50 years ago, Freehan and Lolich started their careers together as young Tigers

Bill Freehan lifts Mickey Lolich after the final out of the 1968 World Series.

Bill Freehan lifts Mickey Lolich after the final out of the 1968 World Series.

After the baseball landed in his mitt for the final out of the 1968 World Series, Bill Freehan took a few steps toward the mound and met Mickey Lolich, who gleefully hopped into the catcher’s arms. The photo is an iconic piece of Detroit history. It capsulizes a wonderful moment, and it also forever links the two ballplayers.

Ironically, the pair first started to make their impact as young Tiger players at the same time, 50 years ago this month, in 1963. Five years later they would be integral parts in the magical ’68 season.

Freehan and Lolich traveled different paths to get to the major leagues. Freehan inked his name on a lucrative $125,000 bonus contract in 1961 as a 19-year old college ballplayer. Born in Royal Oak, Freehan moved with his family to Florida as a kid and attended Bishop Barry High School in St. Petersburg, where he was a star in every sport, especially football and baseball. When his hometown Tigers drafted him, his dad helped negotiate the $125,000 bonus, a sum that he invested and didn’t turn over to his son until Freehan officially received his degree in 1966.

Lolich was a promising young teenage pitcher in Oregon, but he wasn’t on the Tigers radar until 1958 when his team advanced to the American Legion World Series, where he frustrated batters with his knee-high fastball. When the Yankees snatched up Al Downing, another fine young pitcher who starred in the American Legion World Series, Lolich was next in line and the Tigers quickly got his name on a $30,000 contract. At that time, Mick was a far cry from the pitcher Tiger fans came to know and love – he was only about 160 pounds, a scrawny left-hander from the Oregon frontier.

Though he was a 14 months younger than Lolich, Freehan got to the majors first – for a cup of coffee (four games) at the end of the ’61 season. The 19-year old was returned to the minors in ’62, but he made the Detroit roster out of spring training in ’63. Freehan worked on his defense and pitch-calling that spring with Rick Ferrell, the Tigers’ general manager, and a former big league catcher who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame.

On May 5, 1963, Freehan hit his first two home runs in the big leagues, in a game against the Orioles in Baltimore. At 6’3 and a chiseled 210 pounds, Freehan stood out immediately in a Tiger uniform, and it wasn’t long before he was forcing manager Bob Scheffing to write his name into the lineup. In one stretch he reached base in nine consecutive plate appearances. Barrel-chested Gus Triandos, a 32-year old veteran of the catching ranks, was in his lone season in Detroit, but after Freehan emerged in May, the old catcher and the young catcher split playing time for the remainder of the season. Battling to earn more starts behind the dish, Freehan was an ultra-competitive sort who was known to be a bit hard on himself.

“Bill’s biggest trouble is that he thinks he should never have a bad day,” one Detroit front office member told The Sporting News in ’63.

A week after Freehan belted his first home runs, Lolich made his major league debut after being summoned from Syracuse. Mickey came in to toss two mop-up innings in a 9-3 loss to the Indians at Tiger Stadium on a windy Sunday afternoon. Lolich struck out the first two batters he faced and allowed just a walk in his two frames of work. A week and a half later he made his first start, going six innings in a loss to the Baltimore Orioles. But one week later, Mick picked up his first major league victory, defeating the Angels 3-1, while tossing a complete game in LA. It was the first of 207 games that Lolich would win for the Bengals.

After that May 50 years ago, Freehan and Lolich were key parts of the Tiger club. In ’64, Freehan made the All-Star team for the first of 10 straight seasons. Lolich won 18 games and struck out 192 batters. He would end up striking out more batters than any other left-hander in the history of the American League, a record he still holds.

Nope, when Freehan and Lolich made their famous embrace at the conclusion of Game Seven of the 1968 World Series, it wasn’t just a happy coincidence, it was a perfect pairing of two Tiger legends who started their careers at the same time, five decades ago this month.

13 replies on “50 years ago, Freehan and Lolich started their careers together as young Tigers

  • Randy Edgar

    I so remember this when it happened. Watching it live on television Detroit. Oh how happy that whole season made us after the riots of 67′.

