When the Hall of Fame announced its Golden Age voting results for 2015, baseball fans were shocked that not a single player from the 1947–1972 period gained entry to Cooperstown. Long before the final tally was reported, fans of the Detroit Tigers—along with anyone who watched the game during the 1960s and early 1970s—were already scratching their heads, wondering why Bill Freehan's name wasn't even among the finalists. The dominant catcher in the American League for a decade, he was a perennial Gold Glover and 11time All-Star during a big-league career that began in 1961 and ended in 1976. Between Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk, he was the man. Yet in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, he was one and done, with a meager two votes. Jim Sargent, an authority on Detroit sports, authored this biography of the legendary backstop. Jim had the opportunity to spend some quality time with Bill a few years after he left his final baseball job as coach of his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

William Ashley Freehan was born in Detroit on November 29, 1941. He was the oldest of four children in a middle class Catholic family. Bill grew up in the northern Detroit suburb of Royal Oak As soon as he was old enough to catch and throw, he was playing ball. The summer before his ninth grade year, Bill's father bought a trailer park and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. Playing basketball, football, and baseball, the rugged and intense young man graduated from a small Catholic school, Bishop Barry High, in St. Pete in 1959. During the summers, Bill lived in Detroit with his grandparents. There he became a star catcher in the National Amateur Baseball Federation, helping Lundguist Insurance win two national titles.

Bill played sandlot ball in Detroit for a couple of reasons. "First, it was so hot and rainy in Florida in the summer," he remembered in the 1999 interview. "Also, white kids didn't play against black kids in Florida. I chose to come up and live with my grandparents, who lived on the perimeter of Detroit. I played amateur baseball downtown, and I got into tough competition."

Dozens of colleges recruited Bill during his senior year, but the three he favored most were Notre Dame (partly because he was Catholic), Western Michigan, which had a first-rate baseball program, and the University of Michigan. Notre Dame and Western Michigan, however, didn't offer the strapping 6'3" teenager an opportunity to play football, he elected to go to Michigan, which offered scholarships in football and baseball. Former Detroit Tiger Don Lund was Michigan's baseball coach and Bump Elliott was the football coach. The two outstanding coaches were the clincher for Bill.

The young man arrived at the Ann Arbor campus in the summer of 1959 on a baseball scholarship. However, when he showed that he could be a starter on the gridiron, the athletic department shifted him to a football scholarship, since nearly ten times as many scholarships were available in football as in baseball. Freshmen didn't play varsity football at that time, but Bill became a starter at end and linebacker midway through his sophomore year. He also tore up Big Ten baseball in 1961, winning All-American honors at catcher and leading the conference in batting average (a record .585), home runs, and RBIs. Michigan won the Big Ten title, but lost in the NCAA regional championship.


Bill Freehan, BBP photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


     
 

The MLB draft was still several years away, which meant that Bill could be signed by any club. "I was one of the big Bonus Babies," he recalled. "Everyone was coming to my door and asking, Do you want to sign? Do you want to sign? We'll offer you X, and X got to be $150,000 plus. You started to say, 'Do I want to take a chance and go back and play football with my knees, or do you want to chase down baseball, because it's getting to be serious money at this point.'"

After conferring with coaches Lund and Elliott, and his father, Bill signed with the hometown Tigers on June 16th, hopped in a new Bonneville convertible, and took off for his minor league stop, in Duluth. The deal he made with his dad was that he couldn't touch a dime of his bonus money until he graduated from Michigan. "That was a smart decision on my father's part," Bil said. "It forced me to live in the YMCA with the rest of the guys, and live off the meal money we made up there, as opposed to, 'Let's go burn a little of the 150 grand.' That was motivational."

Bill batted .343 at Class C Duluth-Superior in the Northern League in 1961, where he spent half of June and all of July. In the first week of August he was moved to Detroit's Knoxville club in the South Atlantic (Sally) League. After hitting .289 in 47 games against Class A pitching, he finished the season with Detroit, getting into four games and hitting .400 (4-for-10), once the Tigers were eliminated by the New York Yankees from the pennant race. Bill didn't mind sitting on the bench; he was only nine weeks out of college baseball.

