Freehan was best catcher of his era, and deserves Hall of Fame consideration

Bill Freehan was a 10-time All-Star and won five Gold Gloves for his play behind the plate.

Bill Freehan was a 10-time All-Star and won five Gold Gloves for his play behind the plate.

A few years ago it was revealed that former Tiger catcher Bill Freehan was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, a dreadful form of dementia that affects the memory, among other brain functions. Freehan has since had a low profile, which is unfortunate, because he truly is one of the greatest Tigers of the last 50 years, and a beloved part of Michigan sports history.

The purpose of this article isn’t to dwell on the challenges that Freehan faces now in retirement. Instead, I want to be sure that Freehan’s memory is preserved for baseball fans and Hall of Fame voters. Bill Freehan deserves careful consideration for the Hall of Fame because he was the best catcher of his era.

There aren’t many catchers with plaques hanging in Cooperstown – 16 to be exact – the fewest of any position. One of them, Buck Ewing, played prior to the 20th century, and three others played exclusively in the negro leagues. That leaves 12  practitioners of the most demanding job on the field who have been enshrined for catching over the last 113 years. Every American League “greatest catcher of his era” has been inducted into the Hall: Mickey Cochrane (1920s and 1930s), Bill Dickey (1930s), Yogi Berra (1940s and 1950s), and Carlton Fisk (1970s, 1980s). In due time, Pudge Rodriguez will join them, representing the 1990s and early 2000s. Someday, Joe Mauer will almost certainly raise a plaque of his own, continuing the timeline.

Did you notice something missing? The 1960s. That era, that decade, is missing a representative in Cooperstown. It isn’t because there wasn’t an American League catcher worthy of the title “best in the game.” Not at all, because by now you know who that was – Mr. Freehan. By a wide margin, actually.

Consider this: in the 1960s and early 1970s, in the gap between the end of Berra’s dominance and the emergence of the first Pudge (Fisk), Freehan won five Gold Gloves, was named to the All-Star team 10 times, and caught more games than any other backstop in baseball while serving as one of the key cogs on one of baseball’s better teams. He was a very good hitter, averaging about 18 homers a season. He had the unfortunate timing of playing in the second deadball era, so his batting stats look worse than they really are. Hell, in 1968, Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average. Freehan’s average, on-base percentage and slugging average may look wimpy compared to modern numbers, but he typically finished in the top ten in those categories (seven times total). In ’68, he finished second in MVP voting, one of six times he received MVP votes from the sportswriters. He was a star – both with the glove and the bat. He was a team leader, a feared hitter, and he did it for a long time.

There were a few other catchers in that era who were pretty good – Elston Howard in the AL and Joe Torre in the NL. But neither had the whole package that our Mr. Bill had. Torre could swing the stick, but he was a pretty mediocre catcher, which is why he was moved to third base and later first base for much of his career. Howard didn’t perform at a high level long enough. It’s clear that from 1963, when he became a regular, and 1972-73, Freehan was the best catcher in his league, by a pretty wide margin. Johnny Bench came along in the late 1960s and was the best catcher in the game after ’69, but Freehan was the pride of the junior circuit.

Freehan received a measly two votes in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot.* Two votes, for the best catcher in the league for about 12 seasons, and the best catcher in all of baseball from ’63 to ’69, before Bench came of age. That’s absurd. It’s just as egregious as Lou Whitaker getting less than 5% in his only appearance on the HOF ballot. The only explanation that would make sense would be if there were about 100 ballots with “hanging chads” on them. Freehan deserved better.

That showing made Freehan a “one-and-done” on the Hall ballot, meaning he dropped off completely. He can’t be elected now unless his name makes it to the veterans committee ballot. That hasn’t happened yet. His battery mate, Mickey Lolich, has popped up on the ballot a few times. But Freehan’s name has not. It’s too bad, because as the timeline shows, baseball history has always rewarded the best of their era with a place in the Hall of Fame, but not in this case. Bill Freehan’s accomplishments deserve a fair review by the Hall of Fame committee, and I hope they decide to do that in the future.

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*It appears that Freehan has been stuck with the “not glamorous enough” label. He was steady, rock solid, and consistent throughout his career, but he never had one monster season, nor did he do anything like hit a big postseason home run, or win a major league award. He was just really, really good. His stats also look pretty basic, which is why he (and Ron Santo and Dick Allen and Tony Oliva) has struggled to get attention from sportswriters who see a .262 career average and 80-90 RBI and don’t automatically make the adjustment necessary for the low-scoring era that Freehan played in. Offensive numbers were depressed by about 15-30% in the 1960s, eventually forcing MLB to lower the pitching mound and introduce the designated hitter. 