  • Rick

    I agree with Randy not only watching it on TV but rushing home from 6th grade because it was on in the afternoon (another blunder by mlb). I remember making it home just in time to see Jimmy Northrup hit his 7th inning triple followed by Bill Freehan’s double. I also remember listening to old Ernie on that early September night when Joe Sparma, Al Kaline and Don Wert bought home the pennant. What a glorious year and time in my life. No Tiger team will EVER compare to the 68 Tiger’s!

  • Michael Kliemann

    1968 this was my first baseball memory. I was 5 and lived in Port Huron.
    McClain had the great year,but Lolich had the World Series that dreams are made of.

  • Cliff Parker

    Beautiful season for the Tigers; I remember watching highlights of this World Series right after I WAS BORN IN 1968 when I was a child; then to see the Tigers do it again when I was a sophomore in high school in 1984, I became a true Detroit Tigers fan for life. Once again Dan great article about the great times in Detroit; keep them coming!!!!!

  • Gary Steinke

    Good one Dan, you’ve managed to get us old geezers (hell, we’re not too old) reminiscing about one of the greatest Tiger seasons ever, and a great come back for a Tiger team down 3 games to 1 in the World Series, only to win 3 in a row to win the big one. In the summer of ’68’ the Detroit news papers had just ended a strike and I got a paper route so I could buy a catchers mitt because Freehan was my favorite player.

  • Randy Roenicke

    The 68 Tigers provided a lifetime of memories but none so iconic as Freehan/Lolich celebrating the final out. With 11 All Star game appearances and 5 Gold Glove awards I am still confounded as to why Freehan is not in the Hall of Fame. I really wish the veterans committee would consider him. I truly believe he is Hall of Fame worthy

  • Dan Holmes

    I’m glad that so many of you have enjoyed this blog post. I was only 10 months old when Freehan caught that final out, but I grew up hearing about it and watching the video.

    I’m a child of the ’84 team and they are special to me, but I have a feeling that the ’68 team would have beaten the heroes from 1984.

  • john

    Great story..i was 11 and I remember that.brings a tear to eye just thinking about those sock it to em tigers.norm cash..rip dick macauliffe,jim Northrup will Horton,micky Stanley,al kaline,the gator,don wert,john hiller,pat Dobson..and the rest

  • Rick

    Good memory John. Another great thing about the 68 team is back then the player’s didn’t have their names on their backs. We knew them by their numbers. 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, 17, 23, 25, 29 and let us not forget the Ray Oyler’s, Joe Sparma’s and Mayo Smith’s of the world all rip. How bout the coaches? Do you remember Wally Moses, Johnny Sain, Tony Cucinello? How bout old Billy Beam the best trainer in baseball! Yep 68 the GREATEST season EVER in Tiger history! Dan I gotta tell you the best article I’ve seen on this sight. Thank you.

  • Dan Holmes

    John and Rick – thank you both for reading and I am glad you enjoyed the article. I wish I had been able to watch that ’68 team and enjoy them. By the time I was first aware of Tigers baseball (1975 season), the team was aging and terrible.

  • Christopher

    How come there is no campaign for Mickey to be inducted into the HOF?
    I was 10 years old . I have scorecards of all 7 games and every pitch thrown in those game.

  • Steve Cadwell

    Go Gett’em Tigers, were the motto, of that team, as they led the world in late, and extra inning, dramatics to win games they were losing. And there was no ONE that was relied upon to carry that team, as each and everyone of them had some measure of heroics to win a game late. Mom loved her some Bill Freehan. I loved the way he ‘sauntered’ to first base, after a walk. shoulders bobbing this way and that. I did my best Dick McAulliffe (LHB) batting stance imitation, whenever I could. Stormin’ Norman Cash (LHB) was a god, Jim Northrup, the Silver Fox, was a ‘bacci chewing stud, who had the flare to hit GSHRs (LHB). And the Mick was a HOF pitcher that has eluded his induction (LHP). To spell them was the ‘Gator’ Gates Brown (LHB). Spunky little Don Wert at 3rd, Oyler at SS, a staff led by McLain, Sparma, and Earl Wilson (perhaps the best HR hitting pitcher of all time). Les Cain was there, Matchick, John Hiller (the closer before there was closers), Grand Rapids’ own Mickey Stanley patrolling CF, and Kaline. This team was the team of my CHILDHOOD (9 yrs old). And you can’t forget Ernie Harwell calling those games on radio from the west coast.

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