Detroit Tigers great Bill Freehan dies at age 79 after long battle with dementia

Detroit Free Press
Bill Dow |  Special to the Detroit Free Press

Editor’s note: Story updated for accurately reflect Freehan’s health the last few years.

Former Detroit Tigers catcher Bill Freehan, a perennial All-Star and the quiet leader of the 1968 world champions, has died at age 79, the team announced Thursday. Freehan had suffered from dementia for several years, spending the last few under hospice care in his northern Michigan home.

Freehan is best remembered for that 1968 season, in which he caught 155 regular-season games — including nearly all of Denny McLain’s 31 victories —  before handling World Series MVP Mickey Lolich’s three complete-game victories in the Fall Classic. 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).

“Longtime Tiger, arguably the best catcher in the history of the organization and deep Michigan roots,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said before Thursday’s game against the Angels at Comerica Park. “Condolences to his family and all the Tiger fans. (Pitching coach) Chris Fetter actually coached his grandson at the University of Michigan. Anybody that’s been around the organization for a long time, Al (Avila, general manager) and the group upstairs, (third base coach) Ramon Santiago, we were just talking about it inside, has a heavy heart today. A true Tiger.”

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 trailing St. Louis 3-1 in the series and 3-2 in the fifth inning of Game 5, the Cardinals threatened to extend their lead on a sharp single by Julian Javier. Speedster Lou Brock tried to score standing up, but left fielder Willie Horton made a perfect one-hop throw to Freehan. The play was captured by a Free Press photo showing Freehan tagging Brock while blocking him from touching the edge of home plate.

FROM 2018: As Bill Freehan lies in hospice care, his wife reveals their love story

“Bill Freehan was one of the greatest men I’ve ever played alongside, or had the pleasure of knowing,” Horton said in a statement released by the Tigers. “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.”

The other image is of Freehan holding up Lolich, who leaped into his arms in a championship embrace after the catcher caught Tim McCarver’s foul pop-up to secure the final out in Game 7.

“He often kidded me about the famous picture of me jumping into his arms when we won the ’68 World Series,” Lolich said Thursday. “He said, ‘it’s the most famous picture taken of me and you have my number up with your arms. Nobody knows who I am.’

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 his 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.

“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,” the team said in a released statement Thursday morning.

When Freehan retired following the 1976 season, he held the major league records for chances (10,714), putouts (9,941) and fielding average for a catcher (.993). The records were broken respectively in 1987 (Bob Boone), 1988 (Gary Carter) and 2002 (Dan Wilson).

“Bill was such a good man and it’s very sad that he’s passed. It’s very unfair that he suffered for so long but he is in a better place,” McLain said Thursday. “He should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame 20 years ago. He was the best catcher in the American League for a long time.

“Bill was our leader and we had a lot of independent guys but he got everyone to come around. He helped me a lot as a pitcher. We are supposed to throw the ball from the same position every time and he knew if you were off and could then keep you in one place. Bill got the most out of a pitcher that you could get.”

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 the University of Michigan. In addition to 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.

He was inducted into U-M’s first Hall of Honor class in 1978.

Freehan is survived by his wife, Pat, whom he married in 1963, their three children, Corey, Kelley and Cathy, their spouses and several grandchildren.

“It’s amazing how long Bill hung on. God bless him. Now we have to lay him to rest,” Lolich said Thursday. “… We started out as rookies and developed the same mind. I basically called my own game and after awhile Bill was right with me. He knew what I wanted to throw and I rarely had to shake off his sign. We became one mind working together.

“… He was our leader on the field and caught nearly every day. His mind was always in the game.”

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