Obituary: Bill Freehan (1941-2021)

RIP to Bill Freehan, one of the greatest catchers of the 1960s and early ’70s and a multi-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner. He died in Detroit on August 19 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 79 years old. Freehan played for the Detroit Tigers from 1961 and 1963-76.

The Detroit Tigers released a statement that read: “It’s with a heavy heart that all of us with the Detroit Tigers extend our condolences to the friends and family of Bill Freehan. An all-time great Tiger, the Olde English ‘D’ was the only logo he wore over his 15-year Major League career, during which he was named to 11 All-Star teams, won five-straight Gold Glove awards and played a key role on the 1968 World Series Championship team. Off the diamond, Freehan made a positive impact in the southeast Michigan community, including as a player and then coach at the University of Michigan, where he changed the lives of many for the better. Our thoughts are with Bill’s wife, Pat, and the entire Freehan family.”

William Ashley Freehan was born in Detroit on November 29, 1941, and grew up in Royal Oak. The family moved to Florida when his father, Ashley, bought a business there. Freehan attended Bishop Barry High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he played baseball, basketball and football. Baseball eventually became his claim to fame, although Freehan was selected as the starting quarterback on the Catholic All-State Football Team in 1957. Aside from high school, all of Freehan’s athletic accomplishments were done in his home state. He played college at the University of Michigan, and his .585 batting average in conference games in 1961 is still a Big 10 Record 60 years later. More than an athlete, Freehan was the valedictorian of his 1959 Barry class and was subsequently named to the All-Big 10 academic football team in 1960.

Freehan as a star prospect at the University of Michigan. Source: Detroit Free Press, May 9, 1961.

By 1961, pretty much every major-league team was after Freehan — including the New York Mets and Houston Colts, who were a year away from even fielding a team. “We have been hearing from them since he was 14 or 15,” his mother told the Detroit Free Press. “I can’t think of one big league club that hasn’t talked to us.”

The Tigers were understandably a little coy about their interest in the budding superstar. “He has ability in every direction. We’re definitely interested,” Tiger farm director Jimmy Campbell admitted in May, 1961. “But he’s playing for a fine coach [at Michigan] and getting good training. If a boy wants to continue college it’s his decision.”

About a month later — June 16, 1961 — the Tigers made their move and signed Freehan to a contract with an estimated $100,000 bonus. It wasn’t the biggest offer he received, but it was the one that he wanted. “I picked Detroit because I think the Tigers have a sound organization,” he said. “I feel the people I dealt with are trustworthy and I like the opportunity in Detroit.” It would be the only organization he would ever call home.

Freehan spent most of the summer of 1961 in the low minors of the Tigers organization. His defense was shaky at times — in his first game with the Knoxville Smokies, he committed three passed balls that led to three Asheville runs. However, his hitting was excellent. He hit over .300 between the Smokies and the Duluth-Superior Dukes and made a brief stop in the majors at the end of the season. He made his major-league debut on September 26 in Kansas City, going 2-for-4 with an RBI. His first at-bat resulted in a run-scoring single off Athletics starter Norm Bass. In a brief 4-game preview, the teenager had 4 hits and 4 RBIs in 10 at-bats.

Freehan spent all of 1962 with the AAA Denver Bears of the American Association. The Tigers believed he would be better served playing every day in the minor leagues than playing occasionally as a backup to starting catcher Dick Brown. He batted .283 for the Bears with 9 home runs and 58 RBIs. He also worked on his defense at catcher and first base. He came back to the majors for good in 1963, initially as a backup behind the plate to Gus Triandos and at first base for Norm Cash . He started to heat up on base filling in for an injured Cash, and he moved behind the plate when the first baseman was healthy again. He then went on a hitting spree, with 2 home runs and 5 RBIs against Baltimore on May 5. He had two more hits against the visiting New York Yankees the next day and then hit a double, triple and 2-run homer against New York the day after that — he missed the cycle by a lousy single! By the time the game had ended, Freehan had 9 hits in his last 10 at-bats, had reached base in 12 of his last 13 plate appearances and raised his batting average to .300. Though he tailed off in the season and settled for a .243 batting average, it was pretty clear that Freehan’s time as the starting catcher had arrived.

