In 2021, Gerrit Cole will make $36 million dollars as the ace of the Yankees and one of baseball’s best pitchers. One man that paved the way for Cole to make such an astronomical sum of money was Catfish Hunter.
On Dec. 31, 1974, Hunter signed a five-year, $3.25 million deal to play with New York and help usher free agency into Major League Baseball.
At the time, New York Times writer, and future J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, Murray Chase, said the signing ended “the most celebrated bidding war in American sports history.”
Like Cole, Hunter was considered one of the best, if not the best, pitchers in the game. He was coming off three straight World Series titles for the Oakland A’s.
Free agency wasn’t part of baseball in 1974, but Hunter was on his way to changing the game forever.
According to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s website, baseballhall.org, “Hunter claimed (Charles) Finley (the A’s owner at the time) had breached his contract by failing to pay him $50,000 – half of Hunter’s salary – into a long-term annuity fund.
“The arbitrator in this case, eventually ruled that Hunter’s contract had been violated, which made Hunter the first big-name veteran free agent of the modern era.”
Hunter would pitch for the Yankees for the remainder of his career, from 1975-1979 and help the team reclaim the glory it lost in the early part of the decade by winning three American League Pennants and two World Series titles.
Chass said in his article for the Times, “while football, basketball and hockey have been subjected to costly bidding wars in the last 15 years because of the birth of competing leagues, baseball has never had that problem. Before baseball adopted its free‐agent draft, major league clubs competed for young prospects and frequently paid upwards of $100,000. But a free agent of Hunter’s experience and status was unheard of.”
Hunter’s bout with Finley came at a perfect time for the Yankees, as it was early in George Steinbrenner’s tenure as general partner. And even though Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball for two years at the time, his willingness to spend money surely had an impact on the other owners of the Yankees at the time.
Steinbrenner told Gabe Paul, then Yankee president, “any time you have an opportunity to buy the contract of a player for cash, I want you to go ahead whenever, in your judgment, it would be advantageous to the Yankees.”
Dec. 31st could be a baseball holiday even without it being New Years Eve because of the trail Hunter blazed 46 years ago.
The average salary for an MLB player is now approximately $4.4 million, which is over a million more than Hunter made in his five years with the Yankees.
Since the advent of free agency, the Yankees have seemingly been linked to every top target each offseason and it’s not changing in 2020 heading into 2021.
The Yankees and their fans would love for some Catfish magic to occur this New Years Eve in the way of re-signing top priority DJ LeMahieu.
Before Hunter, however, most players were stuck with a team unless traded or released. Now that free agency is a large part of the game, the Yankees are a preferred destination by many, like Hunter said upon signing in 1974.
“To be a Yankee is a thought in everyone’s head and mine,” Hunter said. “Just walking into Yankee Stadium, chills run through you. I believe there was a higher offer, but no matter how much money offered, if you want to be a Yankee, you don’t think about it.”