23 replies on “Freehan was best catcher of his era, and deserves Hall of Fame consideration

  • Jim Fortune

    Having watched Bill Freehan play during my childhood and teen years, I must agree wholeheartedly……..He was the best catcher in baseball from 63 til 69…..and best in the American League for his whole career. Him not being in the HOF is a travesty

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  • Rick Bak

    I was a catcher all through school in the ’60s, and I loved this big lug. Wore his uniform number and, like many kids, tried to copy his mannerisms. But at no time, then or now, have I thought, “This guy belongs in the Hall of Fame.” Never got the same feeling as when you watched Bench or others play. Freehan was solid, dependable, and the consummate team player. He carried himself well, on and off the field. But those qualities alone shouldn’t place a player in the Hall. Bill wasn’t considered great in his own time; he was merely the best catcher in an era notable for its lack of quality backstops. That’s why there isn’t any catcher who spent the bulk of his career in the ’60s in the Hall, nor should there be. The fact that Freehan got TWO VOTES on his one and only ballot underscores what most people who watched him play think of him: very good, not great.

    I’ll add two thoughts:

    1. If Freehan had played in New York or Los Angeles instead of flyover country, he undoubtedly would have received greater recognition in the media and that might have boosted his bid for Cooperstown. As it was, Freehan was a bust in his sole appearance on baseball’s greatest stage. In the 1968 World Series, he batted a woeful .083 with just one RBI. My memories of Bill in that Series were of him flailing away at the plate (he struck out 8 times in 24 AB) and of him kicking at the dirt after the Cardinals had swiped another base (Lou Brock & co. stole 11 bases). Not the image you want to leave a press box filled with impressionable writers/HOF voters. Funny thing is, had the Tigers not won that 7th game against St. Louis, Freehan today would be considered one of the busts of the Series (along with Denny McLain).

    2. Hell, if you’re gonna put Freehan in, do it after inducting Negro Leagues great Bruce Petway. Petway, who spent the final years of his career as catcher-manager of the Detroit Stars in the 1920s, was widely considered one of the top two or three best backstops, black or white, during the 1910s.

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  • Lois Helzer

    i believe he was one of the greatest catcher sorry that no one like this still around play every day didnt complain we need more players like him that like baseball not just the money they can get out of it

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  • Bruce Markusen

    Good stuff, Dan. Freehan for the Hall of Fame is certainly not an outrageous sentiment. He was pretty much the best catcher in the American League during the 1960s; if he had played in just about any other era, his offensive numbers would look a lot more impressive.

    In my mind, Ted Simmons definitely deserves enshrinement. Freehan is not so definite, but he is worth a close look, as you gave him here.

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  • Dan Holmes

    Richard,

    I was 1 years old in 1968, so I will defer o you on how great Freehan looked. However, I do disagree with you on one point: there really isn’t a bias toward NY/LA players in the Hall of Fame. Look no further than Mattingly, Guidry, Munson, etc., and you’ll see that being a Yankee doesn’t give you a bump in the voting.

    I still believe Freehan, as clearly the best catcher in his league for a dozen years, deserves the Cooperstown honor.

    Dan

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  • Mary

    A great article. Bill Freehan certainly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. With his Golden Gloves, All Star appearances and steady leadership on the field, he should have been elected when nominated. He was certainly my favorite player in the 60s and early 70s and his kindness toward the fans, in addition to his baseball skills will always be remembered with fondness.

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  • Rick

    Hey Dan, AWESOME! You are SO correct in Bill Freehan not only deserving consideration but getting in to the hof! So sorry to hear about his illness I often wondered what happened to him because he seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. I too, being a kid of the 60’s was and still am a HUGE Freehan fan. If there is anything regular fans can do to help his cause for the hof please let us know. Thanks again for all of your great work I always enjoy reading your srticle’s.

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  • Randy

    A true Hall of Famer in my opinion. How he can receive just 2 votes for the HOF just goes to show the idiocy of the sportswriters association when it comes to HOF consideration. Isn’t this the same organization that didn’t unanimously elect Willie Mays? Bill Freehan has been and will continue to be a Hall of Famer in my book. All the best to Bill with regards to his health challenges.

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  • Mark Vitale

    I agree with this article whole-heartedly. He wasn’t flashy, loud or arrogant, he just did his job very well. As a result of his class and ability, he too was my boyhood idol and I wore the number 11 my whole playing days. Good luck Bill, you deserve to be elected, as do Tram, Whitaker, Lolich, McLain and a few more Tigers who seem to be over-looked.

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  • J.D.

