New Book Reviews Catfish Hunter’s Free Agency

If the excerpt I have just read from Jason Turnbow's Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley's Swinging A's is any indication, it promises to be maybe the single best study of one of baseball's most memorably controversial teams. The early-to-mid-1970s Oakland Athletics were many things. Dull wasn't one of them.

You remember: the Mustache Gang who ruled baseball (three straight World Series rings, a feat not achieved since) while they played and were owned almost as though there were no rules beyond the caprices of themselves (if ever any team adhered to the old maxim that boys will be boys, the early 70s A's were it), and, particularly, their Mad Hatter-like owner.

My copy is on order. Sports Illustrated has excerpted one of the key chapters, the one in which Finley's duplicities provoked the next-to-last kicking open of the free agency door, by way of a pitcher with a stubborn integrity, Hall of Famer Jim (Catfish) Hunter.

What you probably remember: Hunter, his agent, and Yankee official and longtime Hunter friend Clyde Kluttz high-tailing it to New York, on the final day of 1974, after one and all agreed in principle that Hunter, freshly declared a free agent, would become a Yankee.

What you may not remember is exactly how Hunter got there in the first place. Call it a combination of Finley and the call of the wild.

It started with Finley trying to squeeze Hunter on a $100,000 loan the owner made the pitcher to enable Hunter to buy a large farm next to his Hertford, North Carolina property. It ended with Hunter so anxious to get even one day in the woods at the end of deer season that he was ready to make a deal even if it wasn't the top dollar deal on the table.

The loan term mandated Hunter repaying at $20,000 a year at 6 percent interest. The two men made it on a handshake. Oops. Finley concurrently bought the Memphis Pros of the upstart American Basketball Association and the California Golden Seals (long since merged into what's long been the Dallas Stars) of the National Hockey League. The strain those buys made on his overall business prodded Finley to push Hunter hard for faster-than-mandated loan repayments.

"He'd call me in the clubhouse. He'd call me off the field. He called me at the hotels on the road. He called me at home. He called my father, who was furious," Hunter would remember.

The pitcher tried to arrange alternate financing through North Carolina banks, a tough proposition when he couldn't be there in person, with Finley refusing him time off to do it. At one point Hunter was so nervous he offered to pitch on a 10-year deal at $15,000 a year in lieu of the $150,000 owed. When Finley rejected that, Hunter ended up selling 80 percent of the farm to a family friend to repay Finley.

It left a taste in Hunter's mouth sour enough that, from that point forward, the right-hander would document every subsequent agreement with Finley extensively, a final detail, "it turned out, would prove to be instrumental in the years to come," Turnbow writes.

Hunter's next A's contract would be only the second multi-year contract Finley ever offered one of his players: two years, $100,000 per, not quite equal to Tom Seaver's or Steve Carlton's annual salaries, but enough for Hunter. The kicker: on the advice of his attorney J. Carlton Cherry, Hunter wanted half the money deferred.

"Put it into a life insurance annuity, [Cherry] said, which could be cashed in for additional income once Hunter's baseball career ended," Turnbow writes. "The benefit to this arrangement was that instead of being in a high tax bracket in 1974, Hunter would be taxed later on, when he was effectively unemployed and on the hook for a smaller amount."

For Finley, the deferral was fine, but the requirement to pay $25,000 in taxes immediately wasn't. In time, he'd deny agreeing to anything. He even failed to sign the final contract. In effect, Hunter pitched 1974 without a valid contract. Finley paid Hunter's non-deferred salary but not the required annuity to Jefferson Insurance, Hunter's home agents.

"Hunter was effectively pitching for half the money for which he signed.," Turnbow writes. Finley was ready to urge Hunter to take a straight $50,000 payment. Hunter consulted Washington legal wheel/agent Jerry Kapstein, who asked whether Cherry gave Finley official notice of a contract breach. (He had.)

When Hunter told Kapstein the period passed and Finley made no formal responses to Cherry's notice, Kapstein uttered the words that would shake baseball: "Based on those facts, it would appear to me you will be a free agent."

During the American League Championship Series, Finley again tried to offer Hunter a straight-up $50,000. Hunter replied that Finley needed only to pay the way the contract called for. Finley exploded to American League president Lee MacPhail, complaining he'd shown Hunter the money; MacPhail fell for it and said publicly he couldn't see how anyone could make Hunter a free agent.

"The trouble with that logic was that Hunter, like any employee in any profession, was entitled to the terms of his contract," Turnbow writes, "and accepting a check for which he'd have to pay taxes was not within those terms. When Hunter claimed to become a free agent after the season, he had little idea whether it would actually come to pass. There was no questioning, however, that Catfish meant every word he said."

