Former Detroit Tigers catcher Bill Freehan, a perennial All-Star and the quiet leader of 1968 world champions, has died at age 79 the team announced on Thursday. Freehan had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for several years, spending the last few years in under hospice care in his northern Michigan home.
Freehan is best remembered for the 1968 championship season when he caught 155 regular-season games, nearly all of Denny McLain’s 31 victories, before handling World Series MVP Mickey Lolich’s three complete-game victories. As the runner-up to McLain for the American League MVP award that year, Freehan posted career highs in home runs (25), RBIs (84) and runs scored (73).
Two of the most iconic images in Tigers history involve Freehan in the ’68 Series.
In the pivotal play of the Fall Classic, with the Tigers down 3 games to 1 and trailing St. Louis, 3-2, in the fifth inning, the Cardinals threatened to extend their lead when speedster Lou Brock tried to score standing up on a sharp single to leftfielder Willie Horton, who threw a perfect one-hopper home. The famous photo shows Freehan tagging Brock out when the ball arrives as he blocks him from touching the edge of home plate.
The other photo is of Freehan holding up Lolich, who leapt into his arms in a championship embrace after the catcher caught Tim McCarver’s foul popup to secure the final out in Game 7.
Selected to 11 All-Star Games, the five-time Gold Glove catcher played his entire career with the Tigers, appearing in 1,774 games in 1961-76. Freehan became the regular starting catcher in 1964, batted .300 that year and was chosen to the first of 10 consecutive All-Star teams. In the 1967 All-Star Game, he caught all 15 innings for the American League in a 2-1 loss to the National League.
When Freehan retired following the 1976 season, he held the major league records for most chances (10,714), putouts (9,941) and the highest fielding average for a catcher (.993). The records were broken respectively in 1987 (Bob Boone), 1988 (Gary Carter) and 2002 (Dan Wilson).
Raised in Royal Oak, Freehan moved to Florida at age 14 but returned to Detroit in the summers where he starred in sandlot ball before attending Michigan. Besides playing tight end in football, Freehan had a stellar Big Ten baseball career. In his junior year of 1961, he batted .585, still a conference record.
Days later, he signed with the Tigers and received a $100,000 bonus that his father withheld until Freehan earned a history degree in 1966.
Following his major league career, he later took leave from his successful manufacturer’s representative business in 1990 to become the head coach of the Michigan baseball program for six seasons.