Saturday August 21, 2021
Bill Freehan (1941-2021)
Bill Freehan makes me think of my youth for this reason: He was ubiquitous when I was young and I haven't thought about him for a long time. Other players from the era stayed in my line of sight (Joe Morgan, say, as a color announcer) or in the conversation (Aaron, Mays, Bench), but Freehan receded from view. As a result, when I think of him, I can't help thinking of, say, getting 1971 Topps cards at Salk Drugs on 53rd and Lyndale, or watching an early '70s All-Star game in the basement of 5339, or going to Met Stadium to see the Twins take on the Tigers. I become 10 again.
He was the established guy when I first began to care about baseball—the starting American League catcher in the All-Star game from 1966 through 1972, seven straight years. Again, not just there: starting. But I wouldn't be surprised if I was a bit dismissive of him. When I began to watch in the early '70s, the NL starting catcher was always Johnny Bench, a superstar, and maybe the greatest catcher of all time. And who was our guy? Freehan? C'mon. So it's interesting now checking out how good he was.
He was actually the best catcher in baseball before Bench arrived. By bWAR, he was the 10th-best position player in 1967, rocking a 6.1, and everyone above him is either a Hall of Famer or Paul Blair, and none are catchers. In 1968, he was fifth-best, and again, the guys above him are the guys: Yaz, Brooks, Clemente, McCovey. First-ballot HOFers. 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher—both MVPs went to pitchers: Bob Gibson in the NL and Freehan's battery mate Denny McClain in the AL—but oddly Freehan's batting numbers dipped a bit in '69 after they lowered the mound to make it easier for hitters. He was almost always a .200/.300/.400 guy. He's that for his career (.262/.340/.412), and he was that every year between 1967 and 1972, but the numbers dipped a bit in '69. He hit 25 homers in the Year of the Pitcher, and 16 the year they lowered the mound. He could always draw a walk and he never struck out much. Career, it's 753 strikeouts vs. 626 walks, and during his heyday he almost always walked more than he struck out. He won five Gold Gloves. When he retired, he was the all-time leader for chances (10,714), putouts (9,941) and fielding average for a catcher (.993). He hit exactly 200 homeruns. He was always a Detroit Tiger.
So I'm surprised he didn't get at least a little traction for the Hall of Fame. Instead, he was a one-and-done guy. He came up for a vote in 1982, got exactly two votes, 0.5% and that was it. A lot of first-timers were on that ballot, including Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, who probably skewed things for the rest. Then Billy Williams, who would be voted in in 1987, and Tony Oliva, who was never voted in. All the others were one-and-doners like Freehan. It's not a bad squad: my man Cesar Tovar, Tommy Davis, Tommy Harper and Rico Petrocelli. But of those Freehan had the best career WAR: 44.8. If WAR was around then, I doubt he would've been one and done.
Bill Freehan died earlier this week after suffering from dementia for several years. He was 79. The Detroit Free-Press obit lets us know how much of a Michiganlander he was: born, grew up, went to college, played, coached, died there. Above all, he was a good man. This Willie Horton quote isn't fluff: “Bill Freehan was one of the greatest men I've ever played alongside or had the pleasure of knowing. ... 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.”