By The Numbers looks at one current or former Tiger that wore each uniform number. To catch up on numbers 1-10 click the “By The Numbers” tag at the top of this page.
As I approached number 11 on my list, I knew I would have a tough choice to make. There have been only three prominent Tigers to don the number 11, but narrowing the list to one was a tougher choice than I expected. In the end, another catcher gets the call, joining Rudy York and Pudge Rodriguez on the list so far. So with apologies to Dizzy Trout (P, 1939-52, 3x All-Star), and Sparky Anderson (Mgr, 1979-95, 1 WS, 2x Manager of the Year) I present No. 11: Bill Freehan
Bill Freehan was born in Detroit in 1941 and attended Royal Oak High School. He followed by enrolling at the University of Michigan where he played football as well as baseball. In 1961, Freehan set the all-time single season Big Ten record with a .585 batting average.
The Tigers signed him as a free agent that summer, and he spent all of 77 games in the minor leagues over two stops that year. He performed well enough (.312 average, .512 slg) that the Tigers brought him up to join the final road trip of the year. He made his big league debut in Kansas City on September 26, 1961, just months after catching collegiate pitchers at U-M.
In the top of the second, the Tigers trailed the Athletics 2-0, runners were at the corners when Freehan came to the plate with two outs. After falling behind Norm Bass 0-2, Freehan found a mistake and lined a single to center field, scoring Rocky Colavito. It was the first hit and RBI of Freehan’s career. He finished the day 2 for 4 but failed to catch the two runners that stole against him. The Tigers lost 8-5. Freehan would catch the final two games of the year in Minnesota as well, finishing the 1961 season with four hits and a walk in 11 plate appearances, he drove in four in his three starts.
Freehan spent the entire 1962 season catching for AAA Denver as a 20 year old. He did well with a .283 average and nine home runs in 113 games. By the time spring training rolled around in 1963, Freehan was poised to make the big club. He shared time with Gus Triandos, a former all-star who’s best days were behind him, in 1963, and hit nine home runs in 300 at bats. Triandos was traded away following the year.
1964 marked the true arrival of Freehan to the Tigers regular lineup. All he did was make his first all-star team and bat a career best .300 to place him sixth in the league. He also belted 18 home runs and drove in 80. He earned a seventh place finish in the MVP vote that year. He was just 22 years old.
Starting in 1964 through 1973, Freehan made the all-star team every year. The Tigers enjoyed a run at or near the top of the league for much of that time, as well. It was an era of pitching, which makes his numbers much better than they look on paper.
1967 may have been his best season. Boston’s Carl Yaztremski was the only American Leaguer to hit .300 and Freehan’s .282 average was ninth best in the league. He set career highs with 20 home runs and 23 doubles and also lead the league in HBP and intentional walks.
If ’67 wasn’t his best, 1968 was. Freehan lead a pitching staff that finished third in the league in ERA on the way to the World Series. Denny McLain famously won 31 games for Detroit that season, Mickey Lolich won 17 as well. Freehan set new career highs in home runs (25), RBI (84), and doubles (24). He once again was the leader in being hit by pitches, getting plunked 24 times. Freehan broke his own record, set the previous year, with 971 putouts and 1050 total chances. The records would stand until 1997.
1968 also marked Freehan’s fourth consecutive Gold Glove, an award he would win again in 1969. Freehan followed his third place finish in the 1967 MVP vote with a second place finish in 1968.
The 1968 World Series ended up being a legendary one, but not for Freehan, at least with the bat. Facing a stellar Cardinals pitching staff that featured Bob Gibson and his 1.12 ERA, Freehan managed only two hits in 24 series at bats.
Gibson dominated the Tigers and Freehan in Games One and Four, each time beating McLain. With the Tigers trailing the series 3 games to 1, manager Mayo Smith decided to push the issue. After staying alive behind a complete game by Lolich in Game Five, Smith gave the ball to McLain on two days rest for Game Six.
McLain beat the Cardinals to force a Game Seven and Lolich came back on two days rest to face Gibson. With the game still scoreless in the seventh, Gibson sat down the first two Tigers of the inning. Norm Cash then singled, and Willie Horton followed with another. Jim Northrup then hit a long fly ball to deep centerfield that got over the head of Curt Flood and scored both runners. Freehan came to the plate and delivered his biggest hit of the series, a double to the gap in left center, scoring Northrup and giving the Tigers a three run lead. Lolich completed the game and the Tigers won their third world championship.
For the rest of his career, Freehan remained one of the best in the game. By the time he left baseball following the 1976 season, Freehan had amassed 200 home runs and 1591 hits. He cemented his legacy by retiring as the all-time leader is put outs and total chances by a catcher. His career .993 fielding percentage was also a record, which stood until 2002.
Freehan was named to 11 all-star teams in total, a number unmatched by any player who is not in the Hall of Fame. Freehan appeared on only one ballot, garnering just 0.5% of the 1976 vote. The fact that the Veteran’s Committee has yet to rectify that mistake is almost as big a blunder as the original vote.
In the annuls of great catchers, Freehan’s contemporaries Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra are often considered two of the best, but Freehan’s numbers, and his defense, were on par with either of them. For whatever reason, and I can’t think of a good one, the BBWAA has steadfastly refused to acknowledge a few former Tigers as Hall-worthy. Freehan and Lou Whitaker both fell quickly off the ballot, and Alan Trammell is nowhere near induction.
To make matters worse, the Tigers organization has yet to do Freehan the honor he certainly deserves, as his number 11 is not yet hanging on the outfield wall. Of course, that number could also be retired for Sparky Anderson. I’d recommend both.