Indians Came Up Short in Pursuit of Hunter
Vince Guerrieri | On 17, Feb 2016
By 1974, Jim Hunter was a rarity in Major League Baseball. Not only was he one of the game’s best pitchers – if not the best – he was a player who’d lived up to his early high-priced potential.
Hunter was signed out of high school by the Kansas City Athletics for a $50,000 bonus and a nickname that Charlie Finley loved but nobody who knew Hunter ever used: Catfish. But a decade later, Hunter became one of the first free agents in baseball – and nearly ended up with the Indians.
Since the major leagues’ inception – and despite several court challenges – baseball had been governed by the reserve clause, which said that the rights of a player, even one that wasn’t under contract, were reserved by the team he’d last played for. Salaries were deflated, and many players stayed with one team their entire career, not necessarily out of loyalty, but because they couldn’t decide to go somewhere else.
Cracks in the clause started to show in the 1970s. Curt Flood unsuccessfully challenged it in court, and a new head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Marvin Miller, was trying to chip away at it through arbitration. But it remained as much a part of baseball as “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” and beer and hot dogs.
Hunter was coming off a triumphant season in 1974. He’d gone 25-12, his fourth straight 20-win season, and won the Cy Young Award as the Athletics had become the first team in 21 years – and the only team other than the Yankees – to win three straight World Series.
Hunter was making $100,000 a year with the Athletics. Half was paid to him throughout the year. The other half was deferred compensation, deposited in an annuity. Finley withheld the annuity, on which he would have to pay income tax. Hunter, with some prodding from Miller, went not to the commissioner, but to a lawyer, who said it was a breach of contract. The case went to arbitration, and Peter Seitz cast the deciding vote of a three-person panel that Hunter was a free agent.
Negotiations were confidential, but the Plain Dealer reported that Hunter was looking for a multi-year deal around $175,000 a year – with a signing bonus of about $500,000, and he had plenty of suitors. There were 24 teams in the major leagues at the time, and only the San Francisco Giants hadn’t pursued him. Four other teams – the Cardinals, Pirates, Tigers and Orioles – dropped out of the sweepstakes early, saying they couldn’t meet the price.
But the Indians were in the hunt, and owner Ted Bonda and general manager Phil Seghi – who had worked in the Athletics front office in the 1960s – went to North Carolina to court Hunter.
“I feel our offer was sound and our presentation was good,” Seghi said. “We’re talking about one of the most valuable pieces of property in all of baseball. Hunter would make an instant contender of almost any team in both major leagues, and he’d make an instant favorite of any club in our division.”
Hunter also got a visit from Indians pitcher Gaylord Perry, who lived in Williamston, N.C., about 35 miles from Hunter’s hometown of Hertford. “I told him we have a good young team that could win the pennant with just another pitcher – a pitcher like Catfish Hunter.”
Perry wasn’t just blowing smoke. The Indians had been in first place in July, but faded in the last six weeks of the season.
Hunter was eyeing New York City, but Perry told him, “We’re both country boys, and he wouldn’t like the hustle and bustle of a big city like New York.”
By Christmas of 1974, Hunter was seriously evaluating four offers. By New Year’s Eve, it was down to the Yankees and the Indians. In the end, Hunter ended up with the Bronx. The Yankees signed Hunter to a $3.5 million deal. He wouldn’t be the highest-paid player in the majors, with an annual salary of $150,000, but the deal was the biggest in major league history (two years earlier, the entire team had sold to a group headed by George Steinbrenner – spurned in his offer to buy the Indians – for $8.8 million), including a $1 million signing bonus and a variety of annuities – including one for each of his two children to attend college.
In what would become a sad tradition, the Indians were runners-up, offering more than $3 million. “We went absolutely as far as we could go,” Bonda said. “We went to the limit – to the very limit – of our resources.”
With Hunter, the Yankees finished third in the American League East in 1975. Without him, the Indians finished fourth, four games behind the Yankees. But at the end of the year, a bombshell dropped. Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally had successfully challenged the reserve clause. Free agency was coming to baseball.
Plain Dealer beat writer Hal Lebovitz clucked at the unbelievable salary, and suggested that government intervention would be necessary. “The Hunter case affords a test-tube example of what would happen if the reserve clause in baseball were erased,” he said, demonstrating an understanding of capitalism. “The top talents would be besieged by bidders.”
And Steinbrenner quickly became a leading suitor. The advent of free agency led some teams to refuse to participate. The Yankees were not one of those teams, adding Reggie Jackson. Eventually, the Indians even got into the free agent market, signing Wayne Garland. (It did not go well.)
The Yankees went to three straight World Series, winning two. And Steinbrenner later said Hunter – who was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987 – was the catalyst, saying, “He taught us how to win.”
Hunter pitched until 1979, when arm problems spelled the end of his career. Also, Perry proved to be right. “I don’t like New York much,” Hunter said. “Never go downtown. Nothing for me to do down there.”
Instead, he returned to North Carolina, where he died in 1999, becoming the second most-famous Yankees player to die from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Photo: Associated Press