Bill Freehan's baseball skills, history yet awe Tigers teammates

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Former Tiger catcher Bill Freehan, here in 2011, is now under home-hospice care as he deals with dementia.

Appropriate and painful, those video snippets running for the past couple of months.

They show Bill Freehan with his Tigers cap on backwards and his catcher’s mask tossed to the side. He settles beneath a pop-up launched by Tim McCarver that had been shot into the afternoon sun at Busch Stadium, just right of the plate. Freehan raises his catcher’s mitt and snags the ball.

And sends Detroit into ecstasy.

The scene is from 50 years ago this past October — anniversary footage as the ’68 Tigers wrap up months of celebration. Black-and-white video memorializes Freehan at the moment a final put-out seals the first Tigers world championship in 23 years. Other than their 1984 romp, it is the Tigers’ only World Series conquest since World War II.

Freehan now is under home-hospice care as he deals with the cruelty of dementia. He was diagnosed some years ago, but privacy was sought by his wife and primary care-giver, Pat, who has been Bill’s spouse for nearly 60 years.

His teammates have, of course, known for too long that Freehan was ill. Their pain is excruciatingly personal and professional. His Tigers pals knew him as a Roman gladiator on the field: 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, 11 times an All-Star, five Gold Gloves, with a slew of Most Valuable Player votes. Too many forget or didn’t know he twice finished in the American League’s MVP top three: Third in 1967, and second in 1968, when his mound partner, Denny McLain, won and also grabbed that World Series season’s Cy Young Award.

“I’ve been going to call Patsy,” said Willie Horton, whose throw from left field to Freehan in the fifth game of the ’68 World Series at Detroit helped a seven-game series against the Cardinals pivot and turn Detroit’s way. “But I don’t know what to say. It’s hard when you’re crying.”

Great player, person

Horton is invariably first among the old Tigers ‘60s and ‘70s stars to talk about feelings and emotions and kinship. It seems that when Horton speaks, Horton virtually bleeds.

But others aren’t far behind in sizing up Freehan as a man and player they loved. Mickey Stanley, who played center field as part of an up-the-middle drive train on that amazing ’68 team, talked Monday about Freehan as if this was a player who was like two global land masses that had merged beneath the Tigers “D.”

Bill Freehan's 1,581 games behind the plate remains the standard for Tigers catchers.

“He was the hardest-working ballplayer I ever knew, and the most conscientious,” said Stanley, who himself was such an athletic artist that he famously moved to shortstop for the ’68 Series. “And what a guy. I mean, there wasn’t a mean bone in his body.

“But he was also the best blocker at the plate of balls in the dirt that’s ever played this game.”

Mickey Lolich has a typically blunt summary when asked about a man who caught most of the 508 games Lolich threw as a Tigers left-handed maestro.

“Bill Freehan belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame,” said Lolich, who, like Freehan, arrived in Detroit for good in 1963. “He was an equal catcher in every respect to Johnny Bench, except for one thing: He did not hit as many home runs. But he should be there (in Cooperstown).”

That debate will continue after heating up in recent years, particularly in Detroit. Freehan, statistically, is well beneath the men from his era. Freehan’s career Wins Above Replacement were 44.8. Bench comes in at 75.2, Gary Carter at 70.1, and Carlton Fisk at 68.5. Southfield ‘s Ted Simmons, who like Freehan hasn’t been handed a plaque, is at 50.3, while Yogi Berra is at 59.4.

Bench had 389 homers to Freehan’s 200. Bench’s career OPS was .817, while Freehan is at .752 due to his .340 on-base percentage and .412 slugging.

But his teammates are with the Hall-hungry Lolich fans who watched him for 16 seasons in Detroit and argue that he far surpassed any cold, clinical stats analysis.

“I’d match him up with anybody in the Hall of Fame,” said Horton, who first got to know Freehan when the two were kids, playing top-tier youth baseball on Detroit Northwestern High School’s field. “I get kind of upset they don’t even mention his name.”


