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On This Date in Sports December 15, 1974: Free Catfish

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Catfish Hunter becomes as Free Agent after the Oakland Athletics are found to be in breach of contract for failing to make a $50,000 payment to a life insurance annuity. Hunter was coming off his finest season, winning 25 games at the Cy Young Award. He had signed a two-year deal worth $200,000 at the start of the year. He would go to sign with the New York Yankees two weeks later.

Jim Hunter was born on April 8, 1946, in Hertford, North Carolina. The youngest of eight children, Hunter, had suffered a foot injury in a hunting accident. Despite the accident, he still was able to sign a contract with the Kansas City Athletics, as Owner Charles O. Finley arraigned for Hunter to have surgery at the Mayo Clinic to save his injured foot. Finley wanted his young star pitcher to have a colorful nickname and bestowed the name Catfish upon him.

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Catfish Hunter made his debut at the age of 19 in 1965 and became a fan favorite for the A’s in their final seasons in Kansas City. Upon moving to Oakland, Hunter was apart of a core group of players that began to turn around the struggling Athletics franchise, which for nearly 40 years had been a second division ballclub, through three cities, starting in Philadelphia and ending in Oakland.

The Oakland Athletics won three straight World Series starting in 1972 as Catfish Hunter topped 20 wins five consecutive seasons. Hunter’s best season was in 1974, when he went 25-12 with a league-best 2.49 ERA, winning the American League Cy Young. Before the season, Catfish Hunter signed a two-year deal worth $200,000 with the Athletics. The contract paid Hunter $50,000 per year in salary with a $50,000 payment every November to a life insurance annuity.

Upon learning he would be taxed $25,000, Charlie O. Finley refused to make the payment that Catfish Hunter was due. This triggered a contract dispute hat went before arbitrator Peter Seitz, who declares the ace pitcher a free agent after he ruled the Athletics were in breach of contract. At first, Hunter feared the Free Agent process but signed with the New York Yankees two weeks later. He received a record five-year deal worth $3.35 million, as nearly all 24 teams made an offer hoping to sign baseball’s first free agent.

The Catfish Hunter ruling would lay the foundation for full free agency in Major League Baseball, as Seitz again ruled in favor of the players a year later, kicking off a new era in baseball labor and contracts.