Freehan’s list of accomplishments in his first full year as a catcher is a long one. For one, he hit an even .300 and became the first Detroit catcher to accomplish this since Mickey Cochrane in 1935. He was selected to the first of 10 straight All-Star teams. He led all AL catchers by throwing out 53% of all would-be baserunners. He finished second to New York’s Elston Howard in fielding percentage with a .993 mark. He had 77 chances for a pop fly — an absurdly high number, according to reports — and made just one error. He also went 72 consecutive games without committing an error. He homered 18 times and drove in 80 runs and finished in seventh place for the MVP vote, behind Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson. Tigers manager Charlie Dressen called him the best catcher in the American League.

Freehan didn’t always have that level of offensive success — his batting average fell to .234 in both 1965 and 1966, but he had so many skills that he was an asset in the lineup even when he wasn’t hitting. In both of those seasons, Freehan won the Gold Glove Award for catchers, and he would continue to do so every season through 1969. It’s why excellent pitchers like Mickey Lolich loved having him behind the plate. “He knows my pitches, what I like to throw and when I like to throw it. And he never lets his hitting interfere with his catching,” Lolich explained after picking up an 8-3 win over the Chicago White Sox in 1965. Freehan homered twice, including a grand slam, and drove in 5 of those runs.

Freehan caught in excess of 130 games in 1965 and ’66, and it was thought that overuse led to some of his ineffectiveness with the bat. Naturally, Freehan appeared in 155 games in 1967 and hit .282 with 20 home runs and 74 RBIs. He also got on base at a .382 clip, slugged .447 and led baseball by getting hit with 20 pitches. He finished third in the MVP vote. He also set an All-Star ironman record by catching every one of the game’s 15 innings in a 2-1 losing effort to the National League.

The 1967 Tigers won 91 games and finished in second place in the AL, a game behind the pennant-winning Red Sox. That season set the stage for 1968 — one of the greatest years in the Tigers franchise and one of the best seasons of Freehan’s career. He slashed .263/.366/.454 with career highs in home runs (25) and RBIs (84). He was runner-up to his own teammate, 30-game winner Denny McLain, in the MVP vote. Including fourth-place finisher Willie Horton and seventh-place finisher Dick McAuliffe, Detroit had three of the top four MVP finalists and seven of the top ten.

Freehan tags out Lou Brock trying to score in Game Five of the 1968 World Series.

Detroit, meanwhile, finished with a 103-59 record to win the AL pennant. They then beat the St. Louis Cardinals in an exciting World Series, going the full seven games. Freehan struggled throughout the Series. He didn’t get a hit until Game Six, and he struck out five times against Bob Gibson, including twice in the pitcher’s 17-strikeout performance in Game One. Meanwhile, Lou Brock stole bases seemingly at will. Still, the big catcher made his presence known in Game Five, a 5-3 win for Detroit. He finally caught Brock trying to steal second in the third inning. In the fifth inning, Brock doubled and headed for home on a Julian Javier single. Left fielder Horton fired a strike to Freehan, who stood in front of the plate and stopped Brock dead in his tracks, keeping the run from scoring. Brock argued that he had touched home plate before he was tagged out, but umpire Doug Harvey ruled otherwise. At that point in the Series, St. Louis had won three of the first four games and were ahead 3-2 in the fifth game. Detroit mounted a comeback to win Game Five by a score of 5-3 and then won the next two games to become the World Champs. Freehan contributed RBI singles in each of those games and caught a pop fly to end Game Seven and start the celebration.

Freehan’s 1969 season got off to a rough start. He was fiddling around at home plate on a rare day off in spring training when he heard someone shout “Look out!” He looked up in time to get hit right in the face by an errant throw from Jim Northrup, and suffered a broken nose. Ominous beginnings aside, Freehan and the Tigers didn’t drop off too much from the high of the championship season. The Tigers won 90 games and finished in second place, and Freehan batted .262. His power dipped a little, from 25 home runs to 16, and he drove in just 49 runs. He declined a little more in 1970, and his season ended in August for major back surgery. He had been playing in pain for several years due to a condition called spondylolisthesis that had hampered his throwing and hitting. Essentially, his lower vertebrae caused painful pressure on his sciatic nerve. The surgery to correct it left him in the hospital for a couple of weeks and ended his season with a .241 average in 117 games — the fewest number for him since his rookie season. He also had some fallout over the release of a book, Behind the Mask, which was an inside look at the Tigers during their 1969 championship run. While not nearly as controversial as Ball Four by Jim Bouton, its portrayal of McLain and Detroit management ruffled some feathers.

