SABR

Bill Freehan

This article was written by Trey Strecker.

Widely regarded as one of the game’s best defensive catchers and the best catcher in the American League during his prime, Bill Freehan was a fierce competitor and a committed leader on the diamond. Described by sportswriter Arnold Hano as “a thinking man’s catcher” and “an elemental ballplayer,” the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Freehan displayed “an unusual blend of brawn and brains.” Freehan is in select company with Charlie Bennett, Mickey Cochrane, Lance Parrish, and Ivan Rodriguez as one of the most popular and talented backstops in Detroit baseball history.

The eldest son of Ashley Freehan, a sales representative for a seat insulation company, William Ashley Freehan was born on November 29, 1941, in Detroit. Growing up in suburban Royal Oak with his three siblings, the young Freehan began catching on the Detroit sandlots one day when his Little League team’s catcher didn’t show up and he moved from shortstop to behind the plate. During one Little League all-star game, Freehan was bowled over in a collision at home plate by future teammate Willie Horton. When Bill was14, his father bought a mobile-home development, and his family moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where Freehan attended Bishop Barry High School, playing baseball, basketball, and football. During the summers, Freehan returned to Detroit to play sandlot baseball, where, only 15, he captured the eye of Tigers scout Louis D’Annunzio, who called Freehan “the best sandlot catcher he’d seen.”

After graduating from high school in 1959, Freehan hoped to attend the University of Notre Dame, but the school required that he choose football or baseball, so he accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan, catching on the baseball team and playing end and linebacker on the football squad. At Michigan, Freehan once caught all three games of a tripleheader between Michigan and Michigan State, then, according to his mother, “he went out dancing until one in the morning.” Always strong defensively, the sophomore catcher pounded Big Ten pitching, batting .585 in 1961 and drawing the attention of major league scouts. Although he entertained offers from several teams, the 19-year-old Freehan signed with his hometown Tigers for a $125,000 bonus in 1961. But, even as he was breaking into the big leagues, the Tigers’ bonus baby continued attending school part-time over the off-season, completing his bachelor’s degree in history with a 3.1 grade point average from Michigan in 1966. Freehan explained, “My deal with my dad was, I didn’t see a dime of my bonus until I got my degree.”

For the 1961 season, the Tigers farmed him out to Duluth-Superior in the Class C Northern League, where Freehan hit .343 with seven home runs and 26 RBI in 30 games for manager Bill Swift before he was promptly promoted to Knoxville in the Sally League. There, he batted .289 in 47 games before a late-September call-up to Detroit, where Freehan managed four singles in 10 at-bats. In 1962, Freehan played the entire season for Denver’s American Association entry, playing stellar defense behind the plate and batting .283 with nine home runs and 58 RBI. Called up to Detroit after the season, he saw no action. On February 23, 1963, Freehan married Patricia O’Brien, his high school sweetheart from St. Petersburg and the sister of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dan O’Brien (1978–1979).

Brought up to the Tigers again in 1963, Freehan got on base nine straight times, managing three home runs, one triple, three doubles, two singles, and three walks in 15 plate appearances. Over the remainder of his rookie season, the 21-year-old receiver committed only two errors in 73 games behind the plate, although he hit only .243. “I wanted to hit well,” Freehan said. “I just never put that ahead of my primary responsibility. The catcher has to be the captain of the field. I felt if I did my job behind the plate, I was contributing to the team in the best way I could.” Always a perfectionist, one Tigers front-office man said, “Bill’s biggest trouble is that he thinks he never should have a bad day.”

The next year marked Freehan’s arrival as the dominant catcher in the American League. A right-handed hitter who crowded the plate, Freehan became the first Detroit catcher to hit .300 since Mickey Cochrane batted .319 in 1935. At the time of his first all-star selection in 1964, Freehan had caught fewer than 200 major league games, but over the course of the season, the Detroit backstop demonstrated that he deserved to be an all-star. Freehan committed only seven errors in 141 games—catching the final 56 games of the season and logging a stretch of 517 consecutive innings behind the plate—with a .993 fielding percentage, and he belted 18 home runs with 80 RBI. More importantly, during the 1964 campaign, Freehan became the team’s “spiritual leader,” according to writer Jim Sargent. Manager Charlie Dressen noted that even a veteran pitcher like Dave Wickersham was willing to let the young catcher call the game. “He suddenly grew up,” Dressen remarked, “and his pitchers have confidence in him now. So do the other players. Quick-like, the Tigers had a leader.” Arnold Hano noted that Freehan “leads the way sergeants lead, not second lieutenants. He leads by example.” General Manager Jim Campbell said, “We put the full load on Freehan’s shoulders and he didn’t stumble.”

