In this new feature we will be taking a look at moments from Tigers history, and remembering the people who helped shape it. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Tigers’ ‘68 World Series win, it seems especially timely to revisit the men who made up that team.
Catchers rarely get their moment in the sun. Maybe it’s the mask, or the low position behind home plate, literally overshadowed by the umpire. Perhaps it has more to do with the relationship between the catcher and the man on the mound. Pitchers get all the glory, even though catchers are the one calling the game, framing the pitches, and reacting with lightning speed should a runner dare to steal second.
As catchers go, Bill Freehan was among Detroit’s best. An 11-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner, he was actually second in MVP votes for his 1968 campaign, proving that he was an absolutely integral part of the machine that won the ‘68 Series. A career .262/.340/.412 hitter, he knocked out precisely 200 home runs over his career. At his prime in that ‘68 season, he had a WAR of 7.
He was excellent, possibly the best catcher of her era (in fact, when rating the best catchers from 1939-1979, Bill James listed Freehan ninth in terms of position dominance), but all this left him shy of being considered Hall of Fame worthy.
His story, though, is the stuff young Tigers fans imagine when they think of living the dream. Freehan was born in Detroit, and raised in Royal Oak. He played Little League games against Willie Horton, who would later become one of his Tigers’ teammates. Though his family moved to St. Petersburg, FL in his teen years, he still played sandlot games in Detroit over the summer, and he later attended the University of Michigan on a joint football/baseball scholarship. At one point in his university career, Freehan caught all three games of a triple-header against Michigan State. Though the Tigers signed him in 1961 — and he actually played four games that season — his father refused to give Bill his $125,000 signing bonus until Freehan graduated in 1966, completing his history degree part time over the offseasons.
While learning history, he was also on his way to making it with what would eventually become a World Series winning Tigers franchise. In the 1968 campaign, Freehan caught 155 regular season games, and then, not to be outdone at the end, caught all seven World Series games as well.
Freehan was modest about the part he played in winning the World Series with the Tigers, noting his offense (he went 2-for-24) was’t all that helpful, but summed it up saying, “I know I wasn’t very successful in hitting, but I’ve got the same World Series ring as everybody else.”
The following season Freehan kept a diary, which would later be published as the book Behind the Mask: An Inside Baseball Diary, which might not have made much of a splash if it hadn’t featured passages about Denny McLain, who was on everyone’s radar in 1970 thanks to a gambling suspension.
Freehan’s career with the Tigers, whether worthy of a plaque in Cooperstown or not, is certainly filled with a rich history. He is one of a handful of Tigers players to have spent his whole career sporting an olde English D, 15 seasons in total, but there were several occasions where that almost wasn’t the case.
In 1974, a season that saw Freehan moving from his typical role behind the plate to a less taxing first base position, Bill had one of the best defensive seasons of his career, hitting .297 (his best average since hitting .300 a decade earlier in 1964) and collecting 14 home runs. An increase in his offensive value made him a strong candidate for a trade. The Philadelphia Phillies were interested, and almost traded catcher Bob Boone* to Detroit for Freehan and Mickey Stanley, but the deal fell through when the Phillies got cold feet.
*Bob Boone, for what it’s worth, when on to stay with the Phillies until 1981, winning his own World Series title in the process in 1980, and became a four-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner over a 19 year career. The Tigers might be kicking themselves a bit for losing him.
Freehan stayed with the Tigers another two seasons, making it to another All-Star team in 1975, then being granted his unconditional release after the end of the 1976 season. He was only 34, and still hitting .270, there’s no doubt Freehan could have signed a deal to continue his baseball career elsewhere. Instead, he decided he had spent 15 years as a Detroit Tiger, and that was the career he wanted to remember. Rather than sign a deal with another MLB franchise, Freehan retired.
At the time of his retirement he had the record for the most major league putouts, at just shy of 10,000 (9941, to be exact).
After retirement he loaned his years of wisdom to helping up and coming catcher Lance Parrish (who would, of course, catch the 1984 World Series team).
For 14 of Freehan’s 15 seasons, he wore the number 11, which would eventually be retired by the Tigers thanks to its subsequent owner, Sparky Anderson. Freehan, though absent from Cooperstown, was indicted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1982, and was an inaugural inductee into the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1978. He was a color commentator for the Seattle Mariners for two years, and for the Tigers for two years. Ultimately baseball kept its hold on him and he returned to the University of Michigan to coach baseball from 1989-1995.
Bill Freehan continues to reside in the Detroit suburbs.
For even more information on Freehan, read this SABR piece on his career.
**Of interest only to the author, Bill Freehan’s full name is William Ashley Freehan.