It was Curt Flood who in 1970 first challenged baseball's reserve clause, the contract provision that kept players indentured to a single team. Flood lost both a Supreme Court case and his career. But his sacrifice allowed Jim "Catfish" Hunter to rack up a win. In late 1974, just months after Hunter's Oakland A's had won the World Series, an arbitrator ruled that by breaching part of Hunter's contract, A's owner Charles O. Finley had invalidated the entire contract, including the reserve clause.
That made Hunter baseball's first free agent. At the time, his $3.75 million contract with the New York Yankees ranked as the largest in baseball's history. Fast Company called Hunter at his peanut farm in Hertford, North Carolina.
What was baseball like before free agency — say, when you started with the A's in 1965?
You'd ask for a raise, and the most you'd get would be $2,000 or $3,000. Later on, if you proved yourself after seven or eight years, maybe you'd get a $10,000 or $15,000 raise. And you didn't have any options. You couldn't go to another team. You had to sign with the team that owned you or not sign at all.
Did players talk about how unfair that was — or was it just part of the game?
You'd talk about it. You'd see what other players were getting. The main thing was to find out about guys on other clubs — what a pitcher with the same record as you was making.
What happened to make you a free agent?
I became a free agent because Mr. Finley wouldn't pay my contract as it was written. He wouldn't pay the $50,000 to an insurance fund that my contract called for.
What was going through your mind when the arbitrator said you were a free agent?
I said, "I don't have a job. I got to find me a job." It was an odd feeling, because I wanted to be with the Oakland A's. I offered to come back to Mr. Finley for the same contract if he would buy a farm back for me that I'd lost. He'd lent me the money to buy the farm, but I had to pay him back in six months, and the only way to do that was to sell it.
Why did you sign with the Yankees?
I signed with the Yankees because of Clyde Kluttz, who was in the Yankees front office. He was the scout who had originally signed me with the A's. We were having breakfast one day — just talking. All at once he said, "Would you take such and such?" And I said, "Yes, I would." He said, "Well, I can't get it for you now. I gotta call somebody." So he called back to New York, and they said they could do it.
But other teams were offering more money. Why did you say no to them?
The Padres offered about $500,000 more than the Yankees, but I turned it down because San Diego was on the West Coast, and I wanted to be on the East Coast, close to home. But Clyde Kluttz was the main reason.
Have younger players ever asked you about free agency — even thanked you?
Players today don't know who I was or that I played baseball.
What would you say if they did ask you?
I would tell them they were lucky to be playing — especially with the money they're making because of free agency. I'd say, "Don't worry about what someone else is making." It don't make any difference how much money anyone makes. And besides, someone else is always going to make more.
For more on Jim "Catfish" Hunter, check out Total Baseball Online http://www.totalbaseball.com .
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.