In 1974, Dick Allen had a pretty good year for a mediocre Chicago White Sox team. The 32 year old slugger slashed .301/.375/.563 with 32 home runs in 128 games. Allen, who had won the MVP Award in 1972, and who had been one of the most feared sluggers in the game since 1964, was also the highest paid player in baseball in 1974, earning $250,000, about $1.3 million in today’s dollars. Within a few weeks of the season ending Allen lost that position to Catfish Hunter who signed a five year contract with the Yankees that would pay him $640,000 a year for each of the next five years. Hunter’s contract was groundbreaking, by far the biggest ever given to a baseball player up to that time.
Hunter was one of the first free agents, earning his freedom when Oakland A’s owner refused follow the precise terms of Hunter’s previous contract. That was the last time the Yankees made a free agent pitcher the highest paid player in the game. At the time of the signing, Hunter was the reigning Cy Young Award winner, who had won 20 or more games in each of the previous four seasons and had been the ace of an A’s squad that had won three consecutive World Series. Over those three postseasons, back before the wild card, Hunter had gone 6-1 with an ERA of 1.91. Gerrit Cole may throw harder and strike out more batters than Hunter ever did, but Cole’s postseason resume does not compare to what Hunter had done for those World Series winning A’s teams.
Cole’s enormous contract has been met with the usual commentary about how overpaid ballplayers are and the equally predictable suggestion that the Yankees are somehow cheating because they have the radical idea of paying good players well to help the team win. However, this is very mild fare compared to the reception that met Hunter’s contract, which was viewed by many as some sort of economic apocalypse marking the inevitable decline of baseball. After all, his contract was almost three times what the highest second highest paid player, who in 1975 would be Henry Aaron making $250,000, would earn. Hunter’s contract also helped open the door to the free agent era that changed baseball so much. The Yankees deal with Hunter was so significant that Bob Dylan wrote a song about it. Dylan, to his credit, praised Hunter in his lyrics.
The basic outline of Hunter’s career with the Yankees is known by most history minded fans. In 1975, he went 23-14 with a 2.57 ERA while throwing 30 complete games and seven shutouts and finished a close second in the Cy Young balloting to Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles. Hunter was not the same pitcher after that. In 1976, his record fell to 17-15 with a 3.53 ERA. He was still considered the ace of that pennant winning staff because of his resume, but Dock Ellis, Ed Figueroa and perhaps even Doyle Alexander had better years. Injuries limited Hunter to fewer than 25 games in each of the next three seasons. By 1979, Hunter had nothing left, going 2-9 in 105 innings with a 5.31 ERA and retiring after that season when his contract expired. Hunter was then elected to the Hall of Fame in 1987 and died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1999.
That outline is accurate but overlooks an important part of Hunter’s time with the Yankees and perhaps his greatest contribution to the team. As the Yankees prepared to play the Rangers on August 1st, 1978, they had already begun to cut the first place Red Sox lead, but New York was still in fourth place, 7.5 games behind Boston. Their starting pitcher that day was Hunter, but the veteran was struggling through terrible year as his record stood at 3-4 with a 6.51 ERA. Something changed for Hunter that day as he pitched eight shutout innings helping the Yankees cruise to an easy 8-1 victory.
The best pitcher on that 1978 Yankees team was Ron Guidry who would finish at 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, the Cy Young Award and a second place finish in the MVP voting (41 years later I still think he should have been the MVP that year). From August 1st through the end of the season, Guidry was even better going 10-2 with a 1.26 ERA, but even the great Ron Guidry couldn’t carry the team all by himself. The second best pitcher on that team during that key part of the season was an injury plagued 32 year old who had already thrown well over 3,000 big league innings. Somehow despite this when the Yankees had a margin of zero in their effort to catch the Red Sox, Catfish Hunter found some of what had made him the most respected big game pitchers in the earlier part of the decade and, from August 1st through the end of the regular season, went 9-2 with a 2.23 ERA. With Guidry and Hunter leading a strong starting rotation, Goose Gossage coming out of the bullpen, and an excellent lineup and bench, the Yankees were the best team in baseball from August 1 st until they won the World Series in October.
Hunter was no longer as dominant in the postseason, but he was in the rotation for the playoff against Kansas City and the World Series against the Dodgers. In game six of the World Series, Hunter started against another future Hall of Famer, Don Sutton. Hunter was the much better pitcher that day holding the Dodgers to two runs in seven innings before the Goose came in for the final two innings to clinch and the championship for the Yankees. That was the last time Hunter would play in a post-season game. The Yankees first big free agent looked disappointing at times, but when the team needed him most, he was there. Without Hunter, there would have been no Bucky Dent home run, no Graig Nettles catching a fly ball in foul territory off the bat of Carl Yastrzemski to end one of the greatest games in baseball history and certainly no two consecutive World Series wins in the 1970s. Catfish Hunter was worth the money.