William Ashley Freehan was a Detroit native born days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. A catcher from his youth, legend has it that Willie Horton once barreled into him at the plate during a Little League all-star game and foreshadowed the 1968 World Series. His family moved to Florida in his teens, but Bill played sandlot ball in Detroit during the summers.
Freehan attended the University of Michigan to play football as well as baseball. He made it into the historical record with an 11 yard reception against Wisconsin in 1960, but baseball was his future. The right-handed catcher set the Big Ten record for batting average hitting .585 in 1961. The Tigers offered a $100,000 signing bonus. Freehan accepted but his father retained the bonus, until young Bill finished his degree in 1966 by studying in the offseason.
The Tigers started Bill at the Class C level in Duluth given that he was only 19, but after 30 games he was hitting .343 and was promoted to Class A. Only 47 games later, he was a late-season call-up to Detroit. In four games he was four for ten, including two for four with two RBIs in game 163 at Minnesota.
Meanwhile the 1961 Tigers were winning 101 games. They could afford to take a look at a hot prospect in the final week because the Yankees were winning the league by eight games with a couple guys named Mantle and Maris. Prior to 1962 the Tigers had a decision to make. Would they start a 20 year old rookie catcher, when they expected to compete for the pennant? The offense of the 1960s was starting to take shape with Norm Cash at first base, Dick McAuliffe in middle infield, and Al Kaline in right field. But the catcher would have to wait, as Dick Brown was decent in '61. Freehan was allowed to develop by playing the '62 season in Triple-A with the Denver Bears.
By 1963 Freehan was deemed ready. The Tigers traded Dick Brown to Baltimore for Gus Triandos, whom our sister site Camden Chat recently ranked in their all-time top 40 Orioles. Triandos mentored Freehan in 1963, but Bill's 100 games demonstrated that he was ready. Triandos was traded with Jim Bunning to the Phillies for Jack Hamilton and Don Demeter. Bunning posted 30 WAR in the next four years, including 7.8 in 1967 when the Tigers finished one game out of first place. I fear that Steve Lombardozzi is analogous to Don Demeter, with Doug Fister a latter-day Jim Bunning.
Freehan locked down the catcher position for Detroit by hitting .300/.350/.462 in 1964, making the All Star game at age 22 and finishing seventh in the MVP voting. It was the first of ten consecutive All Star games for Freehan and three top-ten finishes in MVP voting. The following year he earned his first Gold Glove award, the first of five in a row. He threw out 53% of base stealers in 1964, and 37% for his career.
Though tall at 6' 3", and with a reputation for blocking the plate and absorbing collisions, his durability was unparalleled with 13 consecutive seasons of 100 games played. In 1967 and 1968 he played 155 games and was hit by at least 20 pitches, in addition to the foul tips. The pounding was evidenced with some playing time at first base late in his career, and he called it quits in 1976 at only age 34. Though young, he retired with the record for putouts and fielding average by a catcher.
Freehan's career included 15 seasons, all with Detroit. Thankfully a handshake trade to Philadelphia before the 1975 season was aborted. His .262 batting average was fine for a catcher, while his .340 on-base percentage would be good for anyone in today's game. His totals of 200 home runs, 758 RBI and 2502 total bases are reasonably impressive. But he played the bulk of his career in the 1960s when pitchers ruled the game. For instance, in 1965 the average batter hit .242 with a .311 on-base percentage and a .369 slugging percentage. That is Ramon Santiago's career on-base percentage.
Bill Freehan will forever be remembered for Game 5 of the 1968 World Series versus the Cardinals. Unlike 2006, the Cardinals were favored to defeat the Tigers. Lou Brock stole 62 bases in the regular season and seven in the first four games of the World Series. The Tigers were down three games to one, and fell behind in game five. But in the third inning of Game 5, Freehan gunned Brock down at second base. In the fifth inning, Brock doubled and then attempted to score on Julian Javier's single to left field. Willie Horton was coached that Brock tended to coast into the plate, and his throw to Freehan was in time as Brock failed to slide. The Tigers came back to win the game and the series.
Bill Freehan published a book, "Behind the Mask", following the 1969 season. This did not go over well with teammates and fans, as the media focused on management's apparent special treatment of Denny McLain. But continued excellence on the field quickly returned Freehan to the community's good graces.
Bill Freehan is credited with coaching Lance Parrish, who was nearly the equal of Freehan at the plate. But Parrish did actually leave Detroit for Philadelphia, while Freehan was forever a Tiger.
Freehan returned to the University of Michigan as the coach of the baseball team from 1990 to 1995, where fellow major league catcher Branch Rickey preceded him by 80 years. There he coached Mike Matheny, who went on to a 13 year career in the major leagues as a catcher, and managed the Cardinals to the World Series in 2013.
The consensus is that while Bill Freehan is not one of the top ten catchers in major league history, he is easily one of the top twenty. It's only fitting that he lands inside the top 20 in our countdown as well.