On June 16, 1961 the Detroit Tigers made one of their greatest acquisitions in team history when they signed 19-year-old Bill Freehan, a football and baseball star from the University of Michigan who would become a perennial All-Star and the dominant catcher in the American League.
The five-time Gold Glove catcher played his entire career in Detroit, appearing in 1,774 games from 1961 to 1976. In an era when pitchers dominated the hitters, Freehan had a very respectable lifetime average of .262 while hitting 200 homers.
Freehan became the regular starting catcher in 1964, batted .300 that year and earned the first of ten consecutive All-Star selections. In 1965 he led the American League in put outs for the first of six times and received his first of five consecutive Gold Gloves.
Looking back, it almost feels like as Tiger fans we took Freehan for granted because he was always behind the plate, and overshadowed by Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich.
Freehan was an unbelievable workhorse who I best remember blocking home plate as runners bounced off the former U of M tight end as they tried to score.
His career signature play that turned around the 1968 World Series occurred in Game Five when Lou Brock tried to score on a single to Willie Horton in left field.
Horton threw a perfect peg at third baseman and cut off man Don Wert’s head. Freehan yelled to Wert to let the ball come to home as the catcher adeptly blocked the plate as Brock tried to score without sliding.
During that championship season Freehan caught 155 regular season games and set career high marks with 25 home runs, 73 runs scored, and 84 RBI. He also often “took one for the team” as he was hit by pitches a remarkable 24 times.
I can still picture Freehan drenched with sweat in his dirty away uniform on a hot summer day crowding home plate with a heaving bandage wrapped on his left bicep as he is hit by a pinch once again and then heads for first with his signature Big Ten tight end trot.
When he caught both ends of a double header, Freehan would typically lose several pounds of sweat. His stamina was unbelievable. In the 1967 All-Star game he caught all 15 innings!
By the way, Freehan is apparently the only player in baseball history to appear in eleven All-Star games and not be elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Which begs the question: Why wasn’t Bill Freehan ever seriously considered for induction? To me it is a serious oversight.
15 replies on “Does Bill Freehan Belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame?“
I loved big Bill back in the day: rugged, stoic, hard-working, self-effacing, just a gallumphing kind of guy who brought his lunchpail to the park every miserably hot and humid summer afternoon, often catching both ends of a DH. (Remember those?) I probably was the only Detroit sandlotter in the 1960s asking for his number instead of Kaline’s or McLain’s. I’ve always enjoyed watching catchers work—their interaction with the ump, the batters, and the pitcher—and their mannerisms (a nonchalant swipe of the foot to clean a dirty plate, a discrete adjustment of the jock before dropping back down into a squat, those mysterious running conversations behind masks with the home plate umpire, etc.). Bill was the consummate pro and, at least for me, a pleasure to focus on during the course of a game.
But the HOF? The blocked-plate moment aside (as much a consequence of Horton’s perfect peg and Brock’s unfathomable decision not to slide), let’s not forget Freehan’s miserable performance in his only World Series. The Cards ran wild on him (well, the pitchers bear much of the blame, but the catcher always gets all of the hell) and his .083 BA. If you’re going to impress the national press corps, you have to do much better than that. And let’s be honest…some of those 11 All-Star Game appearances probably owe as much to the dearth of quality AL backstops during that era as anything. (Quick, name me 3 other AL catchers who played contemporaneously with Freehan.) Freehan was good and dependable, and often very good, and by all accounts a great teammate and a solid ciitzen—but, alas, not a HOF-caliber backstop, no matter how much we loved the big lug.
There are fewer catchers in the HOF than any other position, a testament to the difficulty of sustaining a high level of defense, offense, and field generalship over a career. (It also helps if you play in New York.) IMO #11 belongs in the same “close but no see-gar” category as Lance Parrish (and for that matter, Tram and Lou). There’s no sin in that. Freehan enjoyed a long MLB career, won a championship, played with and against some of the game’s all-time greats, and is fondly remembered by many fans. That’s not a bad legacy, Hall or not, the kind we “commoners” (sorry, the Royal wedding was today) can only dream about.
Interesting but useless fact: Freehan hit 100 homers at home and 100 on the road.
Bill Freehan absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame. If he was a Yankee he would be there. Ask the guys he played against where he ranked as a catcher. He may be the most under appreciated players of his era and the only explanation is that people of that era aren’t listened to. What a shame.
agree 100% …. big Bill needs an advocate on the veterans committee
I am a die hard Yankee fan who has done research the past 2 years on players that should be in the Hall and Freehan deserves to be in. With 11 All Star games, 5 Gold Gloves, 200 Homers during that era for a catcher no less and being the best of his time is enough for me – put Bill Freehan in!!
Tom T …. Please (!) write to the NY baseball writers & to the NY baseball literati/luminati (Derek Jeter, a native Michigander?). Freehan needs a respected advocate to get in.
He was also the last catcher to catch a 30 game winner. He deserves to be in the hall.
Bill: Your article about Freehan is a good one. I’d agree that the Hall of Fame overlooking baseball’s best catcher of the late 1960s is a serious oversight. Do you know of anyone working on a Freehan bio? Jim
As a kid born in Detroit in 1955 I was by 1966 a Tiger fan. Like most Fans we had many good players in Detroit like Norm Cash, Willie Horton and Mickey Lolich. We also had one of the greatest in Mr Baseball Al Kaline. It was therefore easy to over look arguably the best catcher of his time BILL FREEHAN. Maybe it’s because they won only championship in 1968. Maybe it’s the National dislike of Detroit. Whatever it is, the Veterans committee must correct this oversite.
Why Not? And THROW in (pun intended) Lolich and Sweet Lou too.
Between him, Lolich & Whitaker, easily the best case, anyhow. Lolich, no way. Whitaker, a better case, but I still don’t think so. The biggest negative for Freehan is the dearth of good catchers in his day.
I’ve always wondered how you overlook a guy that went to 11 All-star games… including 10 in a row…. in a 16 year career. If he was deemed one of the best for over a decade, then he belongs. If I remember correctly he was broomed from the ballot after his first year. It’s as puzzling as any case I’ve ever seen, but the recent inclusion of Ted Simmons gives me hope for Freehan. If you want a great baseball read, see if you can find his book “Behind the Mask”. Classic stuff in there.
Born i 1951, so the ’60s were my decade – and Bill was the best catcher of that decade, period. Yes, he should be in, and soon.
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