MLB: Which team signed the first free agent in history and how many million did they pay him?

47 years ago baseball changed forever. That was the day that Jim “Catfish” Hunter left the Oakland Athletics after a judge named Peter Seitz ruled that the Athletics had violated Hunter’s contract by failing to pay him the money he was owed. At the time, Hunter, one of the great pitchers of his time, became baseball’s first free agent.

Hunter signed with the Yankees to a five-year, $ 3.25 million deal. You may not have fully understood how baseball had changed forever because of Seitz’s decision, a year before Seitz basically ended baseball’s reserve clause, which had previously tied players to their teams until, already unless, they were released. But baseball had changed forever, years after a brave man named Curt Flood ended his career when he challenged the reservation clause to the United States Supreme Court. “I hung up the phone,” Hunter said the moment he learned of the ruling, “and I turned to my wife and said, ‘We don’t belong to anyone.’

Hunter eventually pitched in three World Series for the Yankees, after winning three consecutive championships with the Athletics from 1972 to 1974, before coming to New York. Much later, he became another champion Yankees player with ALS, as Lou Gehrig had been, dying at the age of 53 at his home in North Carolina.

But after making such a good story in Oakland, in the Fall Classics and with four consecutive 20-win seasons, Hunter made a different kind of story off the field in New York on New Years Eve, where the big news of That night he wasn’t there. It’s not just a ball that falls in Times Square. Hunter probably didn’t think he was changing the world because a referee ruled in his favor. But that’s exactly what he did.

The money Hunter made when he signed that night at the former Yankees offices in the Park Administration Building (in Flushing, Queens, of all places) seems quaint compared to the money modern free agents now make. But it was a lot of money at the time, ending what the New York Times called “the most celebrated bidding war in American history.”

All because the quiet man from Hertford, North Carolina, did not legally belong to anyone after it was ruled that he could leave Charlie Finley’s A’s and make his own decisions about where he wanted to pitch next.

One of the ironic parts of this story, which is still a great story and a turning point in baseball history, is that while it was the beginning of how George Steinbrenner would change baseball forever too, Steinbrenner was suspended. of the game at the time due to illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign (a crime for which he was eventually pardoned). So Yankees team president Gabe Paul was the point man in the negotiations. But before Steinbrenner was to serve his suspension, he had said this to Paul:

“Whenever you get a chance to control a player for cash, go ahead.”

Not long after, with Steinbrenner back in control of the Yankees and starting to spend money, he signed Catfish Hunter’s former A’s teammate Reggie Jackson to a five-year contract worth a total of $ 3.5 million.

Jackson kept winning in New York the way he and Hunter, whom Jackson once described as the “boss” of the old Athletics, had won those three World Series titles in Oakland. Jackson wanted New York and the scene of Yankee Stadium, just like Hunter before him.

“I think there were higher offers,” Hunter said after signing his contract, “but no matter how much money was offered, if you want to be a Yankee, don’t think about it.”

So the Yankees beat the Pirates, Dodgers, Padres, Royals, Expos and Cleveland for Hunter’s services. Hunter had arm problems in New York and was diagnosed with diabetes, and only occasionally did he look like the pitcher who had gone 88-35 in his last four seasons with the Athletics.

Hunter feared that his career could end in the summer of 1978, due to shoulder problems. He then underwent a 10-minute non-surgical “shoulder manipulation” at the hands of Yankees team physician Maurice Cowen. One last time, Hunter was released in a different way.

Hunter returned to the Yankees in July, when they were still 13 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. If it wasn’t the Hunter of yore, it was close enough. There’s no way New York would have caught Boston during that unforgettable summer, or won its second straight World Series title, without Hunter pitching like he did down the stretch.

Hunter was 2-9 with a 5.31 ERA in 19 starts in 1979, before retiring at the age of 33. Still, he came to the end of a contract that we remember today, because that contract should be remembered.

Mike Lupica /


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MLB: Which team signed the first free agent in history and how many million did they pay him?