is about James "Catfish" Hunter, who pitched for the Kansas City Athletics, Oakland Athletics, and New York Yankees from 1965-1979. In 1976, he became the first pitcher since 1915 to win 200 games.
The theme of the song is not what fans generally see from Dylan. Its distinction almost certainly stems from the fact that it was co-written with a fellow by the name of Jacques Levy.
Levy, a clinical psychologist, English professor, songwriter, and theater director, met Dylan through Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. The two decided to collaborate, and in 1976 Levy co-wrote all but two songs ("One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" and "Sara") on the Desire album.
"Catfish" was also written and recorded to be on the album, but did not make the final cut. The song surfaced 15 years later on 1991's The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991.
As John Bauldie and others have observed, there's nothing surreal, metaphorical, or multi-layered about the song's lyrics. It appears to be nothing more than what it is on the surface: a song about a great baseball player. The utter lack of lyrical or musical ambiguity is rather odd, coming from Dylan. Eric Clapton happened to be present at the "Catfish" recording session, and his memory of the event helps explain how such an oddity as "Catfish" came into being.
Clapton recalled, "He (Dylan) was just driving around, picking musicians up and bringing them back to sessions. It ended up with something like 24 musicians in the studio, all playing these incredibly incongruous instruments - accordion, violin... It was very hard to keep up with him. He wasn't sure what he wanted. He was really looking, racing from song to song."
The musician credits on this track as listed on the album's liner notes are:
Bob Dylan - guitar, vocals Erik Frandsen - slide guitar Rob Stoner - bass Sugar Blue - harmonica (real name: James Whiting - he appears on a few Rolling Stones albums)