That time the Tigers nearly traded Bill Freehan

Catchers Bill Freehan and Bob Boone nearly swapped places.

The Detroit Tigers were a team in transition in 1974. Late in the summer they released popular first baseman Norm Cash. A few days later they traded “The Silver Fox”, outfielder Jim Northrup. And most importantly, Al Kaline ended his 22 years as the face of the franchise, waving goodbye to his fans at Tiger Stadium in the final game of the season in October. The team was aging out, in need of a face lift.

The general manager was a dour man named Jim Campbell, a round man with a bald head and a stern demeanor. He was conservative, probably a little to the right of Attila The Hun. As Campbell looked around baseball he saw long hair, mustaches, and polyester uniforms. He didn’t like it. In his view, baseball was tradition and he wanted to keep it that way. But Campbell recognized his Tigers were growing long in the tooth and he entered the offseason with the goal of making the club younger and better.

Catcher Bill Freehan was the unquestioned leader of the Tigers, had been for years. Though Kaline had been the senior man on the roster, Al was quiet and preferred to lead by example, avoiding confrontation. A rah-rah guy he was not. In contrast, Freehan would yell at his teammates, urge them on, take charge on the field. He was one of the few remaining pillars from the team that won the World Series in 1968 and a division title just two years prior.

In 1974, Freehan had another fine season. He hit 18 home runs and batted .297 in 130 games, also driving in 60 runs. The ten-time All-Star was starting to split time between catching and resting his knees at first base. But at 32 years of age he was still an imposing figure, tall and strong.

With many of the familiar Tigers already gone, Campbell set out at the annual winter meetings to use one of his final chips to get something in return. He started calling teams and offering Freehan. Many clubs were interested in the veteran signal caller, and a few back-of-the-napkin deals were sketched out, but eventually a trade was configured with the Philadelphia Phillies. But at the last second it would fall apart, a fact that irritated Campbell to no end.

The Phillies were emerging from a decade-long stretch of mediocrity. In 1974 they won 80 games, nothing to get too thrilled about under normal circumstances. But it was their highest win total in seven seasons. Their third place finish in the NL East was their highest since 1964. The Phils had some good young players in place: pitcher Steve Carlton, young third baseman Mike Schmidt, power-hitting outfielder Greg “The Bull” Luzinski, and second baseman Dave Cash. But the Pirates loomed ahead of them and they needed something extra to push themselves to the top of the standings.

Campbell huddled with his Philadelphia counterpart, a man named Paul Owens, general manger of the Phillies. Owens looked a lot like Campbell, he was a white, middle-aged bald man. He got his nickname “The Pope” because he bore a striking resemblance to Pope Paul VI. Unlike Campbell, Owens was a former player, manager, and coach. He had spent more than two decades on the field, in dugouts, up close with the game. He was also more loose than Campbell, he didn’t mind having a drink or two. He and Campbell worked out the details of a trade that would send Freehan to Philly.

The Tigers would send the five-time Gold Glove winning catcher to the Phils along with pitcher Woodie Fryman and a minor league pitcher. In return the Tigers would receive catcher Bob Boone, infield prospect Todd Cruz, and young lefthanded pitcher Tom Underwood. The move would give the Phillies an established star and make the Tigers younger, filling needs on their roster.

On the second day of the winter meetings, Campbell and Owens agreed to the deal and both sides proceeded to draft the paperwork. Campbell would need to contact Freehan and secure his approval. Under a new rule, players with at least ten years in the big leagues and at least five years with their current team (called “Ten and Five Rights”) had the right of refusing a trade. But before Campbell could get in contact with his catcher, the phone in his hotel room rang. It was Owens and the deal was off.

Campbell was livid. He had gotten Owens verbal okay for the deal, the two men had agreed. But Owens informed the Tigers’ GM that his advisers had nixed the trade. The Phillies front office loved Boone, a 26-year old catcher and son of former All-Star third baseman Ray Boone. The young catcher had finished third in Rookie of the Year voting in 1973, and though he took a step backward at the plate in 1974, he was considered an emerging defensive star behind the plate. The Philadelphia coaching staff didn’t want to lose him. The Phils had a second young catcher named John Stearns who they liked as well, he was a better hitter than Boone, but the organization was convinced Boone would help their pitching staff. The deal was most certainly dead.

Stymied, Campbell took his beef to the press. “In all my years in the game, I’ve not seen anything like this,” he complained. “We had this deal and it held up other moves and actions with players. Now it’s fallen apart.”

Campbell scrambled and ended up trading Fryman to Montreal for Terry Humphrey and Tom Walker, a bad deal considering Fryman pitched nine more years, until he was 43 years old. But that was the only consequential deal the Detroit GM was able to make at the meetings. The aborted Freehan trade had left him without an alternate plan.

Freehan remained a Tiger, was an All-Star in 1975. But it was his last full season as a catcher, and after one last hurrah in 1976, he retired at the age of 34. He was one of the best catchers in Detroit history, went on to mentor young Lance Parrish at the position as a spring instructor, and later managed his alma mater, the Michigan Wolverines.

The Phillies made the correct decision. Boone won two Gold Gloves in Philadelphia and was a force behind the plate as the Phils won five division titles in six seasons from 1976 to 1981. In the 1980 World Series he hit .412 and helped the team to their first championship. He ended up playing 19 seasons and at one time he held the record for most games caught. In all he won seven Gold Gloves and was a three-time All-Star.

Ultimately the Tigers didn’t need Bob Boone, they had Parrish a few years later. Freehan was able to finish his career in a Detroit uniform and maintain his relationship with the franchise. Boone’s career went wonderfully, he even became a major league manager. Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make.