Remembering Bill Freehan, the Thinking Man’s Catcher (1941–2021)

A perennial All-Star catcher who deserved better from Hall of Fame voters, Bill Freehan spent his entire 15-season career with the Tigers, his hometown team. Durable and skilled on both sides of the ball, he served as the starter on Detroit’s only two postseason teams across a 38-year span, including catching every inning of the 1968 World Series and making two of that seven-game epic’s key defensive plays, most notably the catch of Tim McCarver’s foul ball to dethrone the defending champion Cardinals and seal the Tigers’ only title between 1946 and ’83.

The photo of pitcher Mickey Lolich — whom Freehan had guided to three complete-game victories in the Series — leaping into his catcher’s arms after securing the final out was an iconic one. It was the culmination of an historic pairing, too; that battery started together in 324 regular-season games, a major league record.

Freehan died on Thursday, August 19, at the age of 79. For years, he had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease — which his family suspected was related to the concussions he suffered during his playing career — and had been living under hospice care. His condition prevented him from participating in the Tigers’ 50th anniversary celebration of that championship back in 2018.

Even while spending nearly his entire career playing alongside the man known as “Mr. Tiger,” Hall of Famer Al Kaline, Freehan was considered the team leader. “He was the heart and soul of the ballclub,” said teammate Jim Price, the Tigers’ backup catcher from 1967 to ’72. In 1968, Sport magazine’s Arnold Hano hailed him as “the thinking man’s catcher,” writing that he “leads the way sergeants lead, not second lieutenants. He leads by example.”

Freehan, who starred for the University of Michigan baseball team (and played football there as well), spent his post-playing days as a businessman in Detroit and cycled through a variety of roles with the Tigers. For half a dozen seasons, he coached at his alma mater.

“His entire Major League career was committed to the Tigers and the City of Detroit, and he was one of the most respected and talented members of the organization through some difficult yet important times throughout the 1960s and ’70s,” said teammate Willie Horton via a statement after Freehan passed away. “You’d be hard-pressed to find another athlete that had a bigger impact on his community over the course of his life than Bill, who will be sorely missed in Detroit and beyond.”

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Freehan was the Tigers’ regular catcher for 12 seasons (1964–73, plus ’75–76), and made the AL All-Star team in 11 of them, starting annually from ’66 to ’72. From ’65 to ’69, he was the league’s Gold Glove catcher, and four times he led the league in games caught, with a high of 147 in ’67; three other times, he ranked among the AL’s top three in that category.

Playing during a pitcher-friendly era, Freehan hit .262/.340/.412, good for a 112 OPS+, but for all of his accomplishments, the fact that he played his last game at age 34 and finished his career with “only” 1,591 hits and 200 homers caused him to get short shrift from Hall of Fame voters. He was named on just two out of 415 ballots (0.5%) when he became eligible in 1982, disqualifying him from further consideration by the BBWAA, and he never got a sniff from the Veterans Committee or subsequent Era Committees. He ranks 16th in JAWS among catchers, and while he’s below the career and peak WAR standards at the position, it’s one that is significantly underrepresented within the Hall. There are just 16 catchers enshrined for their work in the AL, NL, and bygone 19th-century leagues, fewer than any position besides third base (15) and far fewer than right field (27), the non-starting pitcher position with the most.

Born in Detroit on November 29, 1941, William Ashley Freehan was the oldest son of Ashley Freehan, a sales representative for a seat insulation company, and Helen Morris Freehan. He grew up in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb, and got his start in baseball as a Little League shortstop, taking up the tools of ignorance when his team’s catcher was a no-show. As a Little Leaguer, he literally crossed paths with Horton, who bowled him over while scoring a run in an All-Star game. The two later spent 14 seasons (1963–76) as teammates.

