On Thursday, one of the greatest catchers to ever wear the Detroit uniform passed away, when 79 year old Bill Freehan lost his battle with dementia with his family at his bedside in his beloved Walloon Lake in northern Michigan.
The loss of Freehan is another bitter reminder that the heroes of our youth are passing on. Last year, the Tigers lost Al Kaline, who was a teammate of Freehan’s for 13 seasons. The pair were integral in the World Series victory for the Tigers in 1968.
With the previous deaths of Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Dick McAuliffe, Earl Wilson, and Gates Brown, and Kaline, the number of players still living who played for the iconic ’68 Tigers is dwindling. Notables remaining are Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, and pitchers Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain. Freehan and Lolich hold the major league record for most games together as a battery, with 324 games, all with Detroit.
How Freehan became a Tiger
The Tigers gave Freehan a $100,000 bonus off the campus of the University of Michigan. That was probably the best money the team ever spent.
The scout who gathered Freehan in for the Tigers was a man named Louie D’Annunzio, a baseball lifer who also found pitchers Hal Newhouser and Billy Pierce for the franchise in Detroit.
D’Annunzio took note of Freehan on Detroit area sandlots when he was only 15 years old, and he did what a good scout does: he befriended the family. D’Annunzio was “the first guy in” and he knew all of the Freehan’s by name. He went to U of M to watch Bill play for the Wolverines, and he shook his hand at every important juncture of his amateur career.
After parts of two seasons with the Wolverines and inking the lucrative bonus contract with Detroit, Freehan advanced all the way to his hometown Tigers in his first professional season, in 1961 when he was 19 years old. In a short stint in September, he made his debut on September 26 in Kansas City against the Athletics. Even though he was a teenager, Freehan was a large, powerful looking youngster with broad shoulders and tremendously big hands. In his first at-bat, Freehan lined a single that scored Rocky Colavito. He later added another single. From the Wolverines to the Tigers in only a few months, Freehan was capable as a professional ballplayer.
The best catcher in the American League
How good was Bill Freehan? He was good enough to make the All-Star team 11 times out of the 14 full seasons he played, all while wearing the Old English D.
Freehan was like a large boulder behind the plate: immovable, imposing. He proved that in the 1968 World Series in Game Five when he tagged out Lou Brock of the Cardinals at home plate. Brock wanted no part of the granite-like Freehan, and that play (an assist from Horton in left field) defined the comeback victory in the Fall Classic for the Tigers.
Freehan was the premier catcher in the American League for a decade, and he’s one of the only receivers with that distinction not in the Hall of Fame. The timeline of the “best of the decade” catchers in the American League goes: Wally Schang, Ray Schalk, Rick Ferrell, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, FREEHAN, Carlton Fisk, Pudge Rodriguez, Joe Mauer. All of these catchers are in the Hall of Fame except Schang, Freehan and Mauer, who is not yet eligible. According to one listing, Freehan ranks among the 20 best catchers in baseball history.
There’s virtually zero chance that Freehan will ever get a plaque in Cooperstown. Crouching behind the dish, he didn’t stand out, and he played his career during an era when offensive numbers were down, so his batting average and other stats seem less impressive when compared to those catchers who played in a later era. But when he retired, Freehan was among all-time leaders in home runs and runs batted in by a catcher, and his defensive statistics rate among the best ever at the position. The Detroit receiver garnered five Gold Glove awards.
Meeting my first ballplayer
The first time I ever went to a baseball game, at old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, it was in the summer of 1977. I was nine years old, and we sat in reserved seats on the third base side about 40 rows up. I was as big a baseball fan as you can imagine, and by that time I had already read the book Behind the Mask, written by Freehan.
Behind the Mask was a diary of the 1969 season, written only months after the Tigers had won the World Series. It chronicled the same season as another book, Ball Four by pitcher Jim Bouton. That book became a classic, a cult favorite. It was raw, explosive, and scandalous. Freehan’s diary was nothing like that. Behind the Mask was a frank, but sometimes even dull look at being a baseball player. But it fascinated me. Because of that book, I knew Freehan pretty well, even though he was part of the prior generation of players in Detroit. I hadn’t really remembered seeing him play much, other than s smattering of appearances he made in 1976, the Year of The Bird, Mark Fidrych.
About the third or fourth inning of my first major league game, my Dad recognized that someone was getting attention only a few rows down from us. After a while he heard someone whisper that Freehan was sitting on an aisle seat. Occasionally, fans would creep up on Freehan to grab an autograph. My Dad urged me to take my scorebook down there.
When Bill Freehan saw me he smiled and reached out his right hand to shake mine. This was the same hand that threw out baserunners. The same hand that held the bat for his 200 career home runs. The same hand that helped catch the final out of the 1968 World Series. It was an impossibly large hand. It looked like Freehan could have held a dozen baseballs in that one beefy hand. I remember thinking to myself, as I scurried back to my seat with a prized autograph in my scorebook, “I don’t think he even needed a mitt.”
Tigers should install a new statue at Comerica Park
Seconds after Freehan caught the popup that was the final out of Game Seven of the ’68 Series, pitcher Mickey Lolich jumped in his strong arms. The moment is captured in one of the most iconic World Series photos of all-time, snapped after Lolich finished his third win in the 1968 Series.
For a generation of Tigers fans, that moment is precious. So are the two men who were part of it. Lolich is still alive, one of the greatest pitchers in franchise history. Now that Freehan is gone, it’s time again to revisit a pet idea of mine.
The Detroit Tigers should erect a statue outside Comerica Park that depicts that “famous leap” by Mickey into Freehan’s arms. It would be way to commemorate and honor forever the achievement by that team. It would be a great photo opportunity for fans as they enter the park. It would also help preserve the legacy of Lolich and Freehan, two of the greatest and most popular players in franchise history.
The Tigers have been notoriously slow and stingy in their honoring of former players. They only recently agreed to retire the uniform number of Lou Whitaker. They have traditionally explained that only Hall of Famers have their uniform number on the brick wall in deep right-center field, and only members of the Hall get a statue inside the park. They have made an exception of that rule for Willie Horton, who has a statue in left field.
But nowhere have the Tigers said anything about statues outside the park. They have one of a giant Tiger, and they have a famous statue of popular broadcaster Ernie Harwell outside the ballpark. The time is right for another statue, this one with Freehan and Mickey. Make it happen, Ilitch family.