Denny McLain: The Tigers Should Also Retire Bill Freehan’s Number 11

Sparky Anderson was a personal friend of mine.  The times I spent with Sparky (and they were not as often as I would have liked) were some of the most enjoyable and learned times in my life.

Whether we talked about baseball or life in general, Sparky was always fun and entertaining for me to be around.  He was a lot like Tommy Lasorda but much quieter.  Sparky was in the game for the team — not for Sparky – and he only wanted to get the most out of his players.  Sparky’s mantra as a manager was, “my way or the highway.”  And in order to win, it had to be that way.

It was great to see the Detroit Tigers retire Sparky’s number recently, but for me, the occasion was bittersweet for one reason: Bill Freehan, my catcher for seven solid years, wore the same number as Sparky.

Freehan was the very best catcher that we have had here in Detroit in the past 40-plus years.  Not to say that some of the catchers like Pudge Rodriguez were not great and talented.  But Pudge always brought controversy, mayhem and lots of ugly trouble to every team he has played for.  Pudge was not a team guy.  He was all about Pudge.

In contrast, Freehan was all about team and only team – and he was a class act both on and off the field.  He was a great player, teammate and person and he took the game of baseball extremely seriously.  He was a highly disciplined athlete and he always ran out anything that was hit and always backed up first base when it was called for.

I believe that Freehan was the ultimate student and teacher of the catching position.  There’s just no one fundamentally better at the position – then or now.  No one knows the game situations and the “tendencies” of the hitters like Bill Freehan.

Impressively, Freehan was an 11-time All-Star.  He knew the game better than anyone I ever played with or for. He was the on-field manager of our great Tigers teams and he really knew more about situational baseball than anyone that I ever met.  (I’ve often wondered why he did not manage, but that is another story and not the subject of this BLOG. One day I shall disclose lots more about Bill and the Tigers).

When it comes to honoring Freehan, I hope the Tigers don’t do another meaningless “Jimmy Northrup Night” when Freehan is taken to Heaven to play ball.  That’s what I call “10 seconds of nothing” paying adulation to a real player without meaning any of it.

The dedication to Northrup at Comerica Park was an embarrassment to all. Not even our broadcasters (for reasons that shall remain secret today) felt compelled to at least cite some stats about him.

It is a shame that Freehan has not been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  I believe he certainly belongs there.  But I consider his Cooperstown-exclusion even more of a reason for the Detroit Tigers to pay homage to their all-time greatest catcher and to retire his number 11 along with the great Sparky Anderson.

12 replies on “Denny McLain: The Tigers Should Also Retire Bill Freehan’s Number 11

  • Dan DiCosmo

    It was very nice for Denny McClain to write this. I kept thinking about Bill Freehan while watching the pregame ceremony for Sparky.

    Finally, I hope Denny McClain is doing well. I would love to see him get back in to the Detroit sports scene either on radio or TV.

  • Jimmy Kemp

    I agree with you that Bill Freehan’s number 11 should be retired, the Yankees have retired the same number twice so it can be done. Freehan was before my time, but looking at his stats, what a great catcher he was, an 11 time all star as you said, played his entire career with the Tigers, unlike someone the Tigers other great catchers in team history. I say retire Freehan’s number 11 and I always thought Kirk Gibson was just as worthy to have number 23 retired as Willie Horton, but I would do Freehan’s number first and foremost, he has waited the longest of all the players who deserve that honor and is one of the more deserving. With Mike Ilitch, I don’t count on it getting done.

  • Hugo Chavezski

    Baseball has always been a game of characters, but during my lifetime I’ve watched it devolve into a cult of personality. The proliferation of statues, retired numbers, along with the watered-down criteria for HOF selections, all make me wonder just what the criteria for greatness is anymore. Bill Freehan was a solid, above-average backstop with many attributes as a player and a person, and he is fondly remembered by many of us—but HOF worthy? For my two cents (adjusted for inflation: $2.98), no. Cooperstown, intended for the true greats of the game, is already filled with too many guys who should have to pay to get in, just like the rest of us. (Honestly, does anyone except Rick Ferrell’s family consider him a “baseball immortal”?) Retired-number worthy? Well, even if you can resolve the awkwardness of retiring the same number twice, I’d still say no. And here’s why: If you’re gonna go the route of retiring the number of every above-average player in the Tigers’ long history, where do you draw the line? If you’re gonna do it for Freehan, why not Jack Morris, Mickey Lolich, Norm Cash, and Billy Rogell, all of whom, like Freehan, enjoyed long careers in Detroit and contributed in a major way to a championship? Within a few seasons the Tigers lineup would be filled with players wearing #154 and #129 on their backs because there’d be too many numbers pulled out of circulation. And what about all those above-average guys who didn’t wear numbers, players like Donie Bush, Hooks Dauss, Bobby Veach, George Mullin, etc.? So maybe we give them statues instead…? But again, where do you draw the line? A statue of Hal Newhouser? Then why not one of Tommy Bridges, a superior pitcher who is one of only two men (Hank Greenberg is the other) to contribute to two world championships in Detroit? While we’re at it…a statue of Ernie Harwell? Then why not one of Ty Tyson, who was more important to the history of baseball broadcasting in Detroit than Harwell? (Yes, I know….blasphemy!) For that matter, where’s the statue of Harry Heilmann, a legitimate Hall of Famer and a popular fixture on the diamond and in the broadcast booth for more than 30 years? But then Comerica Park would soon look like ancient Rome. Perhaps we could name the carousel after Harvey Kuenn or John Hiller (memo to Ilitch Money-Grubbers Inc.: Possible licensing opportunities!!) or rename the Chevrolet Fountain the Frank Lary Fountain. See how quickly it can all get out of hand? What’s next? Seven-story “Dear Leader”-style portraits of Cabrera and Verlander lining Woodward?

