#TBT Bill Freehan: The forgotten Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame Snub

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In the coming weeks you will probably see articles from this and other Detroit Tigers’ news and opinion outlets about the annual failed Hall-of-Fame candidacy of 1984 World Series MVP and Mr. Tiger Jr., Alan Trammell.

More from Detroit Tigers History

In year’s past Detroit baseball fans, and a few learned national observers, have railed on voters for failing to put Tram, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris into Cooperstown. Whitaker and Morris have no shot until they are eligible for the veteran’s committee several years from now and Trammell’s last shot is this year.

A Tiger from a championship team is eligible for the next veteran’s committee ballot (cast next season) and is an equally intriguing and outrageous HOF snub. As part of a new MCB feature for #TBT “A.K.A. “Throwback Thursday,” we look at perhaps the best catcher in Tigers’ history: Bill Freehan.

When Freehan was at the peak of his career, he was the American League’s answer to the NL’s Johnny Bench. He was well regarded and respected by his peers but shockingly rarely mentioned in the “all-time best catchers” discussion today.

A native Detroiter, Freehan was one of the few Michiganders to have a tremendous career with his local team (Hall-of-Fame second basemen Charlie Gehringer being another example). He grabbed the Tigers attention in 1961 by setting the all-time Big Ten batting mark of .585 down the road in Ann Arbor for the University of Michigan.

Though his bat might have been what initially turned heads, it was his glove and ability to handle a pitching staff that would endear him to a generation of Tigers’ fans.

That is not to say he was the prototypical light-hitting catcher. When he earned the full-time starting catching job in 1964, he hit .300 with 18 homers and 80 RBIs. That year began a streak of 10 straight All-Star appearances which included seven starts.

“Freehan’s 200 homers, 2,502 total bases…placed him third for catchers in AL history…behind Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey who are both in the Hall-of-Fame.”

He began another streak the following year, 1965, when he collected the first of four straight Gold Glove awards. This was partially due to the fact that you just didn’t run on Freehan. He threw out an AL-best 53 percent of would-be stealers in 1964 and would continue to be very stingy for opponent thefts throughout his career.

A student of the history of baseball will know that when the Tigers won the World Series in 1968, it was known as the “Year of the Pitcher.” St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Gibson posted a record melting 1.12 ERA for the entire season while Detroit’s Denny McLain won 30 games (31 to be exact) and will undoubtedly be the last pitcher to reach that plateau.

But any successful pitcher will tell you that he is only as good as his catcher will allow. It is for this reason that Freehan was runner-up in the 1968 AL MVP race, finishing just behind McLain.

Freehan struggled at the plate in his lone career World Series appearance, but his part in perhaps the most important defensive play in franchise history was the turning point in the series.

From our feature on Freehan as part of MCB’s All-Time Tigers’ team:

"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."

Freehan retired in 1976 after a career which featured 200 homers and 2,502 total bases. This placed him third for catchers in AL history in these numbers, behind Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey who are both in the Hall-of-Fame.

Here are some other HOF credentials for Freehan:

  • Held the highest career fielding percentage (.9933) until 2002
  • Held the record for putouts (9,941) until 1988
  • Ranked 14th among all-time catchers in JAWS
  • Ranks ahead of several HOF catchers in JAWS (including Buck Ewing and Roy Campanella)
  • Only two of top ten players in JAWS are not in Cooperstown (Mike Piazza and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez–though they will likely get in eventually)
  • 11-Time All-Star
  • 5 Gold Gloves

Freehan was an active Tigers’ alumnus for many years, even serving as a color commentator for PASS (the forerunner of Fox Sports Detroit) in the franchise’s early days on cable TV. He also was the manager of Michigan’s baseball team from 1990 to 1995.

Sadly it looks as though time will claim the best catcher in franchise history before any recognition is bestowed upon him. Freehan is battling Alzheimer’s disease and is unable to communicate.

So while he is in every Tigers and Michigan sports Hall-of-Fame, he should be in the baseball Hall-of-Fame without question.

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