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Sports Then and Now

Bill Freehan: Michigan Man

Posted on May 12, 2018 by Dean Hybl

The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was an 11-time American League All-Star at one of the most demanding positions in baseball, yet outside of Detroit his exploits have been largely forgotten.

For more than a decade, Bill Freehan was the rock behind home plate for the Detroit Tigers. In addition to earning All-Star honors 10 straight years and 11 times overall, Freehan was a five-time Gold Glove winner and in 1968 finished second in the American League in the MVP voting.

A true “Michigan Man”, Freehan played his entire sports career representing teams from Michigan.

He was a high school star at Royal Oak High School before playing football and baseball at the University of Michigan.

He was a reserve tight end as a sophomore at Michigan, but showed great promise and received the Meyer Morton Award given to the football player who displays the greatest development and most promise during the annual spring game. Other recipients include Gerald Ford, Jim Harbaugh, Desmond Howard and Braylon Edwards.

However, his potential NFL career was derailed because he was an even better baseball player. Freehan’s 1961 batting average of .585 in conference games remains the best single season average in Big Ten baseball history.

In an era before the Major League Draft, Freehan was highly coveted as a catching prospect and signed with the hometown Detroit Tigers for $125,000 (an amount that had been exceeded at the time by only two other prospects).

It didn’t take long for Freehan to get his first shot at the major leagues as he hit .400 (four for 10) in four games as a 19-year-old at the end of the 1961 season.

After spending all of 1962 in the minors, Freehan returned to the majors for good in 1963 and hit .243 with 9 home runs and 36 RBI in 100 games.

The next season, he hit .300 with 18 home runs and 80 RBI and began his streak of 10 straight All-Star appearances while finishing seventh in the AL MVP voting.

He earned his first of five straight Gold Glove awards in 1965 and in 1966 began a streak of seven straight All-Star starts. He is tied with Carlton Fisk for third in AL history with seven All-Star stars behind the plate, trailing only Ivan Rodriguez and Yogi Berra.

In 1967 the Tigers finished just one game out of winning the American League Pennant and Freehan was a major reason. He finished third in the league MVP voting while hitting .282 with 20 home runs and 74 RBI.

Detroit ran away with the American League Pennant in 1968 as they finished 12 games ahead of second place Baltimore. It marked the first World Series appearance for the Tigers since 1945.

Freehan finished the season second to teammate Denny McClain (who won 31 games) for the AL MVP Award as he posted career-highs with 25 home runs and 84 RBI.

Though Freehan did not hit well in the World Series with only two hits in 24 at bats, he still played a critical role behind the plate. Detroit trailed three games to one, but allowed only five runs over the final three games to win the series in seven games. The St. Louis Cardinals were held to one run in each of the final two games.

Freehan remained a stalwart behind the plate for the Tigers over the next seven years. In 1972 the Tigers reached the American League Championship Series and Freehan received league MVP votes for the sixth time in his career.

After earning his 11th All-Star appearance in 1975, Freehan played 71 games in 1976 before retiring at the age of 34.

He completed his career established as one of the top catchers in baseball history. He posted a career batting average of .262 with 200 home runs and 758 RBI. He had a career OBP of .340, .412 Slugging percentage and OPS of .752. He held the major league record for highest career fielding percentage for a catcher at .9933 until that mark was surpassed in 2002.

Despite such an impressive career, Freehan never received serious consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He appeared on the ballot only in 1982 and was included on only two ballots. However, in his book the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, which was published in 1985, baseball historian Bill James ranked Freehan 12th all-time among major league catchers.

In 1978, he was an inaugural inductee into the University of Michigan Hall of Honor. He later coached the Michigan baseball team from 1989-1995.

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