    Freehan was always one of my favorites. Last I heard, he lives Up North and evidently is experiencing some health issues. By all means give the man and his family a nice “Bill Freehan Day” at the ballpark while he’s still around to enjoy it. Do it up right, with some style, and pack the place. But, personally speaking, this old fan doesn’t need some manufactured nostalgia to fondly recall the man or the era.

  • Karen Elizabeth Bush

    It has long seemed to me that whenever a number is retired in honor of a given player, that number should be retired with special reference to all the men who have worn it with distinction prior to its retirement.

    The Tigers retired Hank Greenberg’s #5 – and so they should have. But why not mention at the same time that this was the number inherited by a skinny outfielder with a penchant for hitting the ball hard at the right time, and without whom there just might not have been a ’68 championship? The times I have seen Jim Northrup wearing “55” on his back still gall – though probably they don’t bother me as much as they annoyed the Fox.

    Retire Sparky’s #11, by all means. Whether or not the number is retired, it’s always going to mean “Sparky” to anybody who lived in Detroit in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But for those of us who remember the classic teams of a bit earlier in the century, #11 also means Bill Freehan. Heck – we can tell that it’s Freehan’s number because he’s a catcher and that’s a catcher’s number.

    Yes, Virginia; numbers used to follow positions – not by position number (shortstops equaling “six,” and so on) but by general allocation. Low numbers were almost infielders and outfielders – #5 for Greenberg, #6 for Kaline (and before him, Pat Mullin), #4 for Charley Maxwell. Pitchers got the teens and low twenties. (Bunning was #14; Frank Lary, Ol’ Taters, was #17 – and after him another fair country pitcher named McLain.) Infielders got the leftovers in either category. But #10, #11, and #12? In Detroit, those were catchers – Dick Brown, Mike Roarke, Jim Price…and Bill Freehan.

    The conventions didn’t last long (and couldn’t, with regular changes in a 25-man squad), but when Bill Freehan came up in 1963 (after his brief flirtation with #19 two years earlier) #11 was available and it was a catcher’s number. He wore it behind the plate for the next fourteen years.

    Yes, retire Sparky’s #11. Retire the number as Sparky’s number alone, but not without referencing Bill Freehan whose leadership and handling of his pitchers were as important in 1968 as Sparky’s management was in 1984.

    As to whether or not Bill Freehan belongs in the Hall of Fame? That’s another discussion for another day. But I think that we have to be cautious about judging players who made it to the major leagues in the days before expansion and be sure that we are measuring them against their peers, not against the men who play today.

  • William Jackson

    Thank you for a wonderful column. Denny McLain, you were a great pitcher and I would like to include you in the conversation along with Mickey Lolich, for numbers to be retired. Best of luck to you and keep on telling us “like it is.”

  • Randy Roenicke

    Great comments by all. I have wondered for many years why there is no push for Bill Freehan to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. 11 time All Star & 5 Gold Gloves. He was in my opinion the BEST catcher of the 60s. Arguably deserved, Ron Santo is now in the HOF due to a push for his induction in recent years, yet no push for Freehan. I guess it’s true, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Unfortunately the Tigers will once again wait until someone has passed to properly honor them, just like in the case of Sparky and J. Northrup. Freehan may not be in the Hall of Fame but he is forever in the hearts of Tigers fans everywhere.

  • William Jackson, Ph.D.

    I just found this column tonight (12-29-12) and had to respond. As a native Californian, I had a chance to see Bill Freehan several times when the Tigers played the Angels. He was the best catcher in baseball for at least 12 years and is very deserving of being in the HOF. I also saw Denny McLain pitch on 5-6 ocassions in Anaheim and he was the best of his time. These two were a very potent combination in mid 60’s baseball.

  • William Jackson, Ph.D.

    I just found this column tonight (12-29-12) and had to respond. As a native Californian, I had a chance to see Bill Freehan several times when the Tigers played the Angels. He was the best catcher in baseball for at least 12 years and is very deserving of being in the HOF. I also saw Denny McLain pitch on 5-6 ocassions in Anaheim and he was the best of his time. These two were a very potent combination in mid 60’s baseball.

  • Jim Pickel

    Bill is my cousin, though we never lived anywhere near each other, and he left tickets for my family and came to the house for dinner after games against the Red Sox in Boston. He certainly was a class act – an “old-fashioned baseball player.” All about TEAM -not about Bill. He left some dents in the Green Monster in Fenway Park, and he hit some out, too. I’d love to see him in the HOF.

  • jim fuire

    Whached bill freehan growing up my dad &l would go up for a doubleheader every year an 11 Time all-star should be in hall of fame

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