Today in Yankees History: Catfish Hunter

Over the course of baseball history, New Year’s Eve has remained relatively uneventful.  By this time of year, the Winter Meetings are usually over, and any teams planning on making a big splash in the free agent market most likely would have done so already.  This wasn’t the case in 1974.
Photo via Si.com

On December 31st, 1974, the New York Yankees orchestrated what was at the time the biggest free agent signing in baseball history when they signed James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter to a 5-year, $3.35 million contract.  Hunter also received a $1 million signing bonus upfront as part of this deal.  This blockbuster signing effectively made Hunter the first professional baseball player to earn $1 million in a single season.  His contract seems to pale in comparison to those awarded in baseball today, however at the time, this made Hunter the highest-paid player in professional baseball.

Hunter shined with the Kansas City and Oakland Athletics, compiling six All-Star appearances while winning three World Series championships.  In 1968 during the Athletics’ first year in Oakland, Hunter hurled the seventh perfect game in baseball’s modern era, while going 3-4 at the plate and driving in three runs, solidifying his spot as one of the top pitchers in baseball. Hunter went on to lead the American League in wins and earned run average (ERA) in the 1974 season en route to his first and only Cy Young award as well as his final championship with Oakland. 

Following the 1974 season, Hunter filed for arbitration after it was discovered that Athletics’ owner Charles O. Finley had violated part of his contract with the star pitcher.  After winning his appeal, Hunter became one of baseball’s first “big money” free agents, paving the way for future players to pursue large contracts with guaranteed money.

With Hunter's sparkling resume, it is no wonder why George Steinbrenner, then-owner of the Yankees, pursued him so heavily.  After a fierce bidding war that included 23 of the 24 teams in Major League Baseball, the Boss got his man.  Despite receiving higher offers from the Kansas City Royals and the San Diego Padres, Hunter chose the Yankees, citing a natural grass playing field and close proximity to his home state of North Carolina as his reasoning behind choosing New York.

While he left his best years behind him in Oakland, Hunter still found success in his injury-shortened, five-year career with the Pinstripers, pitching the Yankees to two World Series titles while being selected to two more All-Star games.  He finished his Yankee career with a respectable 3.58 ERA and a modest 63 wins before a combination of chronic arm injuries and diabetes forced his early retirement from the game.

At the conclusion of his career, Oakland retired Hunter’s number 27, and in 1987 he was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame as one of the elite starting pitchers in baseball history, receiving 76.27% of the vote in his third year of eligibility.

The signing of Catfish Hunter will remain one of the biggest free agent signings in Yankees history, as well as being one of the biggest baseball events to ever take place on New Years’ Eve.

Article by: Matthew Smith

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