On June 16, 1961 the Detroit Tigers made one of their greatest acquisitions in team history when they signed 19-year-old Bill Freehan, a football and baseball star from the University of Michigan who would become a perennial All-Star and the dominant catcher in the American League.
The five-time Gold Glove catcher played his entire career in Detroit, appearing in 1,774 games from 1961 to 1976. In an era when pitchers dominated the hitters, Freehan had a very respectable lifetime average of .262 while hitting 200 homers.
Freehan became the regular starting catcher in 1964, batted .300 that year and earned the first of ten consecutive All-Star selections. In 1965 he led the American League in put outs for the first of six times and received his first of five consecutive Gold Gloves.
Looking back, it almost feels like as Tiger fans we took Freehan for granted because he was always behind the plate, and overshadowed by Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich.
Freehan was an unbelievable workhorse who I best remember blocking home plate as runners bounced off the former U of M tight end as they tried to score.
His career signature play that turned around the 1968 World Series occurred in Game Five when Lou Brock tried to score on a single to Willie Horton in left field.
Horton threw a perfect peg at third baseman and cut off man Don Wert’s head. Freehan yelled to Wert to let the ball come to home as the catcher adeptly blocked the plate as Brock tried to score without sliding.
During that championship season Freehan caught 155 regular season games and set career high marks with 25 home runs, 73 runs scored, and 84 RBI. He also often “took one for the team” as he was hit by pitches a remarkable 24 times.
I can still picture Freehan drenched with sweat in his dirty away uniform on a hot summer day crowding home plate with a heaving bandage wrapped on his left bicep as he is hit by a pinch once again and then heads for first with his signature Big Ten tight end trot.
When he caught both ends of a double header, Freehan would typically lose several pounds of sweat. His stamina was unbelievable. In the 1967 All-Star game he caught all 15 innings!
By the way, Freehan is apparently the only player in baseball history to appear in eleven All-Star games and not be elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Which begs the question: Why wasn’t Bill Freehan ever seriously considered for induction? To me it is a serious oversight.