It all got going in 1975 with Catfish Hunter. He put his services on the open market and was snatched up, predictably, by George Steinbrenner. The Yankees' offer that Catfish leaped at was for $2.85 million for five seasons work, in an era when the $100,000 pitcher was a rarity.

The Catfish Hunter windfall sent pleasant shock waves out to the whole player community. It left them a-tingle at the prospects of the riches in store. They were not disappointed. But seven years later Hunter would learn that he had sold himself cheaply for a $750,000 a year pittance, compared to these times in baseball.

Recently, a pitcher who never had a winning season got a five-year, $4.5 million deal. This was Floyd Bannister, with a career record of 51-68, a season's high of 12 victories in dull contrast to the four consecutive 20-win seasons Hunter could show the Yankees in 1975, including his last one, a 25-12 performance for Oakland.

Oh, to be a baseball free agent in these times and be in demand by pennant hungry, egocentric club owners, mostly newcomers to baseball, who somehow are bereft of their sense of business sense that enabled them to gain the wealth to buy a team in the first place.

This week, free agent Steve Garvey, whose credentials as a first baseman-hitter fall far shy of Hunter's as a pitcher, signed a basic $6.6 million contract with San Diego for five years, or a guaranteed $1,320,000 a year. With incentive bonuses it could add up to a pleasant $9 million security blanket for Garvey.

Andy Messersmith was the player who broke the reserve clause. Now the free agent spiral has far outraced inflation for another specific reason--the new presence of the professional players agent. In Catfish Hunter's time the career agent was the missing element. Hunter, who gained his freedom through a breach of contract, was represented by a personal friend, a country lawyer from North Carolina quite innocent in the art of baseball huckstering.

Today's player agents know where the big money is. They are cunning, crafty, artful and businesswise. And aware of which club owners' obsessions to play on, how to set one club owner against another, how to pump up their clients' importance to a team and get more money for him, and not incidentally, for themselves.

Dick Moss, a respected attorney-agent was the one who negotiated outfielder Steve Kemp into his $5.5-million, five-year deal with the Yankees who, according to sources, weren't even in the hunt for Kemp until late in the game. There was the strong suggestion that the Orioles and Milwaukee were hot on the trail of Kemp, including radio interviews that had Kemp saying he'd just love to play with the Orioles, and Steinbrenner reacted.

Ha, thought Steinbrenner, those are the two teams the Yankees will have to lick next season. The Orioles or Brewers must not sign Kemp. The Yankees must sign Kemp. Price no object, at least not much of an object. So Moss got his man that good deal, from circumstances calculated to scare the hell out of Steinbrenner.

According to sources, Milwaukee wasn't much interested in Kemp and the Orioles were in no hurry to negotiate with him. The closest the Orioles got to a sitdown discussion about Kemp was to schedule a meeting with him or his agent a week after the Honolulu baseball meetings. Meantime, Steinbrenner got into the act. As hoped?

Agent Jerry Kapstein's ability to get Don Baylor a reported $3.675-million, four-year package from the Yankees was even more of a triumph. Baylor, at 33, is strictly a designated hitter, divested of the speed that once permitted him to play the outfield for Baltimore and the Angels, his only contribution could be with the bat as a DH on a Yankee team that already owned five designated hitters. And Baylor's .263 average with the Angels last season wasn't all that great.

But Kapstein knew his customers and which one had the deepest pockets. Steinbrenner, of course. He knew that Steinbrenner is an addicted hero worshipper who had seen power-hitter Baylor drive in those 10 big runs in the 1982 playoffs against Milwaukee, and was impressed with how fierce he looked up there at the plate. Also, that Steinbrenner had abandoned his experiment of last year that changed the image of the Yankees to a go-go team, built for speed. And that it was a disaster experiment that saw them steal fewer bases than the previous year. Ergo, he sold 'em Baylor.

To underscore the progress of free agent society, consider the history of Baylor. Six years ago in his first venture as a free agent when he was a mere 27 and still useful as an outfielder, he signed with California for less than half as much as he gained from the Yankees at 33.

The agents know whose checkbook is the liveliest. With the addition of pitcher Bob Shirley, who got a three-year, $1.5-million guaranteed deal, Steinbrenner in one period this month committed the Yankees to more than $11 million worth of free agents.

No other club owner has been as reckless as Steinbrenner, who is undaunted despite having more than his share of free agent flops and bust-outs.

Eddie Einhorn, president of the White Sox, threw light on Steinbrenner's methods when he said, "George can operate like no other club owner. He has that $100 million committed from future cable revenues, for the next 10 years. That lets him go to the bank and finance anything he likes. No other team has a stake like that."

As for his own team's $4.5-million deal with Bannister, the often fun-loving Einhorn had a ready explanation. "He's worth it, and besides, we had to make a move. My partner has been telling me the White Sox were the Rodney Dangerfields of the American League. Didn't have no respect. We've got respect now."

How to pay the kind of salaries they have allotted to high priced free agents? Often there are deferral payments, sometimes called "discount dollars." But ultimately there must be a day of reckoning. There is a limit to what ball clubs can generate at the gate and all teams confess they are anxiously exploring cable revenue.

There is always curiosity as to how, exactly, some of the free agent hotshots are paid on their multimillion dollar contracts. It may be illustrated by one reported breakdown of Steve Kemp's contract, which makes these points:

1. $500,000 bonus for signing.

2. $650,000 each of first two years.

3. $950,000 third year.

4. $1 milllion fourth year.

5. $1.1 million fifth year.

6. $600,000 in each of first two years after contract ends.

At this point, may one cite the salary figures of the 1902 Washington Senators documented in a book written by a certain writer. In that year, the payroll for the entire roster of the Senators' 18 players, including the manager -- for everybody for the entire season -- totaled exactly $39,203.71.