When you think of the advent of baseball’s free agency era, you think of Curt Flood, Catfish Hunter, and Andy Messersmith first, and in that order. As Ted Simmons phrased it, following the Messersmith ruling of 1975, “Curt Flood stood up for us. Jim Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”
Flood’s suit against the reserve clause went all the way to the Supreme Court and failed. Before it did, Flood sat out a season, then tried a comeback with the Washington Senators, but the toll the suit and a number of personal issues took put paid to that comeback attempt.
Hunter became a free agent after Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment, prompting a bidding war that ended up with Hunter taking the third-most dollars offered, from the Yankees, because they were willing to divide the dollars along the lines he wanted, particularly for his children’s education. The Hall of Famer had a couple of solid Yankee seasons before arm fatigue and a few personal tragedies affirmed his decision to retire after his Yankee contract expired.
Messersmith pitched 1975 without a contract after talks broke down over his want for a no-trade clause and “a personal issue” injected into the talks by Dodger vice president Al Campanis, infuriating Messersmith. He took it to arbitration and won, putting an end to the reserve clause and finishing what Flood started. Then, after signing his own big free agency deal, Messersmith’s shoulder gave out and he was never the same pitcher again.
Simmons may have said Hunter showed what was out there, but a) Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale showed in spring 1966 what was there when players worked together in contract talks; and, b) Hunter only finished opening a window that was pried from its sill fifty years ago this season. What Hunter has in common with that prying was that Finley was the instigator.
Ken Harrelson was a promising outfielder/first baseman who came up with the A’s in Kansas City, was dealt to the Senators in mid-1966, then dealt back to the A’s for 1967. His early struggles prompted teammate Dick Howser to call him Henrietta Hawk until he began to hit again, and Howser kept a promise to drop the first part when Harrelson’s bat came back to life.
He cultivated the Hawk as a fun-loving personality who seemed almost as adept at golf as he was at baseball. About the only one in Kansas City who didn’t like his act was Finley, who throve on forcing Harrelson to take the more frequent rides aboard the donkey mascot known as Charlie O. “Charlie had some good ideas and some bad ideas,” Harrelson has said—of the owner, not the donkey, “but overall he was not a nice man.”
How not nice Finley was came manifest in August 1967, when the owner overreacted to a particularly, shall we say, festive team flight out of Boston. Finley decided to make an example of pitcher Lew Krausse, fining the righthander $500 for, quote, conduct unbecoming a major leaguer.
Krausse objected publicly and was suspended indefinitely. Finley lifted it after four days but manager Alvin Dark had refused to bench Krausse. After Finley fired Dark, relief pitcher Jack Aker led Harrelson and several other A’s players signing a public statement denouncing Finley over the Krausse suspension.
When a newspaper report cited Harrelson calling Finley a “menace to baseball,” and Harrelson refused to attend a press conference to apologise for a remark he swore he never made, Finley waived and released him. Since Harrelson was hitting .305 with a .361 on-base percentage despite modest power numbers, a bidding war broke out in earnest.
Muscling their way to the front of the bidders were the Red Sox, who needed a replacement for ill-fated Tony Conigliaro. Conigliaro’s fateful drilling on the same day as the trumped-up Krausse incident left the pennant-contending Red Sox in desperate need of a competent right fielder.
With several Show teams plus Japan’s Tokyo Giants ready to write bigger checks, Red Sox general manager Dick O’Connell landed the Hawk with $150,000 to cover the rest of 1967 and all 1968. Just like that, Harrelson’s salary jumped by $138,000.
The Hawk probably contributed more in the clubhouse than on the field but it helped the Red Sox snatch the pennant—his was one of the key RBIs in the 1 October pennant clincher—and push the World Series to a seventh game. He throve in Boston, having a career year in 1968, but en route a likely match in 1969 he was traded mid-season to the Indians.
He finished what he started in Boston and looked to have a shining future until leg injuries ended his playing career by 1972. Though he was saddened at first by the trade to the Indians, Harrelson turned his Hawk personality into an off field bounty just as he did in Boston and appreciated Indians fans warming up to him.
When he retired as a player, he tried to make it as a pro golfer; when that failed, he became a baseball announcer in Boston and, in short order, with the White Sox, where the Hawk still roosts. And where he’s both loved and loathed for his on-air comments.
A year and a half after Koufax and Drysdale showed what players could get when they worked together in contract talks, Harrelson showed the first peek at what they could get on a fair, open, unimpeded market.
It’s not impossible to think that Curt Flood might have remembered Harrelson when, two years later, came the trade that shook him into trying to shake baseball to its senses. Even if the Hawk’s peek is usually, and wrongly, overlooked.