Not all catfish, or cherrys, are created equal
Published 5:09 pm Tuesday, January 4, 2022
There was great cause for celebration on Dec. 31, 1974.
Most assuredly there were millions of people across the nation and the world preparing that particular day to bid farewell to 1974 and welcome in 1975. Parties were in the works and the champagne was iced down, ready to “pop and pour.”
One such celebration was undoubtedly on tap in the law offices of Cherry, Cherry and Flythe in downtown Ahoskie. It was there that the legendary J. Carlton Cherry helped to craft a multi-million deal that allowed his client – a farm boy from nearby Perquimans County with a golden right arm – to become Major League Baseball’s first official free agent.
The old-timers here in Ahoskie (including yours truly) remember how the town was thrust into national spotlight in December of 1974. MLB owners sent their front office staff and on-field managers to Cherry’s law office in an effort to entice Jimmy “Catfish” Hunter to sign with their team. Regional and national media soon followed, but they had some “catching up” to do with the News-Herald. We were already on top of the story.
And had it not been for one MLB owner balking over a $50,000 insurance annuity, there wouldn’t have been a story to begin with.
While today’s nine-figure salaries are commonplace among MLB superstars, that was a far cry of the money made by their predecessors nearly 60 years ago.
Jimmy Hunter farmed with his daddy in Perquimans County where, like any other eastern ‘Carolina boy, he loved to hunt and fish. Oh, by the way, he also played a bit of baseball.
Jimmy was the star on his high school baseball team. During the summer months he played with American Legion Post 102 in Ahoskie. It was then and there where he forged a bond with Mr. Cherry. Little did either realize at that particular time of the importance that bond would become.
In 1964, the Kansas City Athletics sent one of their scouts – Clyde Kluttz – to assess Hunter’s skills as a pitcher. A $50,000 deal was struck and the 18-year-old phenom was off to KC.
One year later, Hunter notched the first MLB win. Two years later, Hunter – by then with his famous nickname, “Catfish” courtesy of A’s owner Charlie Finley – made the American League All-Star team. Two years after that he pitched his first MLB perfect game.
The rest – as they say – is history….including four consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins and the prestigious Cy Young Award at the close of the 1974 season. Along the way, Hunter was part of the A’s organization (which had moved to Oakland) that won back-to-back-to-back World Series titles (1972, ’73, and ’74).
But while Hunter and his teammates were celebrating the 1974 championship, there was a financial issue in need of resolution.
Hunter’s annual contract at that time was $100,000. One-half of that was in actual salary. The remaining $50,000 was an insurance annuity, scheduled in monthly payments. It seems that Mr. Finley was on time with the salary he promised his star pitcher, but the annuity payments were not.
That led to a grievance, filed on Hunter’s behalf by the Baseball Players Association. The grievance was pure and simple…there was a violation of the contract; the player notified the club owner; and the owner has 10 days to correct the violation.
The Oakland A’s chose not to correct the violation. The Players Association saw only one remedy…the player gaining free agency. An arbitrator agreed and on Dec. 16, 1974, Jimmy Hunter became the most sought-after man in Major League Baseball.
For the next two weeks, Jimmy’s pick-up truck – complete with its dog box and rifle rack – was parked out front of Mr. Cherry’s law office. One-by-one, the MLB courters came…all armed with wads of cash.
By the time Santa had made his rounds and was back at the North Pole, the bidding pool was down to only two teams – the San Diego Padres and the New York Yankees. The Padres had the “eye candy” as the franchise was owned at that time by Ray Kroc, the CEO of McDonald’s. He waved $4 million in Hunter’s face.
But the Yankees had two things going for them….a legendary franchise and a man that knew Jimmy Hunter all too well, Clyde Kluttz, who was then working in the front office for the Bronx Bombers.
A plug of chewing tobacco later, the Yankees secured Hunter’s services, five years for $3.75 million. He signed the contract on Dec. 31, 1974 in New York City, and the celebration began back home.
Jimmy Hunter went on to earn a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987…a story I covered from a local standpoint when J. Carlton Cherry and his son, Thomas (“Tom”), flew to Cooperstown, NY to witness the grand occasion. Tom later wrote a book about Jimmy Hunter. One of my sports stories about Hunter is included among those pages.
Upon his triumph return to Hertford, NC, I drove J. Carlton Cherry there for a parade in Hunter’s honor. At the bequest of Mr. Cherry, Hunter granted me the very first press interview that fine day.
I had the same opportunity in the early summer of 1999. Hunter, battling ALS at the time, still remained committed to American Legion Baseball. Post 102 honored him at a game. Afterwards he agreed to an interview with me. It was perhaps among his last as Hunter died on Sept. 9 that same year…but not before letting the world know that great baseball pitchers and country-wise attorneys hail from northeastern North Carolina.
Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7207.