Free Agent Ink

Thirty-five years ago, Catfish Hunter made history with a pen that ended up in Cooperstown

By SAMANTHA CARR
December 16, 2009


COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – In December of 1974, Jim “Catfish” Hunter became the first modern major leaguer to become a free agent at the peak of his career.

And the 39-cent pen that made him the highest-paid player in baseball quickly found its way into the collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Catfish Hunter signed his first Yankee contract worth 3.75 million with this pen which now resides at the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Samantha Carr/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Thirty-five years ago, on Dec. 16, 1974, a formal announcement was made on behalf of a three-man arbitration panel which ruled that Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley had failed to live up to the terms of Hunter’s contract, and therefore he was granted free agency.

“I don’t think any player in the history of sport has become a free agent while riding the crest-of-performance wave that Jim has been riding,” said then-Padres vice president and general manager Peter Bavasi.

In 1974, Hunter was named to the All-Star team, won the Pitcher of the Year Award by The Sporting News and won the American League Cy Young Award after leading the league in wins (25) and ERA (2.49) while striking out 143 batters. Hunter then led the A’s to their third-straight World Series title, including a win and a save in the Fall Classic with a 1.17 ERA.

That season, Hunter’s 10th in the majors, marked his sixth All-Star Game, his third top four finish in Cy Young Award voting and his fourth consecutive 20-win season. He had won 106 games in the past five years and pitched a perfect game in 1968.

Hunter’s contract stipulated a payment of $50,000 in any manner Hunter requested. When he asked Finley to pay the amount to an insurance company, Finley did not comply.

The arbitration panel’s ruling was the first of its kind and brought a bidding war for the 28-year-old pitcher, who made $100,000 a year with Oakland. On New Year’s Eve, 1974, Hunter signed a five-year, $3.75 million contract with the New York Yankees with a 39-cent Regal pen.

The Yankees later donated the pen to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where Hunter enshrined in 1987.

“To be a Yankee is a thrill in everybody’s heart and mind,” said Hunter. “I always wanted to play in New York.”

Samantha Carr is the media relations coordinator for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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