There are Tigers legends whose names feel like they are written in bold. Ty Cobb. Hank Greenberg. Al Kaline. In a sport where icons loom larger than life, the names immortalized on the outfield walk of Comerica Park are a part of history, a part of the blood of fans. We see it in the statues on the concourse, in the images hanging around the park, in every historical mention of the franchise.
But there are Tigers legends who are quieter, perhaps more of an italics. They are as much a part of the soul of the club, as much responsible for the lore we construct, but they are less frequently mentioned when we talk about our heroes.
Bill Freehan was among the latter, in terms of Tigers players. On Thursday, Bill Freehan lost his long battle with Alzheimer’s and passed away at the age of 79.
Quiet as his presence may be among the storied tales to other Tigers' greats, Freehan deserves his share of their accolades. While you won’t find his bust in Cooperstown, he stands as one of the all-time greatest catchers to ever play the game. If we look only at his list of accomplishments, it’s clear even to those who never saw him play just how tremendous he was behind home plate.
Freehan was an 11-time All-Star, won five Gold Glove awards, and finished with a career line of .262/.340/.412. The numbers there might not wow you (they did not wow BBWAA Hall of Fame voters), but in terms of catcher JAWS, Freehan is 16th of all time among his peers. He remains one of the best catchers the Tigers have ever had behind the dish.
Bill Freehan gave everything he had to the Olde English D. He was with the team from age 19 to 24, playing 15 major league seasons with the club. In 1968, he won the World Series with them and came in second in MVP voting. He drove in a career-high 25 home runs for Detroit that season, proving he wasn’t only useful behind home plate, but in the batter’s box as well. At the time of his retirement, Freehan had played more games in the catcher position than any other player in Tigers history.
When he retired, he briefly helped coach, giving pointers to none other than Lance Parrish. He wrote a book on his experiences, titled Behind the Mask, and even briefly did commentary for the Seattle Mariners, before becoming a baseball coach for the University of Michigan, where he remained until 1995.
Bill’s time behind the dish ultimately took its toll on him, however. Catcher is a notoriously dangerous position to play, as wild pitches, swinging bats, and foul tips all have a habit of sneaking back and clipping the receiver. Freehan encountered his share of injuries in the position, and while it was never officially blamed as the reason, his years of taking hits ultimately led to a later life diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease.
Freehan’s grandson, Blaise Salter, who had his own dreams of being a big-league catcher, chose to retire from the game early after multiple concussions. When asked his reasons, he pointed to his grandfather’s experience, saying, “I don’t even know if they documented concussions back in the day. But obviously, he had enough. Think about it, when he was catching, they didn’t have helmets as a catcher. There is foul ball after foul ball off his head. There is definitely a connection.”
Freehan remained living at home in Michigan with his wife Pat, under hospice care in his later years, before the degenerative disease claimed his life at the age of 79.
He was a tremendous part of what made the Tigers so great in the 60s and 70s, and deserves to be remembered for the amazing things he did both on and off the field. Freehan is, and will always be, a Detroit Tigers legend. And legends live forever.