At age 14, Freehan’s father bought a mobile home park in St. Petersburg, Florida, and moved his family there. Bill lettered in baseball, football, and basketball at Bishop Barry High School but returned to Detroit during the summers to play baseball. Despite numerous athletic scholarship offers for college, he chose the University of Michigan because the school would let him play both football and baseball. He played end and linebacker on the football team, and while he played varsity baseball only during his sophomore year (1961), he hit .585 for the Wolverines, setting a Big Ten record that still stands.

Freehan’s performance drew interest from several teams — the Red Sox even sent Ted Williams to woo him — but he signed with the hometown Tigers for $100,000; after a St. Petersburg newspaper reported that the bonus was $150,000, Freehan quipped, “Maybe I ought to go down to their office and collect the difference.” Through a deal with his father, he couldn’t touch any of the money until he graduated, and so even as his professional career took flight, he continued his studies at Michigan, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree history in 1966; meanwhile, his father invested the money on his behalf.

In 1961, Freehan began his pro career at Class C Duluth Superior but played just 30 games there before moving up to Knoxville of the A-level South Atlantic League; despite allowing three passed balls in his debut with the latter team, he stuck around. After hitting a combined .310/.416/.512 with 11 homers at the two stops, he received a late-season call-up and debuted against the Kansas City A’s on September 26, 1961, hitting an RBI single off Norm Bass in his first plate appearance and finishing 2-for-4. He played three more games for the Tigers, who despite winning 101 games finished in second place, eight games behind the powerhouse Yankees.

Though he earned a September call-up after spending all of 1962 at Triple-A Denver, Freehan didn’t actually play in any major league games. By 1963, however, Tigers general manager Rick Ferrell and manager Bob Scheffing, both former big league catchers (the former was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame), deemed Freehan ready for the bigs. Though Freehan played sparingly at the start of the season as veteran Gus Triandos got most of the work, the two were sharing the job by the end of the year. The 21-year-old hit a modest .243/.331/.387 with nine homers in 345 PA (99 OPS+), demonstrating that he was ready for even bigger responsibilities.

In December 1963, the Tigers traded Triandos and pitcher Jim Bunning to the Phillies, an imbalanced deal that didn’t bring much back for Detroit (Don Demeter and Jack Hamilton) and boosted Philadelphia to contention for the NL pennant. The trade did clear the way for Freehan to take over the starting job, though, and he did it in fine fashion, hitting .300/.350/.462 (122 OPS+) with 18 homers, making his first of 10 straight All-Star teams. He emerged as a team leader at the tender age of 22 and received down-ballot consideration in the AL MVP race.

Freehan couldn’t maintain that level of offense the next two seasons, posting an 83 OPS+ in each (hitting .234/.300/.346 combined) and battling injuries. Even so, his defense and growing reputation for game-calling helped him repeat as an All-Star and net his first two of five straight Gold Gloves in those years. Taking the advice of new manager Mayo Smith and hitting coach Wally Moses, he moved closer to the plate in 1967 and broke out, hitting .282/.389/.447 with 20 homers and following up with a .263/.366/.454 line and 25 homers in ’68. For as modest as those slash lines may seem, they were good for OPS+ marks of 144 and 145, respectively — pretty close to the offensive impact of a typical season from Mike Piazza. What’s more, Freehan cracked the AL’s top 10 in WAR in those two seasons, with 6.1 in 1967 (sixth) and 6.9 (third) in ’68.

Although the Tigers hadn’t won a pennant since 1945, they were inching up the standings in the mid-1960s thanks to an impressive core of players, including corner outfielders Horton and Kaline, first baseman Norm Cash, second baseman Dick McAuliffe, and starters Lolich and Denny McLain. They improved from 85 wins in 1965 to 89 in ’66, finishing fourth in a 10-team league both times, and while they slipped to 88 wins in ’66, they climbed to third, that after holding second place for more than half the season.