Indeed. Hunter refused to talk about it publicly during the World Series. Players Association executive director Marvin Miller sent commissioner Bowie Kuhn a request to recognize Hunter as a free agent, which Kuhn rejected. The commissioner's offer to mediate the matter himself was also spurned, Miller citing a basic agreement clause mandating an independent arbitrator.

When the 1974 World Series ended with Oakland's third straight rings, the union filed against Finley for breach of contract and Kuhn and baseball government for failing to recognize the breach and declare Hunter a free agent. Arbitrator Peter Seitz broke a tie to rule in Hunter's favor.

By December 18, 1974, Kuhn's options to stop it exhausted, the bidding war for Hunter was on in earnest. His neighbors in Hertford and nearby Ahoskie wavered between bemusement and befuddlement at the slickers looking to make a country boy a wealthy man.

They came especially from the Braves, the Red Sox, the Indians, the Royals, the Expos, the Mets, the Phillies (then-owner Ruly Carpenter thought he'd have it in the bag when he offered Hunter unlimited hunting privileges on the Carpenter family's South Carolina acreage), the Pirates, the Padres, and the Cardinals.

Hunter didn't even accept the largest dollars offered. With ten teams minimum in the bidding, so it seemed, nobody saw the Yankees coming. Including maybe the Yankees, who hadn't made quite the best offer in terms of dollars.

But the Yankees had a critical in with Hunter: minor league scouting director, Clyde Kluttz, once a major league backup catcher and later the scout who steered Hunter to the A's in the first place, was a longtime Hunter confidante.

Kluttz swept into town before New Year's Eve to find Hunter tired of driving into nearby Ahoskie every day to continue fielding and rejecting offers, however good it felt to the right-hander to be calling the dance. Kluttz had only one question to Hunter's endless ones: "Jimmy, what would it take to make you a Yankee?"

Hunter's answer: he wanted five years' salary, fifteen years worth of deferred money, and annuities to ensure the education of his children. His next question: could the Yankees do it and with what kind of lucre?

Kluttz wrote his answer on a napkin while the two old friends had coffee: $750,000 over five years in salary; a $1 million signing bonus; $1 million in life insurance; $500,000 deferred money; $50,000 per child for his children's education; and, $200,000 to cover any future legal fees he might incur.

Hunter showed Cherry and company the napkin. Cherry was a little dismayed that at $3.5 million it totaled third-highest among the offers his client received, and well short of the Padres' $4 million plus offer. (Then-owner Ray Kroc was also willing to throw in stock and a McDonald's franchise, neither of which appealed to Hunter.) But Hunter wanted to pick his team. More important, it was where and how securely the dollars were spread that mattered more to the pitcher than his actual salary.

Thus did Hunter, Kluttz, and Cherry join up in New York for an 8:15 pm Eastern time press conference, with a Yankee cap atop Hunter's smiling head. Why did Hunter take what amounted to the third-best offer? Kluttz wasn't just an old friend but shot straight, no chaser with the right-hander, a quality that meant as much to Hunter as making sure his wife and children would be set.

The Catfish also had another motivation: deer season was almost over, the arbitration and the subsequent sweepstakes had kept him from the woods. "He had to make a decision," wrote John Helyar in The Lords of the Realm, "before he went out of his mind." The Yankees, too, wanted the Hunter deal finished by the calendar year's end for tax reasons.

Curt Flood tried and failed to bury the reserve clause. After the 1975 season, Seitz would rule in favor of Andy Messersmith (who'd pitch that season without a contract) and Dave McNally (who intended to stay retired but signed on in case the Dodgers' sweetening money offers swayed Messersmith) to bury it. "Curt Flood stood up for us," catcher Ted Simmons would say in due course. "Jim Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way."

All because Hunter's boss foolishly tried squeezing him in one direction and, violating his contract, cutting corners in another. The only squeeze Hunter wanted to know from there was his finger on the trigger of his hunting rifle and his fingers around a baseball, until he retired after the 1979 season. (He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig's disease — two decades later, at 53.)

The sad paradox was that Finley could be and was very generous with his players from time to time — paying them fat bonuses for assorted feats, including $5,000 to Hunter after the right-hander pitched his perfect game, and a spanking new Cadillac after the Hall of Famer won 21 in 1971.

But he also took perverse pleasure in insulting them during contract talks (doing it to Vida Blue after his breakout 1971 was only the most notorious) and humiliating them when they saw fit to retaliate. (When Reggie Jackson struggled one season after a bitter contract negotiation, he broke out of one slump with a monstrous grand slam and, spying Finley's box as he rounded the bases, mouthed an obscenity. Finley forced him to apologize publicly.)

Finley, alas, would feel another kind of squeeze, after the A's were knocked out of a fourth straight pennant by the Red Sox in the 1975 ALCS. The man who'd strong-armed the Beatles to surrender an off-day on their mammoth 1964 tour to play in Kansas City couldn't strong-arm his way out of the free agency era-to-be that his own chicaneries helped nourish.

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