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Catfish Hunter, free agency, and baseball’s recent history of labor strife

As a work stoppage looms for baseball, it’s worth remembering that none of this is new.

Portrait of Jim “Catfish” Hunter

Nearly half a century ago on October 30, 1974, Catfish Hunter won the American League Cy Young Award. He had just completed a 25-win season and been part of the Oakland AthleticsWorld Series three-peat. Throughout that season, however, contractual disputes wore on between Hunter and Athletics’ owner Charlie Finley, devolving to the point that MLBPA head Marvin Miller got involved.

In the end, an arbitrator sided with Hunter and the union. The former A’s ace was now a free agent — baseball’s first. Later that off-season, Catfish signed a five-year deal with the Yankees. For an excellent rundown of the minutiae of the dispute, and for a great Yankees-related read in general, check out a piece our own Jon Rimmer penned a couple of years back.

Reading about Hunter’s saga, smack-dab as it was in the heyday of labor unrest between Major League Baseball and the emergent Players’ Association, struck close to home. After a quarter-century of labor peace in the aftermath of the disastrous 1994 players’ strike, a work stoppage again looms as we approach the 2021 off-season, catalyzed in no small part because of issues related to free agency. Recent reporting suggests that an interruption to baseball’s schedule is almost inevitable; fans will only hope that it doesn’t extend into spring 2022.

The Yankees’ 1974 acquisition of Hunter will stand in an odd contrast to this off-season, if indeed a stoppage occurs. After a disappointing campaign that has Yankees fans clamoring for the club to make major moves to put it back on equal footing with baseball’s powerhouses, the possibility of a work stoppage almost guarantees that the Hot Stove will be ice-cold until there is labor certainty. A shortstop, if indeed one is on the shopping list, might wait quite a while to put on pinstripes.

As nice as the past 25+ years of labor peace have been, they are more of an historical anomaly than a norm since baseball owners began to more seriously recognize the union in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. There is hope, however, that the end of this fragile détente might only cause minimal upheaval to the game, its teams, its players, and its fans.

Since 1972, MLB has experienced eight work stoppages. The bad news is that three of those caused the cancellation of games. The very first, in 1972, lasted from April 1st to April 13th and precipitated the loss of 86 games. More ominously, the strike in 1981 led to the cancellation of over 700 games, split the season into two unequal halves, and cost approximately $145 million in lost salaries and revenue.

Later on, the strike in 1994 infamously caused the cancellation of the World Series, lasted into the next year, and led to a truncated 144-game season in 1995. One of my great personal what-ifs is what the 1994 playoffs would have looked like, with the Yankees up 6.5 games in the AL East at the time of the work stoppage. Meanwhile in the National League, the ill-fated Montreal Expos led baseball with a .649 win percentage. It could have been a heck of a World Series if we had gotten there.

Baseball’s history of work stoppages is not all doom and gloom, though. In 1973, the season before Catfish won his Cy Young and achieved free agency, a lockout by the owners was resolved before any games were lost. Likewise in 1976, when another lockout ended without lost games. 1980, 1985, and 1990 all followed suit.

In total, out of baseball’s eight work stoppages, five have been resolved without losing any regular season games, and another caused minimal damage. Of course, that is the optimist’s view. Conversely, one in every four has caused catastrophic damage to the game. So here we are, with the 2021 World Series in full swing, but with the uneasy specter of a ninth work stoppage dangling over baseball.

Someday, someone will write a dissertation on baseball’s labor history, but today is not that day, so a full examination of cause and effect will have to wait. But today’s players share an animating concern with their predecessors, including Hunter. Team control and player ability to market their skills in a competitive marketplace, a major issue half a century ago, remains today.

Until 1975, when the same arbitrator who ruled for Hunter ruled for two other players in a separate case, MLB’s unjust reserve clause reigned supreme, reigned almost unchallenged, and tethered players to their team for as long the club desired. Hunter, and a handful of players before and after him, helped dismantle the clause and bring free agency to baseball.

Nearly half a century later, even with the reserve clause a distant memory, players still have issues with team control and free agency. Renewable contracts, arbitration years, and the perception of service time manipulation for elite prospects all make it more difficult and time-consuming for players to hit free agency.

And once they get there, it is becoming more and more difficult for most players to get paid. From 2016 through 2020, the average salary of MLB players stayed almost static, fluctuating between $4.38 and $4.45 million. In 2021, however, it fell 6.4 percent from that high point, coming in at $4.17 million, according to ESPN.

Perhaps of more concern to the bulk of MLBPA membership, the salary pie is increasingly getting distributed to the upper echelon, while baseball’s middle class suffers the squeeze. The 100 highest-paid players in the game now account for 52.4 percent of baseball wages, up from 42.5 percent just four years ago. Meanwhile, the median salary in the game has dropped an astonishing 30 percent in six years, from $1.65 million in 2015 to $1.15 million in 2021.

The more things change ... it is perhaps unsurprising that MLB owners have a vested interest in keeping salaries low. Likewise, it is intuitive that MLB players pursue increased compensation, especially as baseball’s revenues continue to rise. But those conflicting ends do not facilitate labor peace. And so here we are.

I am admittedly fatalistic and all but expect a work stoppage at this point. My hope is that this one will be like three-quarters of its predecessors and cause little-to-no impact on the upcoming regular season. Regardless, a splash acquisition this off-season, like that of Catfish Hunter 47 years ago, will almost certainly have to wait. Issues pertaining to free agency, which Hunter helped shepherd into the game of baseball, need to be sorted out and MLB and its Players Association have to come to terms on a labor and compensation structure moving forward.