Freehan bounced back with a strong 1971 season. He slashed .271/.353/.465 with 21 homers, 71 RBIs and a career-best doubles. He also appeared in 148 games, his highest total since 1968. However, he would never catch that many games in a season again. He suffered a broken thumb in 1972 and lost playing time to Tom Haller and Duke Sims. He appeared in 3 of Detroit’s five-game AL Championship Series against Oakland, and he doubled and homered in a losing effort. Baseball fans voted Freehan to his 10th consecutive All-Star Game in 1973, even though the wear and tear of catching consistently for more than a decade really took its toll on him. He once again batted .234 with just 6 home runs and 29 RBIs.

Freehan enjoyed a career renaissance in 1974, though he missed the All-Star game for the first time since his rookie season of 1963. Norm Cash, Detroit’s great first baseman, was in his final year and spent most of it on the bench. Freehan, splitting his time between catcher and the less physically demanding first base, slashed .297/.361/.479, with 18 homers. The move, though, wasn’t his preference. “The pressure is less at first base, but you miss the stimulation, the intellectual challenge if you want to call it that,” he said. “I’d run the operation on the field, making decisions, and that was a strong source of pride with me.”

The Tigers lost 90 games in 1974, as the stars who won that 1968 World Series were retired or on the downside of their careers. The Tigers moved Freehan back behind the plate over the final month of the season to make him more interesting trade bait, with no luck. He even started talking about the future end of his playing career. “Now I finally have to decide what I want to do when I grow up and get big,” he told the Detroit Free Press in October of ’74.

Freehan returned to his catching job in 1975 and made his final All-Star team, though he didn’t play. (He was a last-minute addition to the roster after Horton declined to attend the All-Star Game.) He batted .246 with 14 homers in 120 games. Over the offseason, he was almost traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for young catcher Bob Boone, but the deal fell through. He remained with Detroit for 1976, though he spent much of it on the bench as the Tigers tried out younger catchers John Wockenfuss, Milt May and Bruce Kimm. He hit .270 in what was his final season. The Tigers released him that December but offered him a job in the organization.

“I was hoping to play some more,” Freehan said. “It’s not voluntary on my part… the Tigers just have no more use for me.” He received offers from some other ballclubs, but the Detroit native decided to end his career rather than start over in a backup role with an unfamiliar team.

In his 15-year career, Freehan slashed .262/.340/.412. He had 1,591 hits with 241 doubles, 35 triples and 200 home runs. He drove in 758 runs and scored 706 runs. He was hit by pitches 114 times in his career, leading the league three times. Defensively, he had a career .993 fielding percentage and retired as the all-time leader in chances (10,714), putouts (9,941) and fielding percentage. You can make a pretty strong case that he is the best catcher not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. If you take the “Fame” part of the “Hall of Fame” seriously, it’s hard to argue that a man who was an All-Star catcher for a full decade shouldn’t be a Hall of Famer.

Freehan entered the business world after his retirement. He remained involved in baseball, first as a catching instructor in the Tigers organization and then as a head coach for the University of Michigan. He retired from public life when he was diagnosed with dementia more than a decade ago. His wife of 58 years, Pat, became his full-time caregiver and helped raise funds for Hospice of Michigan for all the help the organization gave the family.

As noted, Freehan was hit by pitches 114 times in his career, at least a few of which must have caught his head. He also played 1,581 games behind the plate. With his size and his football background, Freehan was unafraid of a home plate collision — see the above photo of his run-in with Lou Brock as evidence. There’s no telling how many concussions Freehan suffered from high school through the end of his pro career, nor how much damage they might have caused.

Bill Freehan was so much more than simply his baseball statistics. He was a good student-athlete and an astute businessman. His insights about the game and opposing batters made his pitchers better. The true heartbreak of dementia is that it silences even the most brilliant minds. There is a section of baseball fandom that rails against the rule changes made to reduce collisions in the game. It’s impossible to say that any of those changes, if made during his time behind the plate, could have saved Freehan from unnecessary injury. Or if his baseball career and dementia are even related. But the price of a baseball career should not be chronic traumatic encephalopathy and dementia. One way to honor Bill Freehan is to induct him into the Hall of Fame. Another way is for teams to utilize the latest safety protocols and technology to protect the mental health of future generations of catchers.

Follow me on Twitter: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Instagram: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Facebook: ripbaseball

Support RIP Baseball


11 thoughts on “Obituary: Bill Freehan (1941-2021)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s