"Well, I had some friends here from North Carolina who'd never seen a homer, so I gave them a couple.”—Pitcher James Augustus (Catfish) Hunter, quoted in Roger Angell, “The Sporting Scene: Wilver’s Way,” The New Yorker, November 26, 1979
There were other landmark legal cases involving Curt Flood, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, but for all intents and purposes, the modern era of free-agency in baseball began in earnest when the New York Yankees announced on this date in 1974 that Catfish Hunter had concluded a deal with them for five years and $3.5 million—piddly stuff now, compared with, say, Alex Rodriguez’s contract, but much more than anyone else was getting at the time. (Dick Allen had the highest salary for 1974, at $250,000.)
I remember that I was over a friend’s house that night for New Year’s Eve when the news broke. My friend Jimmy, a Yankee fan like myself, told the group of us: “Mark my words: The Yankees are on the way back to the World Series.” It took another year, but he was right.
Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley had only himself to blame for the departure of his Cy Young Award-winning pitcher. Charlie O. welshed on contributing $50,000—half of Hunter’s salary—to a life-insurance fund. In response, arbitrator Peter Seitz declared Hunter a free agent, and George Steinbrenner came courting with his money and talk of Yankee tradition.
The above quote from Hunter—delivered at a postgame press conference in the 1974 World Series, after he had yielded two homers in Game 3 against the Los Angeles Dodgers—shows part of the reason why he was hugely popular with his teammates. He was self-deprecating about his own accomplishments, which made it all the easier for teammates to accept his country-boy needling. (On Reggie Jackson: “When you unwrap a Reggie bar, it tells you how good it is.")
The regular-season accomplishments that earned Hunter a plaque in Cooperstown—the first regular-season perfect game in the majors in more than four decades, five 20-win seasons, 224 career wins, more than 3,400 innings pitched—only tell part of what he meant to his teams.
When the game was on the line in the postseason, Hunter rose to the occasion. He appeared in 12 of the 16 post-season series played in the American League from 1971 through 1978. Not so coincidentally, he was on the winning side 10 times. In more than the obvious way, he was the great money pitcher of his time, the one you'd want on the mound when the game was on the line.
Catfish didn’t aim to strike out batters, but to control the location of pitches and the tempo of the game. He joked about his penchant for yielding homers, but unlike so many of today’s pitchers, who drive me crazy by getting ahead in the count 3-0, giving up a walk, then throwing a home run to the next batter, Catfish’s homers tended to be less damaging because otherwise he kept men off the basepaths. (In 1974, he led the AL with the fewest walks per nine innings pitched.) Once he gave up the homer, he’d immediately call for another ball and take care of business with the next batter.
Like a Yankee ace of an earlier era, Whitey Ford, Catfish didn’t waste time on the mound. This seems to be a forgotten art in this age. When players don’t spend as much time out on the diamond, they don’t tire as quickly in the late innings.
Hunter had the last of his 20-game seasons in his first year with the Yankees. After that, the toll of all his earlier innings, as well as diabetes, eroded his performance, though he could contribute at crucial points when he had to. (His six wins in August 1978, following months when he’d been riddled with pain, were crucial in helping the Yankees make their epic comeback from 14 games behind the Red Sox.)
In George Steinbrenner’s heyday, the Yankees’ owner could be remarkably crass when his major free-agent signings didn’t turn out well. But even he knew better than to jump over Catfish, the grown-up in the Bronx Zoo of the 1970s. When Hunter’s star appeared on the decline, Steinbrenner summed up his legacy, crisply, generously and entirely appropriately:
"Catfish Hunter brought respectability to the Yankees. Without him, we would never have been world champs. If he never pitches another ball, he has been worth every cent."
Sadly, Hunter passed away in 1998 from ALS, the same disease that took the life of the earlier Yankee great Lou Gehrig. But while he’s left this life, he’ll always remain in the hearts of Yankee fans.