The 1967 season was another matter. The Tigers started the year 31–18, spent a good part of the first half in first place, and never strayed far from the top spot. When September opened, they were 74–59, tied for second in an incredibly tight four-team race — 1 1/2 games behind the Red Sox, level with the Twins, and one game ahead of the White Sox. Thanks to an 11–3 tear, they moved back into first; Freehan’s three-run homer off the Senators’ Darold Knowles on September 15 to tie a game in the eighth helped them recapture a share of the top spot. As of September 23, with seven games to go, the four teams were separated by one game top to bottom, with the Tigers and Red Sox just half a game behind the Twins.

A week later, Detroit went into the season’s final day with a 90–70 record, half a game behind Boston and Minnesota and with a doubleheader still to play against the Angels. Freehan, who had caught all but three innings of the last 14 games (including a doubleheader the day before), went 3-for-3 with an RBI in the opener, a 6–4 win that moved the Tigers into a a tie with the Red Sox, who had beaten and eliminated the Twins. Needing another win to force a tie, they squandered an early 3–1 lead, and while Freehan’s seventh-inning single sparked a rally to trim the score to 8–5, they got no closer, and Boston won its “Impossible Dream” pennant. Freehan finished third in the AL MVP voting; Triple Crown-winning Red Sox slugger Carl Yastrzemski took home the trophy.

By contrast, in 1968, the Tigers simply ran away with the pennant. By May 10, they were 18–9 and in first place to stay, and finished with 103 wins, 12 more than the second-place Orioles. Horton and Freehan led the offense, helping to compensate for the nearly six-week absence of Kaline due to a broken left forearm. Freehan additionally steered MacLain to a 31–6 record with a 1.96 ERA, figures that would lead to his winning both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.

Matched up against the defending champion Cardinals in the World Series, Freehan went 0-for-16 with three walks and eight strikeouts in the first five games, two of them starts by Bob Gibson, including his Series record-setting 17-strikeout game in the opener. Yet Freehan made his presence felt. With the Tigers trailing three games to one and down 3–0 in Game 5, Freehan threw out speedster Lou Brock trying to steal second base in the third inning to snuff out a potential rally. With the Tigers down 3–2 in the fifth, he caught Horton’s one-hop throw from left field and held onto the ball as Brock, who didn’t slide, collided with him and was called out.

Brock claimed he touched home plate before the tag, but a famous photo shows that Freehan’s block prevented him from doing so. “I expected him to slide, and when he didn’t, his foot left spike marks in the dirt about a half-inch from the plate,” Freehan said afterwards.

The Tigers rallied to win the game and the next two, and Freehan’s play came to be viewed as the Series’ turning point. He finally got on the board offensively, with RBI singles in Games 6 (the second run of a 13-run onslaught) and 7 (off Gibson in the seventh inning, capping a three-run rally). More importantly, he guided a weary McLain and Lolich to complete-game wins in those games to complete the comeback. For Lolich, it was his third complete-game victory of the Series, tying a record shared by Gibson and seven others. Nobody has done it since.

Freehan finished second behind McLain in the AL MVP voting that year. The following spring, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated for its baseball preview issue, decked out in star-spangled catchers gear. Neither he nor the Tigers could live up to their lofty accomplishments from the year before, though. He slipped to 16 homers and a 105 wRC+ in 1969, and while Detroit won 90 games, that was 19 fewer than the Orioles, who won the newly-established American League East.

Throughout that season, Freehan kept a diary, published the following spring as Behind the Mask. Though overshadowed by the groundbreaking style and shocking (for the time) revelations of Jim Bouton in Ball Four, Freehan’s book did stir up controversy, mainly for his going public regarding the special treatment McLain received from Smith and the coaching staff — though by the time it did, McLain was in even hotter water, having been suspended by commissioner Bowie Kuhn for his ties to gambling. Even so, he received considerable blowback for his exposé, hearing boos from Tigers fans, and stopped talking about the book, which today is considered hard-to-find but hardly a lost classic.

“Freehan was one of those guys who were happy just to have a book written with their name on it,” Bouton later told biographer Mitch Nathanson. “He got the heat but none of the credit. He got lost in the shuffle.”

