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Dec. 13, 1974:  Catfish Hunter becomes a free agent

On Dec. 13, 1974, players across Major League Baseball began to learn the true value of free agency.

That was the day Jim “Catfish” Hunter -- who had just led the Oakland A’s to their third straight World Series championship and won the AL Cy Young Award following his fourth consecutive season with more than 20 wins -- was released from his contract by a neutral arbitrator who found that club owner Charlie Finley had not abided by the terms of the deal.

Baseball’s reserve clause, which was believed to bind a player to his club in perpetuity, was still in full affect in 1974 despite growing awareness by players that it diminished their ability to bid their services to other clubs. Curt Flood had brought an ultimately unsuccessful court challenge against the clause two years earlier and Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller was actively seeking players in strong position to challenge it in arbitration.

Before Miller’s effort came to fruition, however, the contractual dispute arose between Hunter, a personable 28-year-old from North Carolina who had been with the A’s since signing out of high school as a 19-year-old, and A’s owner Charles Finley. Half of the star pitcher’s $100,000 salary was to be paid in monthly installments on an insurance annuity, however, Finley declined to make the payments as stipulated in the contract and the Players Association filed a grievance on the star pitcher’s behalf.

"We saw this as an open and shut case, a real winner," Miller recalled in later years. "The contract language wasn't even negotiated language. It was there before me, put in there by the owners and their lawyers. Any ambiguity would go against you in that circumstance. This language was clear cut.

"If there is a violation of the contract, the player has the right to send notice to the club, calling attention to the violation. Hunter did that. The club has 10 days to correct the violation. If the club does that, that's the end of it. The Oakland club did not correct the violation."

"One thing worried me," Miller said. "The remedy was free agency. That was drastic. I thought it might be too drastic for an arbitrator."

The grievance was heard by arbitrator Peter Seitz on Nov. 19, just weeks after the A’s had won their third straight World Series. Hunter, who had won a career-high 25 games, pitched 318 innings, led the AL with a 2.49 ERA and appeared in his sixth All-Star Game, was struck by the owner’s attitude toward him as a witness in the proceeding.

“After the arbitration hearing, I knew I wouldn’t return if I was ever made a free agent because of everything he said there,” Hunter said at the time. “He just didn’t appreciate what I did for the team.

“He wasn’t gentleman enough to come to me and work things out. He was trying to beat it out of me. He didn’t think I’d take it to arbitration.”

Hunter, who died in 1999 at age 53, instead negotiated with 11 different clubs and came away with the richest contract the industry had ever seen, signing with George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees on the night of New Year’s Eve for $3.35 million over five years.

While the free-agent contract was a life-changing turn of events for Hunter, it was even more important for his fellow players. The contract opened players’ collective eyes to the true value they could command in a competitive market for their services.

That next spring, two other star pitchers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, declined to sign the contracts tendered to them by their clubs and set in motion their own challenge to the reserve clause, one they would win the following fall when Seitz, the arbitrator, ruled that the clause bound players to just one additional season without their continued agreement.

The legal victory ushered in an unprecedented growth in player compensation with average salaries rising from $19,000 in 1966 to $326,000 in 1982 –Miller’s last as MLBPA Executive Director.  Today, the average salary is closing in on $4 million.