Royal Oak’s own

The Tigers, of course, knew all about Freehan just as their backyard scouts were up on all the Michigan kid talent that would become so foundational to the ’68 championship team: Horton from Detroit, Freehan from Royal Oak, Stanley from Grand Rapids, Jim Northrup from Breckenridge.

This was baseball’s pre-draft era when players were hunted and signed by big-league scouts whose job was as much to be salesman as baseball bird-dog. Freehan wasn’t going to come cheap. He got $100,000 from the Tigers, which was money the Tigers then weren’t inclined to pay even Kaline as a year’s salary.

But his size and skills, which brought him to Michigan as a football and baseball hotshot, were rare for a catcher, and the Tigers got it right. He had two seasons of minor-league ball before settling in with the big-league team. His first full season, 1964, Freehan batted .300 with 18 home runs. Three years later he was bidding for a MVP trophy.

In what became the iconic photo of the Tigers' 1968 World Series championship, Mickey Lolich leaps into the arms of Bill Freehan after Game 7.

“Good teammate, very good teammate,” said Lolich, explaining that during their 13 seasons together Freehan never had to “call” a game — he knew what Lolich was thinking on virtually every pitch.

“Hard fastball in, sinking cutter, cutter on the outside of the plate, breaking ball outside or breaking ball in – only two times in 13 years did we get crossed up,” Lolich said. “He’d call time and walk out and ask: ‘Did I cross myself up?’ And I’d say yeah and he’d say ‘my fault’ and turn around and head back."

In other words, he was no Norm Cash, who didn’t mind a moment or two of playfulness on the field, and who accounted for an entire roster’s annual quota of mischief when he wasn’t constrained by a uniform.

Freehan also seemed unaware that human beings tend to avoid pain.

He brushed off being hit by a pitch the way most people discard a clipped fingernail. He was hit a combined 44 times during the ’67 and ’68 seasons, alone, leading the league both years. He squared up at the plate, hung that big left arm outward, and watched pitch after pitch carom from it, or from another part of Freehan’s anatomy.

“He was tough,” said Stanley, who in later years hunted and snowmobiled with Freehan in northern Michigan. “He’d crowd the plate. He wouldn’t budge. He wasn’t going to give into a pitch.”

Horton says it was all a matter of honor Freehan couldn’t seem to ignore for even a throwaway minute.

Horton remembers the time Freehan drove Gates Brown home to Crestline, Ohio, when Brown had cash problems and didn’t have transportation. Freehan drove Brown 120 miles from his I-75 path and then drove straight to Florida for spring camp.

“That’s the kind of man he was,” Horton said.

Did he catch ‘The Bird’?

The Tigers have been dealing with Freehan’s latter-year realities in ways that, they say, always feel inadequate. Bill, they hope, realizes in some way that they’re still with him, even if it’s Pat to whom they’re equally devoted because of the 24-hour care and vigil she’s been maintaining for years.

Stanley and his wife, Ellen, visited them both a couple of years ago when Bill could still sit relaxed in a chair. That was good, it seemed to the Stanleys. Bill was comfortable and the three could talk even if they and Pat believed Bill was not necessarily processing presences or words.

Or was he?

They began talking about 1976 when a phenomenon known as Mark (The Bird) Fidrych turned a big-league start at Tiger Stadium into the hottest show in all of sports.

Fidrych had come to have his personal catcher that season, Bruce Kimm. Freehan was in his final days in Detroit and as they talked that day no one could remember if Freehan had even once caught a game in which The Bird pitched.

“No,” Pat said, “I don’t think he ever did.”

Stanley today laughs — at what happened next.

“And Bill piped up, clear as day: ‘I most certainly did!’

“I’ll never forget that,” Stanley said, “as long as I live.”

His Tigers teammates, of course, will reserve for their catcher a place only big-leaguers can hold. It’s wrought from all that they together experienced during big-league years and trials and triumphs. It’s what binds them today.

Memories run as deep for those who saw Freehan perform during those years in Detroit, when his strength and stoicism hinted at a man who would keep mortality waiting, who would remind a cruel physical opponent, robbing his mind but not his legacy, that a catcher, for now, was still in charge.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning