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Catfish Hunter: America’s 1st free agent

Somewhere high above, Jim “Catfish” Hunter is having himself a good ol’ laugh. How could not he be laughing after hearing about the free agent contract that Gerrit Cole signed with the Yankees? This New Year will mark the 45th anniversary of Hunter’s free agent deal with the Yankees, the first such contract in MLB history.

And, here’s the kicker: It was a five-year deal worth $3.75M. That’s $3.75M TOTAL, not per season.

In 1975, that contract broke the bank. It paid out $750K per season, an astronomical figure for the time. Hunter, then 28, was the reigning American League Cy Young winner after a 25-12, 2.49 season in which he made 41 starts.

Hunter became a free agent after Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley was found to be in breach of contract after he refused to pay $50,000 for an insurance annuity that was part of the pitcher’s deal. An arbitrator set Hunter free on December 16 and two weeks later he became a Yankee. Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Montreal, San Diego, Kansas City and Cleveland were all in the hunt until the end. (The Mets and their chairman, M. Donald Grant,were cheap even then. They were told by Hunter’s agent early on that, “his proposal was pretty far down the line and I wouldn’t be calling him again unless he wanted to increase the offer.”).

The signing was monumental in two ways: First and foremost, the total amount of money paid out was mind-boggling. But, on top of that, Hunter was an instrumental player in getting the Yankees back to their World Championship ways.

He left an A’s team that had just finished a three-peat in the World Series and arrived at a team that was steadily improving as the 1970s moved along. His experience and pitching knowledge proved invaluable for starters like Ron Guidry and Ed Figueroa.

The Yankees fell short of their goal in 1975, but then won three straight pennants and two World Series. With his arm practically shot in 1978, “the Cat” went 6-1 down the stretch to help propel the Yankees to their miraculous come-from-behind finish in the AL East.

Catfish was as good of a big-money pitcher as there ever was in the game. The Yankees are banking on Cole to have the same impact.