Bill arrived at Spring Training in 1962 as the Big Bucks kid. The older players called him Brinks, which he took as a term of endearment. He spent the entire season with the AAA Denver Bears, playing alongside past and future big leaguers—including Mickey Lolich, Don Wert and Gates Brown—batting .283 in 113 games with good power.

Bill Freehan,
University of Michigan

 

 

 

     
 

In 1963 Bill survived the cuts of spring training and became one of Detroit's catchers, along with 32-year-old Gus Triandos, a right-handed-hitting veteran who came from the Baltimore Orioles on November 26, 1962, in a deal that sent catcher Dick Brown to the Orioles. Despite his lack of experience, Bill won the trust of manager Chuck Dressen, who made him the regular receiver and taking over for Bob Scheffing in mid-June. Triandos had little interest in being an everyday catcher, which was a boon for Bill. He was generous with advice and support, which as a 21-year-old Bill needed.

"The hard thing was being a catcher," Bill observed, "because a catcher's got a little more to do than the first baseman. The catcher has a whole lot more responsibility than a first baseman, or another position. You end up calling the game for Jim Bunning, Don Mossi, Paul Foytack, and some experienced guys. They're going to say, 'What do I want this 21-year-old kid here for?'"

At first, the veteran pitchers didn't trust Bill, but the big kid behind the mask impressed them by his leadership on the diamond, especially his defensive skills and his ability to call a smart game. It didn't hurt that he was willing to let them tell him to how call games. Still, sportswriter Joe Falls said that he'd never seen a rookie command so much respect in the clubhouse.

The Tigers finished fifth in 1963 with a losing record, but they were assembling a pennant contender by bringing up younger pitchers from the farm system, including Lolich and teenager Denny McLain.

Bill was a married man at this point. He had wed Patricia O'Brien, a brunette that he'd met in St. Petersburg while he was in high school, prior to spring training. They would have four daughters. Honeymooning with Pat in Europe after the season, Bill came back to Lakeland refreshed and ready and able to take over as the Tigers' undisputed number-one catcher.

In 1964, Bill made his first of 11 All-Star teams. He led the club with a .300 average, was second with 80 RBIs and third with 18 home runs. The Tigers finished 8 games over .500 with Bill handling a young staff that no longer included Bunning, Frank Lary or Don Mossi. The new pitchers were more than willing to let Bill call his game. Looking back on a fourth-place season, Chuck Dressen commented that if 1964 produced nothing else, it produced an important new leader for the Tigers.

Bill Freehan, 1960s TCMA

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

Lolich, the 23-year-old southpaw who fashioned an 18-9 record that year, remarked to Joe Falls that Bill never let his hitting interfere with his catching. "Nothing demoralizes a pitcher more than to stand out there on the mound and see his catcher with a hangdog look on his face because he just struck out," Lolich said. "If he looks disgusted, it makes you feel disgusted…No matter what he does at the plate, he's always alive back there and this gives you a real lift."

Bill placed seventh in the league's MVP voting in 1964, third in 1967, and second in 1968 to teammate Denny McLain, who won 31 games in the golden season that saw the Tigers capture the pennant and defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Bill was the Gold Glove-winning catcher from 1965 through 1969, and only a back injury in 1970 kept him from a sixth Gold Glove award.

Detroit finished fourth with an 89-73 record in 1965 and third with a ledger of 88-74 in 1966, the year Charlie Dressen suffered his second heart attack. Coach Bob Swift took over but later developed cancer, and coach Frank Skaff finished the season at Tigers' helm. Bill popped a muscle in his back during Spring Training in 1965. While he starred defensively and won Gold Gloves and All-Star recognition in 1965 and 1966, he struggled offensively due in part to the bad back. He hit .234 with 10 homers and 43 RBIs in 1965, and averaged .243 again in 1966, this time with 12 circuit clouts and 46 RBIs.

Under Mayo Smith in 1967, Bill worked with new hitting coach Wally Moses. He moved Bill closer to the plate and worked for hours to change his swing so that he got more power out of his front (left) arm. Despite being hit by the pitcher 20 times that year, he played in 155 games, batted .282 (second on the Tigers to Al Kaline's .308), and contributed 20 home runs and 74 RBIs. The rebuilt Bengals fought the Boston Red Sox, the Minnesota Twins, and the Chicago White Sox all season long for the pennant. In the end, the Red Sox won the flag on the season's final day when they topped the Twins, 5-3, while the Tigers (one game back before the day's games) split a doubleheader with the California Angels. Detroit and Minnesota finished with 91-71 records, one game back of Boston.