Beyond the book, McLain’s suspension, and the Tigers’ slide to 79 wins, the 1970 season was also a painful one for Freehan. Lower back woes — specifically a condition called spondylolisthesis, in which two of his vertebrae slipped out of place, causing pressure on the sciatic nerve — caused him substantial pain until he underwent surgery to fuse his detached vertebrae in September. He played in just 117 games that year, well below the 144 he had averaged for the previous six.

If not quite good as new, Freehan returned much stronger in 1971, hitting for a 126 OPS+ with 21 homers and 4.3 WAR in 148 games for a 91-win Tigers team, now managed by Billy Martin. He was similarly strong in the strike-shortened ’72 season (122 wRC+, 4.2 WAR), though a broken right thumb cost him playing time in September. The Tigers won the AL East by half a game — a ridiculous situation caused by the players’ strike, as games canceled weren’t made up — and faced the A’s in the ALCS. Because of his thumb, Freehan sat out the first two games, both Detroit losses, but he hit a double and a homer in his Game 3 return and drove in a 10th-inning run in a Game 4 win as well. Alas, the Tigers lost Game 5 and were eliminated.

Freehan eventually clashed with Martin, who platooned him and second-guessed his game-calling, which made for a rough 1973 season featuring a career-low 76 OPS+; Martin was ultimately fired in late August. Under new manager Ralph Houk, Freehan played more first base than catcher in 1974, and his bat rebounded (.297/.361/.479, 139 OPS+). His time in Detroit almost came to an end there; at the Winter Meetings that December, Tigers general manager Jim Campbell and Phillies GM Paul Owens reportedly agreed to a blockbuster centered around Freehan and young backstop Bob Boone. Philadelphia pulled out, though whether that was due to ownership rejecting the trade or to the previous night’s spirits wearing off is the stuff of legend. Freehan returned to regular catching duty and made his final All-Star team after missing out the year before, but he was relegated to backup status in 1976 and unceremoniously released in December of that year, and though Detroit offered to make him the manager of its Double-A affiliate, but he declined.

After his playing career ended, Freehan worked in the automotive industry, starting Freehan-Bocci & Co. Inc., a manufacturers’ representative agency. He didn’t leave baseball behind, however, serving as a spring instructor, mentoring Lance Parrish and other Tigers catchers, and working as the team’s catching instructor from 2002 to ’05. Additionally, he spent time doing color commentary for broadcasts of the Mariners (1979–80) and Tigers (’84–85). In the summer of 1989, when the University of Michigan baseball program was in the midst of an NCAA investigation into illegal payments to players — leading to two years of probation — Freehan agreed to become the program’s coach. He spent six years in that capacity, helping to clean up the program but never finishing higher than third in the Big Ten, though of the players he coached, Mike Matheny went on to have a long major league career as a player and manager.

When Freehan became eligible for election to the Hall of Fame in 1982, he wound up far overshadowed by the ballot debuts of Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, not to mention five returning candidates — Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges, Harmon Killebrew, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Juan Marichal — who had received between 58–61% on the previous year’s ballot; all but Hodges would soon be elected by the writers. Additionally, eight other future Hall of Famers, including Luis Aparicio and Billy Williams, were also on the ballot, with the latter debuting as well. Freehan’s candidacy sank without a trace. Not even venerable Detroit scribe Joe Falls, whose ballot was published in The Sporting News, could find room on a 10-slot ballot that he complained wasn’t big enough for all of the worthy candidates.

