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From Catfish to A-Rod

Landmark moments from baseball's free-agent era

Posted: Friday December 2, 2005 2:06PM; Updated: Friday December 2, 2005 4:37PM
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The Yankees won three pennants and two World Series after signing free agents Catfish Hunter, above, and Reggie Jackson.
The Yankees won three pennants and two World Series after signing free agents Catfish Hunter, above, and Reggie Jackson.
Walter Iooss Jr./SI
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By Alex Belth, Special to SI.com

The era of free agency, which symbolically began with Curt Flood's legal battle against the reserve clause and literally started with Messersmith/McNally ruling, has seen it all -- monumental successes (Dave Winfield, Yankees) and failures (Mike Hampton, Rockies) alike. As another Hot Stove season gets going, let's take a brief and informal look at some of the landmark moments in free-agent history:

Catfish Hunter
Arbitrator Peter Seitz granted Oakland's ace pitcher free agency in early December 1974 after A's owner Charlie Finley failed to fulfill a contractual obligation. When the bidding began for Hunter on Dec. 18, all but one team -- Oakland's Bay Area rivals, the Giants -- were interested.

Eleven teams called Hunter's North Carolina-based agents, the law firm of Cherry, Cherry and Flythe based in Ahoskie, N.C, a small town 60 miles away from Catfish's home, while 12 franchises sent representatives to visit in person. Clyde Klutz, the bird dog scout who originally scouted Hunter for the A's, a fellow North Carolinian, was dispatched by the Yankees to secure Hunter. Their main competition was the Padres, owned by Ray Kroc of McDonald's fame. Kroc offered Hunter a blank check and two McDonald's franchises. "I don't know anything about the hamburger business," Hunter told the Pads. "I'm a farmer." In the end, they couldn't match the ties that bound Klutz with Hunter.

On New Year's Eve, Hunter signed a five-year, $3.35 million deal with the Bombers and was whisked to New York on George Steinbrenner's personal jet for a hastily arranged press conference. (Dick Allen was the game's highest-paid player in 1974, earning $250,000.) Hunter had a terrific season in 1975 and helped lead the Yankees to two world championships over the next three seasons.

Reggie Jackson
Almost as spectacular as the Hunter signing, Jackson seemed like an ideal fit for Steinbrenner's Yankees. However, Jackson wasn't their first choice; Bobby Grich was. They also coveted Don Baylor, Gary Mathews and Wayne Garland ahead of Jackson. But after Grich spurned New York for the Angels, and all of the Yankees' other picks -- except for utility infielder Billy Smith -- signed elsewhere within a frantic 48-hour period, they had little choice but to sign Jackson to a five-year, $3.5 million deal. "Reggie Jackson will be a destructive force for the New York Yankees," team president Gabe Paul told Steinbrenner. He was just that. However, Jackson also brought his potent bat with him to New York and powered the club to a pair of championships.

Nolan Ryan
The fire-balling right-hander returned to his native Texas when he signed with the Houston Astros in November 1979 (four-years, $4.5 million), becoming the first million-dollar-a-year player in baseball history.

Andre Dawson
Both Dawson and teammate Tim Raines were part of the infamous "Collusion Eight," a group of free agents who refused to sign contracts before Jan. 8, 1987, and therefore were not eligible to sign until May 1. Dick Moss, formerly Marvin Miller's right-hand man, was Dawson's agent. Moss let it be known to the press that the players were going to show up at Cubs camp and hand GM Dallas Green a blank contract. Green was furious with the leak but had little choice but to sign Dawson, one of the premier outfielders in the game. The one-year deal came at the bargain price of $500,000 plus $200,000 in incentives. All Dawson did was win the NL MVP for a last-place team. Years later, he was awarded another $1 million for 1987 as part of a $280 million ruling against the owners for collusion.

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