In 1968, the Tigers rode the stellar starting pitching of McLain, Lolich, Earl Wilson and Joe Sparma, who combined for more than 70 victories and kept the team close in dozens more. Bill batted .263 with careers-highs of 25 homers and 84 RBIs. He finished second in the MVP voting to McLain. The infield was led by slugging Norm Cash at first base and sparkplug Dick McAuliffe at second, along with Ray Oyler at short and Wert at third. Detroit's power-hitting outfield featured Willie Horton (36 homers) in left, Jim Northrup (90 RBIs and 4 grand slams) in center and Kaline in right. Kaline knocked in 53 runs despite missing two-thirds of the season with a broken wrist. Utilityman Mickey Stanley filled in in center—with Northrup moving over to right—during Kaline's absence. Stanley played shortstop during the World Series, with Kaline back in right field. Bill considered Stanley to be the best athlete on the team.

The Cardinals took three of the first four games in the Fall Classic, but the Tigers roared back to win in seven. The pivotal play in the series occurred in the fifth inning of Game Five, when Bill tagged Lou Brock out when Brock chose to come in standing up instead of sliding on a hit to the outfield. Bill had positioned his foot to block the play, influencing the Speedy runner's decision. "The key to that play was the great throw made by Willie Horton, and the possible assumption on Lou Brock's part," Bill said. "He might have underestimated Willie's arm, and he chose not to slide. He tried to run me over. It was a National League umpire, Doug Harvey, who made the call…We are good friends, Lou and I. We've been together in a lot of places, and we always joke about it. Lou says, 'You still haven't tagged me,' and I say, 'You still haven't touched home plate.' You watch that World Series film, and you go look at it again. After the collision, I spin around, but neither of us falls down. Look at it closely: The first thing that Brock does is run back to touch home plate. You'll see me tag him. Lou will say, 'If you tagged me the first time, why did you tag me the second time?' My answer is, 'If you touched home plate the first time, why did you come back the second time?'"

Bill Freehan, 1968 Topps

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

If the Cards had scored that run, Mayo Smith likely would have pulled Lolich for a pinch-hitter. The lefty ended up holding St. Louis scoreless the rest of the way after a 3-run first inning. Singles by Kaline and Cash turned a 3–2 deficit into a 5–3 victory.

In the climatic seventh game, Lolich outdueled Bob Gibson, 4–1. Northrup broke a scoreless tie in seventh when he smoked a ball over Curt Flood's head, scoring two runners. Bill doubled in Northrup for a 3–0 lead, and the Tigers won the game 4–1. It was just his second hit of the series. Bill caught the final out, a pop-up by Tim McCarver.

"We're leading 4-0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, and we get two outs," Bill remembers. "All of a sudden, Mike Shannon hits a home run, and it's 4-1. You get two outs, and you're close. I'm walking to the mound and thinking, What am I going to tell him now? I said, 'How you doing, big boy?' or something like that. He said, 'Do me a favor. I'm going to get this last guy out, and you make sure you have a big cheeseburger and a beer in my locker if we get this thing done.' I said, 'I'll get you anything in the world if you get this guy out!'

What only Bill and Mickey knew was that Lolich was nursing an injury that game, an infected groin. "On game day, we didn't know for sure whether he was going to pitch or not," Bill said. "I knew about that, but we didn't tell anybody…Mickey didn't want to tell the manager, because he was going to gut the thing out, you know. He was for hell or high water. Mickey didn't have the velocity he had in Game One, but his ball sunk when he got tired. They were hitting ground balls, and we were making plays."

Regarding the final play of the series, Bill recounted that "it's going to be a routine play, but it's one of those deals you want to make sure you and the pitcher and first baseman don't run together, and all of a sudden give the Cardinals 'second life' after Shannon had just hit a home run. All the drills that you've been through on popups go through your mind in a quick flash. You can't think negative. You gotta think, Stay away from me. Let me make the play myself. You catch it, and the world jumps on top of me, and obviously that's the highlight of your career. When Lolich jumps on you, he's not a small man! But it was a great feeling! It was a big thrill."