Although Freehan caught 129 games in 1965, he was frequently dinged up by injuries. In spring training, Freehan suffered a severe muscle spasm in his lower back while rounding second base, the injury putting him on the bench for three weeks. On May 29, a foul tip off the bat of Cleveland’s Max Alvis injured his throwing hand and, on June 25, a pitch deflected off Minnesota rookie Sandy Valdespino struck Freehan’s bare hand in the exact spot as the foul tip. While he avoided the disabled list, Freehan only hit a meager .234 in both 1965 and 1966. Still primarily known for his defensive prowess and his game-calling skills, Freehan won the first of five consecutive Gold Gloves in 1965 and, on June 15, 1965, he set a record by making 19 putouts in a single game—thanks in large part to Denny McLain’s 15 strikeouts in 6.2 innings of relief work.

At the beginning of the 1967 season, Freehan experimented with moving closer to the plate on the advice of new manager Mayo Smith and batting coach Wally Moses, and his hitting improved. Although he was hit by pitches 20 times that year, he hit .282 with 20 home runs and 74 RBI. It was an exceptional season, as Freehan caught 138 games with only six passed balls and eight errors, and he played in 155 games; no other catcher in the majors led his team in games played. Moreover, much to the consternation of Smith and the Tigers, Freehan caught all 15 innings of the 1967 All-Star Game in Anaheim. On September 10, Freehan was hit by a pitch in the third inning of the first game of a doubleheader, spoiling Joel Horlen’s otherwise-perfect game. At the end of the season, on September 26, Freehan was ejected from a game for the first time in his career, slamming his mask into the dirt after the Yankees’ Horace Clarke stole second base. “I wasn’t arguing about the stolen base,” Freehan explained later. “The pitch was a strike.…[Umpire Hank] Soar called it a ball. I couldn’t believe it.” His next ejection would occur nearly eight years later, on August 12, 1975, when he argued over a ball-four call to the Texas Rangers’ Mike Hargrove. Although Detroit finished one game behind Boston’s “Impossible Dream” team for the AL flag, Freehan had an outstanding season, and he was voted the 1967 Tiger of the Year by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

During the Tigers’ 1968 championship season, Freehan caught 155 regular-season games and all seven World Series games. In the regular season, he set career-high marks with 25 home runs, 73 runs scored, and 84 RBI, and he was hit by pitches 24 times. Bothered that he was hitless in the first five games of the World Series, Freehan shrugged, “You’ve got to understand that you’re facing Bob Gibson in three of those games. That’s not a joy for anybody.” In the first five games of the World Series, the Cardinals tested Freehan’s arm, stealing 11 bases in 16 attempts, but he managed to corral the running game in Games 6 and 7.

Freehan’s role in one of the most controversial plays in World Series history is familiar to most Tigers fans. The Cardinals led 3–2 when speedster Lou Brock tried to score from second on Julian Javier’s single to left field. Freehan caught Willie Horton’s perfect one-hop throw and blocked the plate, and Brock, who decided not to slide, was tagged out. “I’ve got to thank [University of Michigan football coach] Bump Elliott if I block the plate well,” Freehan said. Writing about the play, the Los Angeles Herald’s Milton Richman said, “What makes [Freehan] so extraordinary is that he plants his two big feet firmly in the ground, doesn’t bother giving the base runner barreling down on him from third base so much as a sidelong glance and plain refuses to budge even when said base runner hits him at midship like a torpedo. For that he has the respect of ballplayers everywhere. They know they don’t make catchers like Freehan anymore.” White Sox manager Eddie Stanky added, “On any close play at the plate, it’s like running into a freight train.”

Freehan also caught Tim McCarver’s foul popup near the first-base dugout to secure the final out in Game 7. The sight of Mickey Lolich leaping into Freehan’s arms will always be an iconic image in Detroit baseball lore. “When Lolich jumps on you, well, he’s not a small man,” Freehan said. “But it was a great feeling!” Finishing the World Series 2-for-24 with a double, Freehan observed, “I know I wasn’t very successful in hitting, but I’ve got the same World Series ring as everybody else.” Remarkably, Freehan was the only AL player to finish among the top three in MVP voting in both 1967 and 1968.

In 1969, the Tigers finished in second place, a distant 19 games behind Baltimore, and Freehan batted a respectable .262 with 16 home runs in 143 games. Throughout the 1969 season, the catcher kept a ballplayer’s clubhouse diary, which would be published the next year as Behind the Mask: An Inside Baseball Diary. Published a decade after Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season and the same year as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, Freehan’s Behind the Mask did not display the literary insights of Brosnan’s book or the scandalous revelations of Bouton’s. For the most part, the book was, as Freehan explained, “a story about a ballclub. A catcher, a manager, and the pitcher.” Unfortunately, as the 1970 season opened, pitcher Denny McLain was in the headlines again, serving a suspension related to a gambling investigation, so when Sports Illustrated published excerpts from Freehan’s diary, it was no surprise to anyone that the McLain passages were featured in the magazine. At the center of the controversy was Freehan’s accusation that McLain was often allowed to break club rules and that the coaching staff was powerless to stop him. McLain is “the best pitcher in the American League,” Freehan wrote, “but it’s an individual thing vs. a team thing.” Ironically, after these excerpts were published, the same Tigers who resented McLain’s special treatment felt Freehan had violated the sanctity of the clubhouse. “My book is about what it’s like to be a catcher and go through a season,” Freehan explained, “but what appeared in the magazine was not an accurate representation.” Sportswriter Joe Falls speculated that some of the vitriol surrounding Freehan’s book was due to poor timing: “If they had won the pennant last year, what Freehan had to say about McLain might have come out as being rather humorous: Look at that Denny, will you? Isn’t he a rascal?”

Thus, 1970 was a rough year for Freehan. While his defense behind the plate was still impeccable, his batting average dropped to .241, and the team fell to fourth place. Still bothered by the 1965 spring training base-running injury, Freehan consented to spinal surgery to prolong his career as an everyday catcher. “Some days were good and some days were bad,” Freehan recalled. “It got so my legs would be numb on certain days when I stepped out of my car at the ball park.” On September 2, 1970, Freehan had bone graft surgery on the fifth vertebra of his lower back. As always, the durable catcher recovered quickly, and three months later, he was hiking on a deer-hunting weekend with Al Kaline, Mickey Stanley, and other players.

Although fans booed Freehan after the publication of Behind the Mask, all was forgotten when the catcher made a strong comeback from the surgery in 1971. Under Billy Martin, the Tigers bounced back into second place, and Freehan topped AL catchers with a .277 batting average, 21 home runs, and 71 RBI, while he caught 144 games, more than anyone else in the league. Freehan had the opportunity to start the All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium in place of the injured Ray Fosse, and had a three-homer game in a 12–11 loss to Boston that August 9.

With a healthy back and the acquisition of new backup catcher Tom Haller, Freehan anticipated another good season behind the plate in 1972. Freehan caught 105 games that season, batting .262, hitting 10 home runs and driving in 56 RBI, but he fractured his right thumb late in the season when tagging out Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski on a play at the plate. The Tigers finished first in American League East, but they were defeated by Oakland in the American League Championship Series. Freehan hit better in this postseason than he did in 1968, securing a .250 average and a home run in Detroit’s Game 3 victory, but the Athletics stole seven bases thanks in part to Freehan’s bum thumb.

“Defense…isn’t just talent,” Freehan believed, “that’s concentration and work. I always called my games. Sure, I always had eye contact with my manager, but I was the one calling the pitches.” The next year, when Billy Martin platooned him at catcher and questioned his game-calling skills, the proud Freehan resented his manager. Feeling that he was not given sufficient opportunity to prove himself, Freehan struggled with a lowly .234 average and 29 RBI, playing in only 110 games (his lowest total in 10 years). “I was never platooned before, not even part-time. I wouldn’t have minded if the figures showed I couldn’t hit right-handers. But they don’t. I wouldn’t mind losing my job if I was doing a lousy job.” What bothered Freehan more than his poor performance at the plate was that Martin also second-guessed the pitches Freehan called, even publicly questioning some pitches that were ordered from the bench.

