Baseball 101 – Catfish Hunter

The 1972 season ended with the Oakland Athletics beating the Cincinnati Reds 4 -3. This was the start of a three year run of domination by the A’s. They would also win the World Series in 1973 and 1974, beating the Mets and the Dodgers. The A’s finished first in their division from 1971-1975.  That is pretty dominant stretch.  Here is a list of the teams that won three or more World Series in a row:

  • 1998-2000 Yankees
  • 1972-1974 A’s
  • 1949-1953 Yankees
  • 1936-1939 Yankees

That’s it. That’s the list. You can see why Red Sox fans have endured so much pain with the Yankees. We traded away Babe Ruth in 1918 and did not win a World Series again until 2004. During that span the Yankees not only won, they dominated for long stretches. Yes, there were some down periods for the Yankees, but Yankees fans always had that vast array of World Series banners with which they would happily taunt Red Sox fans. I’ll tell you, it sucked. But, I don’t want to talk about the Yankees in this post. I want to talk about the A’s.

As usual, this post his quickly morphed into something different then what I first started with. This post was initially titled “1973”. As you can see, it is now “Catfish Hunter” and we haven’t even mentioned him yet.

The A’s were a colorful team. Their team colors were almost neon and that’s they way their owner, Charlie Finley, Jr., wanted it. Here are their uniforms for 1973-1974:

al_1973_oakland dressed to the nines

I loved the fact that two of the pitchers on the A’s during that stretch were Vida Blue and Blue Moon Odom.  I always imagined them uneasy wearing such name clashing uniforms. Look at those away uniforms. Those all yellow and all green ones are just hideous. It didn’t seem to matter to the A’s. They’d wear those uniforms and dominate. The A’s pitching in those years was stellar. Here are their 20 game winners from 1971-1975:

  • 1971 – Vida Blue (24-8), Catfish Hunter (21-11)
  • 1972 – Catfish Hunter (21-7)
  • 1973 – Ken Holtzman (21-13), Catfish Hunter (21-5), Vida Blue (20-9)
  • 1974 – Catfish Hunter (25-12)
  • 1975 – Vida Blue (22-11)

That is quite a group. One of these 20 game winners made it into the Hall of Fame. This is for my daughter – can you guess which one?

Answer – Catfish Hunter.

You might be wondering what happened to Hunter in 1975. He won 20 games in each previous season, what happened in 1975. Well, he won 23 games in 1975 but he did it for the Yankees. How did that happen?

He won the Cy Young Award in 1974. Hunter’s contract was under market and everyone knew it. Everyone playing for the A’s knew they would never get rich because Finley was a tight wad. Hunter was paid $100,000 for the 1974 season. A good salary, but nowhere near what he was worth, as we shall see.

His 1974 contract was set up where he would get $50,000 paid to him during the season and also have monthly payments sent to a bank for the other $50,000 to pay for an annuity. Hunter’s monthly payments made it to him, but the A’s owner, Finley, never sent the money for the annuity. This contract issue became a big deal in the press since Hunter was so awesome that year and there was speculation that Hunter might have some means of redress but no one was sure what he should get for the breach.

As the story goes, one day Hunter was called into Finley’s office. The commissioner of baseball at the time, Bowie Kuhn, was also in the office. Finley handed Hunter a check saying “Here’s the money.” Hunter almost took the money but then decided not to. Hunter responded, “Pay the insurance like the contract reads.”

When Marvin Miller, the head of the player’s union, heard about this case he thought it was pretty much open and shut. Hunter had informed the A’s of the contract violation and they had not corrected it in the 10 day window set forth in the collective bargaining agreement. The main concern for Miller was that the remedy was pretty severe – granting Hunter free agency. This was a big moment in baseball labor relations. This was two years before baseball’s reserve clause was obliterated and full fledged free agency came about. When Hunter presented his case, the idea that players could be free agents was seen as an impossibility.

To quickly end the story, a labor arbitrator ruled against Finley and granted Hunter free agency. Hunter, at first, was worried. He didn’t know what that meant. He thought it meant he did not have a job for 1975. How wrong he was.

Hunter lived on a farm in rural North Carolina and local lawyer handled his matters. If someone wanted to sign Hunter for the 1975 season, they’d have to go to rural North Carolina to make a pitch to Hunter and his lawyer, J. Carlton Cherry. The A’s offered to forgive a loan and give Hunter a three year guaranteed deal. Cherry thought that was pretty good and he relayed his thoughts to Miller. Miller told him this was the first time a superstar was free for open bidding. Wait. That offer would pale in comparison, Miller said. Indeed it would.

The Indians came in and offered Hunter a $2 million dollar deal. Hunter was shocked. The Padres upped the ante. They offered $4 million. The Yankees offered a bit less, but Hunter was intrigued by New York and took their five year offer. So, in 1975 Hunter pitched for the Yankees. That is why we don’t see him with Vida Blue in the 20 win column for A’s in 1975. Here is what Hunter did for the Yankees:

1975 NYY 23 14 2.58 30 7 328.0 248 83 177 144 1.009
1976 NYY 17 15 3.53 21 2 298.2 268 68 173 98 1.125
1977 NYY 9 9 4.71 8 1 143.1 137 47 52 84 1.284
1978 NYY 12 6 3.58 5 1 118.0 98 35 56 102 1.127
1979 NYY 2 9 5.31 1 0 105.0 128 34 34 77 1.543
NYY (5 yrs) 63 53 3.58 65 11 993.0 879 267 492 103 1.154
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 2/4/2014.

Hunter was a key figure in the explosion of baseball salaries. He died in 1999 at the age of 53. The year before his death, he learned that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS. Despite his less then stellar performance at the end of his career, George Steinbrenner had no regrets about acquiring Hunter. He said, “Catfish Hunter was the cornerstone of the Yankees’ success over the last quarter century. We were not winning before Catfish arrived. He exemplified class and dignity and he taught us how to win.”

I hardly ever appreciate George Steinbrenner, but on Hunter, Steinbrenner had it right. Hunter was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987.


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