Bill Freehan, 1969 Topps

 

 

 

 

     
 

Winning the World Series, Bill would later say, easily overshadowed any of his individual accomplishments. "One of the things I'm most proud about is that most of the guys on that team made lasting relationships with the city of Detroit," he commented. "The Loliches, the McLains, the Northrups, the Stanleys, the Freehans, the Kalines, the Cashes—all made our permanent homes there, and we all made our livings there after baseball, because none of us made the kind of money that exists in baseball today. All of us had to make after-career livings, and the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit knew our group of guys."

After the World Series, Bill received an offer to write a book in the form of a diary about the 1969 season. Entitled Behind the Mask, the book was planned as a candid look at the Tigers, whom many thought would win another pennant. The Tigers did not win the pennant (nor the new AL East division), so the book was most notable for how it showed the two sets of rules Mayo Smith had—one for the team and one for McLain, who usually did what he felt like doing. McLain was suspended for half the season in 1970, the year Behind the Mask was published.

After sinking below .500 in 1970, the Tigers rebounded to a second-place finish in 1971 under Billy Martin and captured their first division crown in 1972, edging the Red Sox on the final weekend. Now age 30, Bill enjoyed a ninth straight All-Star season, batting .262 with 10 home runs. In the playoffs, Detroit lost 3 games to 2 to the Oakland A's. Bill hit .250 with a double, homer and team-high 3 RBIs. The Tigers blew a 2–1 lead in extra innings to drop Game One, and then lost Game 2 5–0. After winning Game Three back in Detroit, the Tigers evened the series with an extra-innings comeback in Game Four. The deciding Game Five saw the Tigers take a first-inning lead but they did not score again against John Odom and Vida Blue, and lost 2–1.

Age and injuries finally caught up with Bill and his teammates. He batted a meager .234 in 1973 and although he bounced back with two good seasons at the plate in 1974 and 1975, the 1976 season would be his last. He retired with 200 homers, 758 RBIs, 2,502 total bases and a .262 career average.

Bill Freehan, 1969 Topps
     
 

Bill had been preparing for his post-baseball career since 1974, when he started a manufacturers' representative agency, Freehan-Bocci, Inc. Bill already had been a salesman, calling on the purchasing and engineering people of GM, Ford, and Chrysler. He continued in that business for several years. In 1989, after University of Michigan baseball coach Bud Middaugh resigned on July 14 (and the baseball program was headed toward two years' probation for illegal payment to players), Bill accepted the head coaching position. He coached the team and taught young men the fundamentals of the game and life until 1995, when he returned to his business interests. "Economically," admitted Freehan, "it wasn't the wisest decision in the world, but it's hard to get baseball out of your system."

When his many baseball accomplishments were added up, Bill was most proud of helping his team win the 1968 championship. "The World Series is a team thing," he observed in the 1999 interview, "and baseball is a team sport. The World Series is the thing you dream about, winning a world championship. The other awards, like the All-Star team or Gold Gloves, are individual accomplishments. But a lot of great players have never had the chance to play in a World Series, so it's the greatest thrill."

How good was Bill Freehan? A homegrown hero to many thousands of Tiger fans, the Michigan native embodied what baseball is all about. The bottom line is that Bill Freehan deserves to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The only catcher of Bill's era who achieved greater fame was Johnny Bench, the 14-time All-Star. During the years when Bill was a consistent All-Star and Gold Glover, there was no better catcher in baseball. He was a dangerous hitter, accomplished fielder, an astute handler of pitchers young and old, and a peerless team leader. He epitomizes the best kind of athlete that played the game in the 1960s and 1970s. Among Tiger catchers, he ranks a close second talent-wise to 1934 MVP Mickey Cochrane, who spent most of his career with the A's, and just ahead of Lance Parrish, who was a better power hitter but not Bill's equal as an all-around defender. From a career perspective, however, Bill was unparalleled.

 

Bill Freehan,
1969 Popular Library

 

 

   
     
  Editor's Note: In addition to his 1999 interview with Bill Freehan, Jim Sargent's sources include articles in Baseball Digest (5/65 & 6/00), Sport (8/68), the SABR Bio Project and Behind the Mask.  
     
 

 

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