    I agree with you Dan, but my Tiger loyalty makes it hard to be TOTALLY OBJECTIVE on this matter. I feel the same way about Lolich, Morris, Tram and Sweet Lou. The real tragedy is when death occurs before HOF enshrinement, as in the case of Ron Santo. Or when the HOF denies enshrinement to a great baseball ambassador like Buck O’Neil. Let’s hope they take notice before it’s too late!!!!

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  • Dan Holmes

    Thanks to everyone for the kind comments. I think we can agree that most of us think Freehan was short-shrifted.

    J.D. – It’s a crime that Santo was inducted after he died. It makes no sense. As someone who worked at the Hall of Fame, and saw a little of how the veterans committee works, there’s a feeling by some voting members that Hall of Fame status is like a Country Club membership. The fewer inside, the more elite the members feel.

    I was never an advocate for O’Neil being inducted as a member, but I think an honor is/was perfect for him. His playing record, and the testimony of those who saw him play, illustrates that he was probably similar to a Wally Joyner type player, or maybe as good as Bill White. Not HOF material, IMO.

    Dan

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  • Rick Bak

    At the risk of dragging this out, Dan, shouldn’t the idea of a Hall of Fame be restricted to the elite? It’s not the Hall of the Very Good. In my opinion, there’s enough of those guys in there as it is, cheapening the overall status of those few players who truly were exceptional.

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  • Dan Holmes

    Rick – If by “fame” we mean greatest or elite, then you’re correct. But I don’t think of the Hall that way. The rules of election also state that statistical accomplishments and on the field honors are just one part of the equation. My feeling is that if the player was integral to the era of history, if he was the best at his position for a long time, he should be considered. It’s not just for Mays and Cobb and Seaver. Otherwise, we’d only elect someone every 5-10 years. There are very few elite players. There should be room for the very good for a long time and the great for a while players. That’s my opinion, and I know I am probably in the minority. Also, if you look at the HOF roster, it supports my argument. George Kell was not an elite player, neither was Don Sutton, or Ralph Kiner, or Early Wynn, Bruce Sutter, Bill Mazeroski, etc. In fact, the large majority of players are not elite, they are very good to great players, some of whom played at a high level for two decades without ever being the best player in baseball. But they were a big part of baseball history, and they are in the Hall, like it or not. Why should Freehan, Whitaker, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, Dick Allen, and others (who I think deserve induction) be left out when Kell, Chick Hafey, and Rick Ferrell are in?

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  • Rick

    Hey J.D. GREAT comment on Ron Santo! For those of you not old enough Ron Santo used to have years like 30 homer’s 100 Rbi and 300 avg back when it REALLY was something! A true shame he passed before his election.

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  • RW

    As someone mentioned, there is no New York?LA bias. Not only did Mattting, Munson and Guidry all come up short, but Mike Piazza played in both LA and New York, and who should have been recognized his first year, didn’t even come close. What were they thinking?

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  • RW

    New York/LA bias? Then why was Mike Piazza who played in both LA and New York denied entrance the first year. He was a sure shot, and was left out simply out of spite for the era he played in.

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  • T.R. Frye

    Thank you so much for the kind words concerning Bill Freehan. I can not think of another player who was so under-rated. He was a great leader, a great defensive player, and a solid hitter during a pitcher dominated era. His book, Behind the Mask is an eye-opening account. What a great ballplayer, what a great person.

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  • Jason V

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Freehan about 22 yrs ago. A mutual friend of mine invited me to meet him @ Tampa International Airport while Mr. Freehan was on a couple of hours of a layover that we knew about in advance. We actually had dinner with him & his wife. He was so down to earth & humble. My friend & I brought baseball cards for him to sign & he was like, “really?, I’ve never signed cards before”. He was so honored to sign them. It’s a lasting memory of a class act athlete. I still have the cards & value them with memories to pass on to my son.

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  • olderblackstudbrad1953

    I thought Frehan’s induction a CERTAINTY when
    “Ashley”-Freehan’s middle name-retired after the ’76 season.(I think he caught Mark “The Bird” Fidrych once or twice during the ’76 season of “Bird-Mania.”) Instead,NOBOBY EVEN MENTIONS FREHAN FOR COOPERSTOWN.WHY?????HE WAS THE A.L’S BEST CATCHER FROM 1964-’74 [sorry,Thurman]AND HAD THE MLB CATCHERS’ FLIELDING PERCENTAGE RECORD,BESIDES HIS POWER HITTING.HAPPY 72ND BIRTHDAY-TOMORROW,NOV.29-BILLY,BUD!!!!!)

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  • John kiernan

    Bill was the best high school athlete ever here in St Pete . He even was a first team defensive end all-star his freshman year at Michigan . He came from a quality family and he really distinguished himself at St Paul’s High School . So sorry to hear of his health issues . Quality , quality guy who assuredly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame . Hope I live to see that long delayed honor .

    Reply

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