When I met Bill Freehan at my first major league baseball game

After starring at the University of Michigan as a collegiate athlete, Bill Freehan spent 15 years as a Tiger catcher.

His hands were huge, I remember that. I don’t recall much else, but that I remember.

I was sitting in Tiger Stadium for the first time, seeing my very first major league baseball game. For the first time in 17 years, Bill Freehan was not in uniform as a professional baseball player. Of course, our paths crossed.

Freehan had retired after the 1976 season after a highly successful career behind the plate as the Tigers catcher for most of the 1960s and into the 1970s. When he blocked the plate and tagged out Lou Brock in Game Five of the 1968 World Series, he ascended into legendary status in Detroit lore. An 11-time All-Star, Freehan won five Gold Gloves and was 3rd in MVP voting in 1967 and 2nd in 1968. He was a star.

He was also an author, having penned a diary of the 1969 season under the title Behind the Mask. My mom had bought me that book and I’d read it thoroughly by the age of nine. It was an inside look at the defending champion 1969 Tigers, but at my age then I wasn’t able to recognize that it was a tame baseball diary when compared to the much more popular Ball Four, written about the same season by Jim Bouton. All I knew was that Bill Freehan was a star from a previous era who caught about 70 games for the Tigers in 1976, the season of The Bird. I was at my first game with my parents to catch a glimpse of The Bird or Rusty Staub or Ron LeFlore or Aurelio Rodriguez or Jason Thompson – my heroes.

The Bird’s wings were clipped by that time. It was August 6, 1977, and Mark Fidrych was on the disabled list with the first of the many arm injuries that robbed him of a lengthy career. On the mound that day was Milt Wilcox, some guy with a bushy mustache that I’d hardly heard of. The Tigers were facing the Texas Rangers in a Saturday afternoon game at The Corner. We were seated in the lower deck reserved seats behind third base. It was a good vantage point, and my eyes bulged as I looked out on all that green. Of course the grass was green, but so was everything else – the facade, the roof, the seats. It seemed like one giant green canvas. I expected the Tigers to paint a victory across it.

The facts of the game haven’t stuck with me, but I can look them up now online. The Rangers scored four runs off Wilcox in the first inning! Oh how I must have felt like a jinx. But my Tigers clawed back with three in the bottom of the inning, Thompson bouncing a ball off the warning track for a two-run ground rule double. I can imagine I was pretty excited. The Tigers tied the game in the fifth inning and scored the winning run in the seventh when LeFlore hit a home run off future Tiger hero Doyle Alexander. The pot-bellied Steve Foucalt pitched two innings of perfect relief for the save (those were the days), and I’m sure I was delighted when Rodriguez entered the game as a defensive replacement at the hot corner. From my vantage point I probably took the opportunity to holler at The Man with the Golden Arm.

But somewhere along there Freehan entered the narrative. At some point in the middle innings, there was buzzing around us, and my dad noticed that there was a well-built man sitting a few rows in front of us who was getting attention from the crowd. Word was passed that it was Freehan, who for some reason was sitting among us mortals. I wished I’d had my tattered copy of Behind the Mask because I wanted to show Freehan that even at the age of nine I was the biggest baseball fan in the world.

After some cajoling, I tip-toed down the stadium steps and almost tumbled into Freehan’s lap. I didn’t know what to do – I’d never been so close to an honest to God real ballplayer. I slid my game program at him and he scribbled his name on it. Then he put his hand out and I shook it. My little hand disappeared in the flesh of his. His hand was massive. I don’t think I even mumbled anything, I just bounced back to my seat. I’d met a real ballplayer. When we left the ballpark all I could talk about was how big Bill Freehan’s hand was.

“I don’t think he ever really needed a catcher’s mitt.”