The Detroit Tigers gave Bill Freehan a $100,000 bonus off the campus of the University of Michigan. That was probably the best money the team ever spent.
Freehan caught his first game for the Tigers in 1961, and he got two singles in that late-season contest. Two years later he was the starting catcher, and the year after that he was an All-Star for the first of eleven times.
The scout who gathered Freehan in for the Tigers was a man named Louie D’Annunzio, a baseball lifer who found pitchers Hal Newhouser and Billy Pierce for the franchise. D’Annunzio took note of Freehan when he was only 15 years old, and he did what a good scout does: he befriended the family. D’Annunzio was “the first guy in” and he knew all of the Freehan’s by name. He went to U of M to watch Bill play for the Wolverines, and he shook his hand at every important juncture of his amateur career.
Freehan was the premier catcher in the American League for a decade, and he’s the only receiver with that distinction not in the Hall of Fame. The timeline of the “best of the decade” catchers in the American League goes: Wally Schang, Ray Schalk, Rick Ferrell, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, FREEHAN, Carlton Fisk, Pudge Rodriguez, Joe Mauer, Salvador Perez.
But there’s virtually no chance Freehan gets a plaque in Cooperstown. All those years in Detroit, a granite figure behind the plate, Freehan was overshadowed by teammates. He was only in the World Series once, but by that time all anyone could say was that he wasn’t Johnny Bench.
Freehan hit exactly 200 home runs. He batted .262 with a .752 OPS, which was good for a 112 OPS+. That’s better than six catchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won five Gold Glove Awards, and he was clearly the premier defensive catcher in his league in the 1960s, even better than Elston Howard.
Freehan and Mickey Lolich started the same game 324 times, a record for catcher/pitcher teammates (which used to be called a battery). Appropriately it’s Mickey in Freehan’s arms in one of the most iconic World Series photos of all-time, snapped seconds after Lolich finished his third win in the 1968 Series.