Bill Freehan, catcher for 1968 World Series-champion Tigers, dies at 79

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Bill Freehan, a 15-season catcher for the Detroit Tigers who neared the Hall of Fame threshold, died Thursday after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 79.

He grew up in Royal Oak, played football and baseball at the University of Michigan, then broke in at age 19 with the Tigers, helping them to a world championship in 1968 he secured after catching Tim McCarver’s pop-foul for the final out of the seventh-game epic against St. Louis.

Earlier in the series, in Game 5, Freehan made a pivotal block of Lou Brock at the plate to turn the momentum in the Tigers' favor.

Bill Freehan, long-time Tigers catcher, has died at 79.

The two images — the block and jumping into Mickey Lolich's arms after the final out of Game 7 — are two of the most-famous in franchise history. The photo of the Lolich embrace long hung in Freehan's home.

"It was, in fact, the climax of a long, fun, good time," Pat Freehan, Bill's wife, said in 2018, at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the 1968 Tigers — which Bill, in failing health, could not attend.

"It was wonderful."

Freehan was a stolid, impenetrable force behind home plate for the Tigers during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, catching Denny McLain during his 31-victory season in ’68, as well as Lolich, whose mastery and endurance during those years matched Freehan’s. It was Lolich who threw the final pitch that brought on a World Series parade following a stunning comeback against the Cardinals.

Freehan was an 11-time All-Star choice, and three times finished in the top five on Most Valuable Player voting, including a runner-up finish to McLain in 1968.

"Bill Freehan was one of the greatest men I’ve ever played alongside, or had the pleasure of knowing," Willie Horton, whose Tigers tenure coincided with Freehan's, said in a statement. "I’ll always cherish our childhood memories together and our journey from sandlot baseball to Tiger Stadium. His entire major-league career was committed to the Tigers and the city of Detroit, and he was one of the most respected and talented members of the organization through some difficult yet important times throughout the 1960s and '70s.

"You’d be hard-pressed to find another athlete that had a bigger impact on his community over the course of his life than Bill, who will be sorely missed in Detroit and beyond.

Freehan retired after his 1976 stint with the Tigers. His career numbers: .262 batting average, 200 home runs, .762 OPS. His career Wins Above Replacement (WAR): 44.8.

Freehan later had a reunion with his alma mater, Michigan, as the school's baseball coach. Freehan owns the Big Ten record for batting average in a season (.585), set in 1961. Freehan's No. 11 was retired by Michigan, but was allowed to be used by grandson, Harrison Salter, who played for the Wolverines. Two other grandsons, Blaise Salter and Will Salter, played baseball at Michigan State.

More: Henning: Tigers 'bulldog' Bill Freehan gave us two images that will live forever

Freehan also was a coach in the Tigers minor-league chain. He was a catching instructor in the Tigers' organization when general manager Al Avila arrived.

"One of the things I took away from him when I was first getting to know him was that he was like a guardian of the Detroit Tigers," Avila said. "He was about making sure the Detroit Tigers were good and solid as far as the people who were working in the system and the people who were looking after the Tigers. (Al) Kaline was the same way. The guys of that era looked upon the organization as their home, their people and they wanted to make sure everyone was taken care of. He was special in that way. He will be missed tremendously."

He had lived in recent years in northern Michigan, with Pat, his wife of 58 years.

Freehan is survived by three children and several grandchildren.

"He's an icon for the Detroit Tigers, 15 years here," Avila said. "He is what you would think of as a perfect Tiger. The type of person you would want as one of the icons of your organization. Not only solid on the field, but solid off the field and I can tell you that from personal experience."

The Tigers showed a video tribute to Freehan before Thursday's series finale against the Los Angeles Angels at Comerica Park.

"It’s with a heavy heart that all of us with the Detroit Tigers extend our condolences to the friends and family of Bill Freehan," the Tigers said in a statement. "An all-time great Tiger, the Olde English ‘D’ was the only logo he wore over his 15-year Major League career, during which he was named to 11 All-Star teams, won five-straight Gold Glove awards and played a key role on the 1968 World Series Championship team.

"Off the diamond, Freehan made a positive impact in the southeast Michigan community, including as a player and then coach at the University of Michigan, where he changed the lives of many for the better.

"Our thoughts are with Bill’s wife, Pat, and the entire Freehan family."

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Staff writer Chris McCosky contributed.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.