Relative to his presence in the All-Star Game, Freehan’s rejection by the writers is without precedent:

Most All-Star Selections of Non-Hall of Famers
Player Years Played Seasons on Roster BBWAA Max
Pete Rose 1963-1986 17 Ineligible
Barry Bonds 1986-2007 14 61.8%
Alex Rodriguez 1994-2016 14 Not yet eligible
Mark McGwire 1986-2001 12 23.7%
Manny Ramirez 1993-2011 12 28.2%
Bill Freehan 1961-1976 11 0.5%
Roger Clemens 1984-2007 11 61.6%
Miguel Cabrera 2003-2021 11 Not yet eligible
Steve Garvey 1969-1987 10 42.6%
David Ortiz 1997-2016 10 Not yet eligible
Ichiro Suzuki 2001-2019 10 Not yet eligible
Albert Pujols 2001-2021 10 Not yet eligible
Yadier Molina 2004-2021 10 Not yet eligible
Frank McCormick 1934-1948 9 3.0%
Minnie Minoso 1946-1980 9 21.1%
Elston Howard 1948-1968 9 20.7%
Dave Concepcion 1970-1988 9 16.9%
Fred Lynn 1974-1990 9 5.5%
Gary Sheffield 1988-2009 9 40.6%
Carlos Beltrán 1998-2017 9 Not yet eligible
Mike Trout 2011-2021 9 Not yet eligible
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Of the above players who reached the ballot — as opposed to the ones still playing or recently retired — all received at least two turns. McCormick, the 1940 NL MVP for the Reds, was a perennial All-Star during the World War II years, when many stars were serving in the military; he made four ballot appearances in the time before the Five Percent Rule was in effect. Lynn was on a Hall of Fame path with nine straight appearances from 1975 (when he combined AL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors) through ’83, but injuries dimmed his star; he at least lasted until a second ballot. None of those players were treated as poorly by the writers as Freehan, who obviously faced an uphill battle given the company on the ballot.

That traffic aside, Freehan deserved a longer look and even today has a case for enshrinement, though not as strong as the not-yet-eligible Joe Mauer, who ranks seventh among catchers in JAWS, or Thurman Munson, who ranks 12th. Freehan’s 44.8 WAR ranks 16th at the position, nine wins below the standard, and though his 33.7 peak WAR is 15th, that’s just 1.1 wins below the standard. His 39.2 JAWS is 5.1 points off the pace, but at a position that’s underrepresented — read: one where the standard might reasonably be a bit lower — he’d be a reasonable choice.

Alas, the Golden Days Era Committee for which Freehan would be eligible — which will meet for the first time in December — is stacked with a backlog of stronger and/or better-supported candidates, including Miñoso, Dick Allen, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, and Maury Wills. If there’s hope for Freehan, it’s in the example of 2020 honoree Ted Simmons, who ranks 11th among catchers and became the first player to go one-and-done on a writers’ ballot and then gain entry through an Era Committee, though he needed three tries to do so. That 2020 ballot included another Tigers legend, Lou Whitaker, who after going one-and-done in his lone ballot appearance in 2001 finally got his first chance in front of an Era Committee. He received six votes, probably enough to keep him in circulation as a candidate.

Whitaker at least will finally have his uniform number (No. 1) retired by the Tigers next year; the team is among the stingy ones when it comes to that honor, generally reserving it for Hall of Famers (though Horton, a civic icon and a pivotal player on the 1968 team, had the honor bestowed upon him in 2000). Freehan, who like Horton hailed from the Detroit area and made his mark in the community on either side of his major league career, deserves no less.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

newest oldest most voted
Chuck Hildebrandt
Chuck Hildebrandt

Thank you for reminding us how Freehan got shafted by the voters, although I had forgotten that it was due in part to his being overshadowed by so many all-time greats on his one ballot, in addition to his career-shortened counting stats and historically underwhelming pitchers’-era-induced batting average. It would be nice to see him rise above the bubble and finally get the call, if not next time, then at least before all of us who can claim to have seen him play will have died.

Kudos, also, to Harry Caray on the 1968 WS clip reminding all of us here in the future that our hero’s name is pronounced FREE-han, close to “FREE hand”, and not “FREE-in” rhyming with Sheehan. As a lifelong Tigers fan, hearing the latter, especially on MLB media, has driven me absolutely bonkers during the past couple of decades in which that has become a thing.