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.
*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.