He’s the first real baseball player I ever met. His hands were huge. My knees were shaking.
Those are the undying memories I have of my first major league baseball game, and meeting Bill Freehan.
It was 1977, in the summer, and my mom and dad packed me into the car and drove the two-plus hours from our home near Kalamazoo to Detroit. I’d never seen Detroit. I remember seeing the light towers of Tiger Stadium, as they lurked next to I-75, large looming figures that made me quiver with anticipation. This is where the Tigers play!
When you walked into Tiger Stadium it was like entering a new world. The ramps that took you to your seating section were like magic walkways to a magical place. And then you saw the green. The field at Tiger Stadium was so miraculously green, I remember thinking This is what perfect grass looks like. The seats by that time had been painted blue, Tiger blue, which made every color in that ballpark pop.
We sat somewhere behind the third base dugout about 40-50 rows up, I remember that. We were in the lower deck, no poles to contend with. I can still feel what it was like to be in that park for the first time, to have my senses bombarded: crack of the bat, smack of the glove, sudden cheers, chorus of boos, organ music, peanut vendors.
At some point in the early innings of the game, we noticed commotion a few rows below us. Someone was getting attention, people stopping, slapping hands, waving, smiling. My Dad peered around to get a look. It was a ballplayer.
“That’s Bill Freehan,” my Dad said.
Freehan was in his first year of retirement after 15 years with the Tigers. I’d read his book, Behind The Mask, a diary of the 1969 season. I’d already memorized a few facts about him. He played baseball and football at the University of Michigan, he had hit exactly 100 home runs in road games and 100 home runs at Tiger Stadium. I was well on my way to becoming a baseball savant, or wasting a lot of my time, whichever way you want to look at it.
My Dad urged me to ask for his autograph. I didn’t even understand what that meant. He explained that I should take my $1 program and have Freehan sign one of the pages in the margin. I wasn’t sure, I was scared. But eventually mid-inning I crept down there. He was sitting only a few rows away, dressed in a collared shirt and looking tan and very fit.
“Mr. Freehan, can I have your autograph?”
“Sure, kid.” He grabbed my pencil (the Tigers logo pencil was all I had) and scribbled his name somewhere in the program. He reached out his hand. I grasped it in a feeble handshake, weak nine-year-old flesh meeting baseball legend. His hand was giant. It seemed like he could have caught without a glove.
I honestly can’t tell you much about that baseball game. I’ve searched through the boxscore, I’ve been able to pinpoint which game it was, because we went to a doubleheader in August. (I figured why watch one first game when you can watch two?) It was against the Indians. We had to leave early in Game Two so we could drive back across the state.
But I will always remember the circumstances of that first meeting with a real live ballplayer.
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Bill Freehan is central to a pair of the most iconic images in the history of sports in the state of Michigan. There he is, legs spread wide in a defiant powerful stance, blocking Lou Brock from reaching home plate in Game Five of the 1968 World Series. The immovable object.
There he is again receiving a bear hug from Mickey Lolich, no small man, who looks like a child in Bill’s arms as they celebrate the final out of that Series fifty years ago.
Two images, both stamped forever on the hearts of Michigan sports fans. Two moments: one crucial, one joyous. Freehan’s right there.
It seems fitting that Freehan’ face is obscured or unseen in both of those iconic Detroit sports photos. He was often the unseen, forgotten, quiet star on that team. Ask any of his teammates and they’ll tell you they didn’t take him for granted.
“He was [our] compass,” infielder Dick McAuliffe said, “as he went, so went the Tigers.”
“We were lucky to have several leaders on our club,” left fielder Willie Horton remembered, “but Bill was the guy we followed between the lines.”
Tigers manager Mayo Smith knew what he had: he told Freehan in spring training in ’68 that the veteran catcher could call his own pitch outs. He also ceded to Freehan when he needed one of his players brought in line. It was Freehan who would try to keep the wild, dynamic pitching star Denny McLain under control. It was Freehan who had the presence in the clubhouse. On a team with strong personalities like Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, McLain, and Al Kaline, the man with the broad shoulders behind the plate was a guiding force.
Long after his playing career was over, Freehan looked like he could strap on the chest protector and grab a mitt. He was tall, muscular, and solid as a rock. In that photo of the collision at home plate in Game Five with Brock, the fleet Cardinals’ baserunner is driving into Freehan’s left shoulder and chest. Freehan’s body is absorbing the impact, his thighs bulging, his backside taught. If you watch the video, you’re amazed that Brock bounces off Freehan, almost like a rubber ball on a concrete wall. Freehan pivots after the play, still standing in a solid stance, ensures the ball is secure and that Brock was tagged. Ho hum, another day at the office.
He looked like granite when he was in spring training with the Tigers in 1977, a few months before our meeting, helping tutor a new young catching prodigy named Lance Parrish. He looked like a stone wall when he was 48 years old and returned to Ann Arbor to be head coach of the baseball team. Amazingly, he still looked like a chiseled Greek statue in 1999 after the final game at Tiger Stadium, running from beneath the center field bleachers to his old position behind the plate during a farewell ceremony. Like that other college-football-stud-turned-Tiger, Kirk Gibson, Freehan has always looked like he came out of central casting for the role of baseball superstar.
He never spent a day in any uniform other than Detroit’s. In his 15 seasons he was a brilliant catcher, he won five Gold Gloves. He held the career record for fielding percentage by a catcher for 26 years after his final game in 1976. Freehan was the best catcher in the American League for about a decade, he made the All-Star team eleven times. In every season in which he caught at least 75 games, he was an All-Star catcher.
In his great historical work The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the famed historian and stat pioneer rated Freehan as the 12th best catcher in baseball history. A similar book that this author is working on ranks Freehan as the 16th best catcher ever. According to a modern stat called JAWS (which measures a player based on his value above a replacement level player in many categories), Freehan is the 14th best catcher ever. He rates ahead of six Hall of Fame catchers.
A Hall of Fame plaque is not necessary for fans of the Detroit Tigers to appreciate #11. He was the best catcher most of them had ever seen in a Detroit uniform. Sure, some old timers could bring up Mickey Cochrane, but Ol’ Mick played his best seasons with the A’s, before coming to the Motor City. Sure, Parrish had a stellar run in Detroit on the heels of Freehan, but he didn’t do it as well for as long. Younger fans will mention Pudge Rodriguez, but like Cochrane, Pudge had his finest success in other uniforms and was with us for only a brief spell. Nope, Freehan is the greatest catcher in franchise history. A Michigan man for a Michigan team, a solid, granite-like figure, a model for the tall, athletic catchers with a strong arm and quick feet that came after him. A tough righthanded power hitter. A team leader, a competitor but still a gentleman, and a winner.
That winning season 50 years ago is what most Detroit fans will remember about Mr. Freehan, who sadly now finds himself in hospice care, his strong, unbreakable body finally bending to time and disease. But I will remember him as the first baseball player I ever met, and just like everything else he did around the game of baseball, he handled that role perfectly.