Another unappreciated legend has been named to the Motor City Bengals All-Time Detroit Tigers team in the form of catcher Bill Freehan. One of the best catchers of the 1960′s, Freehan doesn’t get much mention nationally these days, but Tigers’ fans whose roots go back to the 1960′s will always remember Freehan fondly.
This doesn’t mean the vote between MCB staffers was not a close one. In fact, Freehan edged a Detroit Hall-of-Famer, Mickey Cochrane, by just one vote for the honor. Lance Parrish and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez also received mentions.
William Ashley Freehan was a native Detroiter, the only member of the MCB All-Time Team to be born in the city he played for and one of two players (Charlie Gehringer) to be born in Michigan. He played his college ball at the University of Michigan, setting the all-time Big Ten batting mark of .585 in 1961. He actually made a brief appearance for the Tigers that same season, but bowed out of the majors until returning full-time in 1963.
He split time behind the plate with Gus Triandos that first full season, but grabbed the starting job in 1964, hitting .300 with 18 homers and 80 RBIs. That year began a streak of 10 straight All-Star appearances which included seven starts. He began another streak the following year, 1965, when he collected the first of four straight Gold Glove awards.
Bill had an accurate canon behind home, throwing out a league-leading 53 percent of would-be stealers in 1964. While that exceptionally high number would plateau in later seasons, he would never dip below 32 percent in that category the rest of his career, save for his last year when he saw limited action.
Freehan’s average dipped for a few years, but as the Tigers moved back into contention in the mid-1960′s, his average and home run production increased. He placed second in the MVP voting in 1968, finishing behind teammate and 31-game winner Denny McLain.
In the Year of the Pitcher, its not a surprise that Freehan and his teammates struggled in the World Series against St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching, led by NL MVP and Cy Young winner Bob Gibson. So while Freehan’s contribution to the Tigers’ championship didn’t come at the plate (hitting just .083), it certainly came behind it.
With the Tigers facing elimination at Tiger Stadium in Game 5, perhaps Freehan’s signature moment occurred. St. Louis was up by a run in the fifth inning when Lou Brock tried to score from second on a single to left. Willie Horton gunned the ball into the catcher, who had the foresight to remember the scouting report on Brock which said he rarely slid into home. Freehan stuck his left leg out and held the ball in a collision, thus preventing the Cardinals from going up by two runs.
The rest was history. The Tigers went on to win that game and the next two in St. Louis to capture the franchise’s third championship. Had Freehan missed the tag or prepared for Brock to slide, the series may have never gone back to Busch Stadium.
All told, Freehan was known more for his glove than bat, yet when he retired in 1976 he had 200 home runs and 2,502 total bases, placing him behind just Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey for American League catchers (both of whom are in the Hall-of-Fame). He held the highest career fielding percentage of .9933 until 2002 and held the record for putouts (9,941) until 1988.
A strong case can be made for Freehan’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy. He ranks 14th among catchers in JAWS. Of the top 10 players for that statistic, only three aren’t in the Hall. Mike Piazza (#5) will eventually get in and you’d think Rodriguez (#3) would also get in, but you never know with Pudge’s PED allegations. Nonetheless, Freehan’s placement puts him ahead of Hall-of-Fame catchers Buck Ewing, Roy Campanella, and several others.
Freehan, who went on to be the head baseball coach at U-M, and had a brief run as a color guy for Tigers’ games on PASS cable, has fallen out of the limelight in recent years. Sadly, this is because the 72-year old is reportedly battling Alzheimer’s disease.
Next week we’ll move on to the outfield and our first stop will be in left field.