Freehan returned in 1974 prepared to prove himself, splitting time at catcher and first base under new manager Ralph Houk. With his poor showing the previous season and with the rise of Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk as the league’s premier catchers, Freehan felt he had to reestablish himself, but only two months into the season, the American League’s all-star catcher for the past 10 years was shifted to first base. In the Tigers’ biggest offensive bonanza of the year, Freehan belted a grand slam and drove in seven runs against the Yankees on September 8, 1974. Although his offensive production improved from the previous year—he hit .297 with 18 home runs and 60 RBI in 1974—Freehan was the cornerstone of a December deal that would have sent him with Mickey Stanley—“remains of a bygone era,” according to Detroit sportswriter Jim Hawkins—to the Philadelphia Phillies for catcher Bob Boone. As Freehan was preparing his family for the move to Philadelphia, the deal was nixed by the Phillies at the last minute.

Nevertheless, after the trade failed, Freehan could see the writing on the wall. Going into spring training in 1975, Houk tabbed Freehan as the Tigers’ starting catcher, unless “one of these other guys proves he’s better than Bill is.” At age 34, Freehan caught 113 games, hitting .246 with 14 home runs and 47 RBI, and he returned to the All-Star Game for the eleventh time. But over the winter, the Tigers traded for Milt May, putting Freehan in a reserve role for the first time in his career. May caught only six games before being sidelined for the season with a broken ankle. Freehan, as part of a backstop triumvirate, caught 61 games in 1976 as did Bruce Kimm (John Wockenfuss was behind the plate in 59 contests), and on December 12, 1976, the Tigers gave Freehan his unconditional release. Although he still believed he could contribute on the diamond, he realized how fortunate he was to have played on his hometown team for his entire 15-year major league career. Still, when the Tigers offered Freehan a job managing Montgomery in the Class AA Southern League, he declined, explaining that “I can’t feed my family on a minor league manager’s salary.”

In retirement, Freehan still felt the pull of the game, particularly when he saw the opportunity to teach. “You can’t take the baseball out of the boy,” he said. After he retired from major league baseball, Freehan served as the president of Freehan-Bocci & Company, an automobile manufacturer’s representative agency he founded in suburban Detroit in 1974, where he worked with former teammate Jim Northrup. In 1989, disturbed by an NCAA investigation that revealed illegal payments to players, Freehan called University of Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler to ask about the once-successful baseball program. Two weeks later, he put his business career on hold and took over as the Wolverines’ head baseball coach. Weathering two years’ probation, Freehan coached Michigan baseball until 1995, reestablishing the integrity of the program and finishing with a 166–167–1 record. He left coaching to devote more attention to his business interests, although he was lured back to serve as Detroit’s organizational catching instructor from 2002 to 2005. Today, Freehan lives in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills with his wife, Pat. The Freehans have three daughters: Corey Sue, Kelley, and Cathy.

A driven leader and the best catcher in the American League for almost a decade, Freehan was an intelligent and durable backstop who caught more than 100 games for nine consecutive seasons. He won five Gold Gloves, was selected for 11 All-Star teams and played in eight All-Star games, retiring with a .262 lifetime batting average, 758 RBI, and 200 home runs (100 at home and 100 on the road). When he retired, Freehan held the major league career records for most chances (10,714) and putouts (9,941), and highest fielding average for a catcher (.993). Bill James ranks Freehan as the twelfth-best catcher of all time. Freehan was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1982, and Tigers fans voted him as catcher in 1999 for the All-Time Tiger Team.

Sources

Cantor, George. The Tigers of ’68: Baseball’s Last Real Champions. Dallas: Taylor. 1997.

Freehan, Bill (Steve Gelman and Dick Schaap, eds.). Behind the Mask: An Inside Baseball Diary. New York: World. 1970.

Hawkins, Jim, and Dan Ewald. The Detroit Tigers Encyclopedia. Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing. 2003.

James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: Free Press. 2001.

Hano, Arnold. “Bill Freehan: Tough Leader of the Tigers.” Sport, August 1968, pp. 57–62.

Sargent, Jim. “Bill Freehan: A Key Member of the 1968 Champion Tigers.” Baseball Digest, June 2000, pp. 58–65.

“Bill Freehan.” www.baseball-reference.com.

Bill Freehan clipping file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

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