On December 23, 1974, Montreal Expos president John McHale and general manager Jim Fanning trekked to Ahoskie, N.C., to attempt to reel in a “Catfish.”
No, this wasn’t a fishing expedition, but rather a pitch by the Expos’ top executives to try to convince reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, Catfish Hunter, to toe the rubber at Jarry Park in 1975.
Earlier that December, the 28-year-old ace, who had won three consecutive World Series titles with the Oakland A’s and had registered four straight 20-win seasons, was declared a free agent after it was ruled that A’s owner Charlie Finley had violated the terms of his contract.
Hunter’s 1974 contract called for him to be paid $100,000 – $50,000 would serve as his salary, while the remaining $50,000 was to be placed in a deferred payment insurance plan. However, when Finley discovered that the deferred portion wouldn’t be tax deductible for him, he balked at paying it. The Major League Baseball Players Association took Hunter’s case to arbitration, where an arbitrator ruled in his favor and he became a free agent.
This landmark decision made Hunter the first major league player to truly have the liberty to chose the team he wanted to play for. It also inspired a bidding sweepstakes for his services unlike anything that major league baseball had ever witnessed.
Twenty two teams – including the Expos – called J. Carlton Cherry, Hunter’s lawyer/agent, to express their interest. Initially, Hunter thought he might be able to visit the cities of his suitors, but the list of interested parties grew so long that his agents asked teams to fly to Ahoskie, N.C. to meet with them.
A Montreal Gazette report indicates that after receiving the green light from McHale and Expos owner Charles Bronfman to pursue the all-star right-hander, Fanning called Hunter’s agent to express the club’s interest on the morning of December 18. Coming off a 79-82 campaign that saw them finish fourth in the National League East, the Expos were looking to bolster their starting rotation.
The Expos meeting with Hunter was set for the morning of Monday, December 23. By that time, however, 12 other big league clubs had already met with Hunter. The Expos were the first of four teams to sit down with Hunter on the 23rd. The Twins followed that morning, while the Yankees and Braves made their pitches in the afternoon.
“We’ll explain about Canada and Quebec offering something different for a sports superstar,” Fanning told the Montreal Gazette when asked how the Expos were going to woo Hunter. “I have some other things that I would like to discuss with them as well.”
But little did the Expos know, they were already at a decided disadvantage. In Hunter’s 1988 biography “Catfish: My Life in Baseball,” he indicates that his preference was to stay in the American League.
“I wanted to stay in the American League (where I knew the hitters) and away from the artificial turf (where ground balls turn into base hits),” wrote Hunter.
In his biography, Hunter also reveals that he was seeking at least a five-year deal with guaranteed money, with a substantial portion of his salary being deferred into the 1990s. He also wanted two $25,000 annuities for his children’s college educations.
At the time, Montreal Gazette scribe Ian MacDonald seemed dismissive of the Expos’ pursuit of Hunter.
“Parc Jarry’s limited seating along with undependable weather dictate that unless Bronfman wants to loosen the string on his holiday booze profits, the Expos’ hunt for the Catfish is a publicity ploy,” he wrote in the Gazette’s December 18, 1974 edition.
Publicity ploy or not, the Expos certainly gave the impression that they were determined to sign the 20-game winner. After meeting with clubs on December 23, Hunter’s camp took a three-day break for Christmas, and Fanning touched base with Cherry, Hunter’s agent, twice on December 28.
Though the amount of the Expos’ offer was never disclosed (some pegged it at $4.5 million over 10 years, which was an astronomical sum at the time), Fanning and McHale wowed Hunter enough to be one of the eight teams remaining in the running for Hunter’s services as of December 30.
“We still don’t know where we are,” an Expos spokesperson told the Montreal Gazette on December 27,” because we don’t know where the other clubs are. But we have to be encouraged a little bit by the fact that dialogue is going back and forth.”
The Expos’ optimism also had to be buoyed by a United Press International report that indicated that they could be one of Hunter’s preferred destinations because they were one of only three teams to have two separate meetings with the Cy Young Award winner.
But Hunter never seriously considered the Expos. In his biography, he describes how he almost signed with the San Diego Padres, Montreal’s expansion cousins. The Padres reportedly offered Hunter the most money (owner Ray Kroc essentially offered him a blank cheque and told him to write in the amount). The Padres also played on natural grass and their brass had wooed him with a steady stream of flattering letters.
“The only other National League teams (outside of the Padres) I seriously considered were Pittsburgh (superb offer, struggling team, fake turf) and the Mets,” wrote Hunter in his biography.
On December 31, Hunter decided to sign with the New York Yankees, not because they offered him the most money – in fact, the Expos likely offered him more – but largely because of the trust and friendship he had developed with Yankees scout Clyde Kluttz. Kluttz was the scout that signed Hunter for the Kansas City A’s in 1964 and had moved on to the Bronx Bombers. The two had remained fast friends. It also didn’t hurt that Hunter had grown up a Yankees fan.
“It’s great to be a Yankee . . . Ever since I was a little boy I wanted to be a Yankee,” Hunter said at his introductory press conference in New York on January 2.
His deal with the Yankees was worth approximately $3.5 million over 10 years and it guaranteed him a salary for five years. He would also receive $100,000 a year until 1994, as well as college endowments for his kids.
As a Yankee, Hunter won 23 and 17 games respectively in his first two seasons with the club, before he was hampered by an arm injury. Despite stumbling to nine wins in 1977, he earned a World Series ring. He rebounded to record 12 wins the following campaign, as the Yankees won another Fall Classic. But struggling with diabetes and chronic pain in his arm, Hunter retired after posting a 2-9 record and 5.31 ERA in 1979 when he was just 33.
In all in 15 big league seasons, Hunter earned five World Series rings, recorded five 20-win seasons and notched 224 career wins – enough to earn him election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. After he hung up his spikes, Hunter settled back into farm life with his family in Hertford, N.C. Sadly, in September 1998, he was diagnosed with ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, and he passed away on September 9, 1999 when he was just 53 years old.
*Hunter’s Yankees and A’s teammate Reggie Jackson was also pursued as a free agent by the Montreal Expos after the 1976 season. To read about the Expos quest to land Mr. October, follow this link: http://cooperstownersincanada.com/2010/06/24/reggie-jackson-%E2%80%93-almost-a-montreal-expo/