After the baseball landed in his mitt for the final out of the 1968 World Series, Bill Freehan took a few steps toward the mound and met Mickey Lolich, who gleefully hopped into the catcher’s arms. The photo is an iconic piece of Detroit history. It capsulizes a wonderful moment, and it also forever links the two ballplayers.
Ironically, the pair first started to make their impact as young Tiger players at the same time, 50 years ago this month, in 1963. Five years later they would be integral parts in the magical ’68 season.
Freehan and Lolich traveled different paths to get to the major leagues. Freehan inked his name on a lucrative $125,000 bonus contract in 1961 as a 19-year old college ballplayer. Born in Royal Oak, Freehan moved with his family to Florida as a kid and attended Bishop Barry High School in St. Petersburg, where he was a star in every sport, especially football and baseball. When his hometown Tigers drafted him, his dad helped negotiate the $125,000 bonus, a sum that he invested and didn’t turn over to his son until Freehan officially received his degree in 1966.
Lolich was a promising young teenage pitcher in Oregon, but he wasn’t on the Tigers radar until 1958 when his team advanced to the American Legion World Series, where he frustrated batters with his knee-high fastball. When the Yankees snatched up Al Downing, another fine young pitcher who starred in the American Legion World Series, Lolich was next in line and the Tigers quickly got his name on a $30,000 contract. At that time, Mick was a far cry from the pitcher Tiger fans came to know and love – he was only about 160 pounds, a scrawny left-hander from the Oregon frontier.
Though he was a 14 months younger than Lolich, Freehan got to the majors first – for a cup of coffee (four games) at the end of the ’61 season. The 19-year old was returned to the minors in ’62, but he made the Detroit roster out of spring training in ’63. Freehan worked on his defense and pitch-calling that spring with Rick Ferrell, the Tigers’ general manager, and a former big league catcher who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame.
On May 5, 1963, Freehan hit his first two home runs in the big leagues, in a game against the Orioles in Baltimore. At 6’3 and a chiseled 210 pounds, Freehan stood out immediately in a Tiger uniform, and it wasn’t long before he was forcing manager Bob Scheffing to write his name into the lineup. In one stretch he reached base in nine consecutive plate appearances. Barrel-chested Gus Triandos, a 32-year old veteran of the catching ranks, was in his lone season in Detroit, but after Freehan emerged in May, the old catcher and the young catcher split playing time for the remainder of the season. Battling to earn more starts behind the dish, Freehan was an ultra-competitive sort who was known to be a bit hard on himself.
“Bill’s biggest trouble is that he thinks he should never have a bad day,” one Detroit front office member told The Sporting News in ’63.
A week after Freehan belted his first home runs, Lolich made his major league debut after being summoned from Syracuse. Mickey came in to toss two mop-up innings in a 9-3 loss to the Indians at Tiger Stadium on a windy Sunday afternoon. Lolich struck out the first two batters he faced and allowed just a walk in his two frames of work. A week and a half later he made his first start, going six innings in a loss to the Baltimore Orioles. But one week later, Mick picked up his first major league victory, defeating the Angels 3-1, while tossing a complete game in LA. It was the first of 207 games that Lolich would win for the Bengals.
After that May 50 years ago, Freehan and Lolich were key parts of the Tiger club. In ’64, Freehan made the All-Star team for the first of 10 straight seasons. Lolich won 18 games and struck out 192 batters. He would end up striking out more batters than any other left-hander in the history of the American League, a record he still holds.
Nope, when Freehan and Lolich made their famous embrace at the conclusion of Game Seven of the 1968 World Series, it wasn’t just a happy coincidence, it was a perfect pairing of two Tiger legends who started their careers at the same time, five decades ago this month.