Card Corner, 1973 Topps: Bill Freehan

There is nothing like a play at the plate. That’s one of the reasons why this is one of the best action shots in the 1973 Topps set. We see the full form of longtime Tigers catcher Bill Freehan, who is making a long lunge for the Yankees baserunner, the late Celerino Sanchez.

If we look closely, we can see that Freehan is actually holding the ball in his bare hand, but is attempting to make the tag with his glove hand. Given that piece of information, we can only deduce that the slow-footed Sanchez, despite executing an awkward-looking slide, will be ruled safe, plating a run for New York in a 1972 game at Yankee Stadium.

Although Freehan fails to make the tag on Sanchez, this is an appropriately fine card for an excellent player who enjoyed a long career with one team. One of the most underrated players of his era, Freehan was arguably the best catcher of the 1960s, at least until the arrival of a fellow named Johnny Bench.

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Freehan’s professional baseball story began in 1961, when the Tigers gave him a $100,000 bonus to sign with them after a star career at the University of Michigan. It did not take long for Freehan to experience his first taste of the major leagues. Duly impressed by his performance in the Northern League and the Sally League, the Tigers rewarded him with a late-season promotion to Detroit, allowing Freehan to make his big league debut at the age of 19.

Even though he was still a teenager, he did not look like one. With his prematurely balding scalp and square jaw, he had the appearance of a veteran player. He also swung like one, rapping out four hits in 10 late-season at-bats. Still, the Tigers realized Freehan needed more seasoning before being ready for fulltime duty in Detroit. So Freehan went back to the minor leagues in 1962, this time to the higher ranks of Triple-A, where the pitchers did not overmatch him. He hit .283 with nine home runs, thereby declaring himself ready to move up to Detroit in 1963.

The Tigers had a vacancy at catcher, where journeyman Dick Brown had struggled with the bat. But the Tigers weren’t ready to make Freehan their No. 1 catcher outright; they first acquired veteran Gus Triandos and made him the starter, allowing them to break in their rookie receiver more gradually.

Beginning the season on the bench, Freehan finally received his first chance to start a game when Triandos fell ill. Freehan promptly swatted two home runs and a double at Tiger Stadium, while driving in five runs. Over the course of the next week, he collected 12 hits, including eight that went for extra bases.

Freehan eventually cooled off and returned to a role as a fill-in catcher and first baseman, appearing in 100 games. Even as a backup, he did well enough to entice the Tigers into creating a larger role for him.

By 1964, Freehan was ready. Tigers manager Chuck Dressen made him the starting catcher and watched him emerge as Detroit’s best hitter, as he batted an even .300 with 18 home runs and a .350 on-base percentage. Freehan also put in solid work behind the plate, where he showed intelligence in calling a game while exhibiting good hands and a strong arm.

Becoming a deterrent to American League speedsters, Freehan threw out 53 per cent of opposing base stealers. He performed so well that he picked up some votes in the MVP race and earned a place on the AL All-Star team. That marked the start of 10 straight selections to the Midsummer Classic, including seven starting nods.

Freehan’s hitting fell off in 1965 and ‘66, as he hit .234 with only moderate power each summer, but he fully blossomed in 1967. He put up an OPS of .835, the best of his career to date, while drawing a career-high 73 walks. Freehan finished third in the MVP race behind two Hall of Famers-to be, Carl Yastrzemski and Harmon Killebrew.

The 1968 season will forever be known as “The Year of the Pitcher,” but Freehan’s numbers showed little falloff; if anything, they looked like better-than-average statistics for the power-hitting catcher. Placing second in the MVP race, he reached personal highs with 25 home runs and 84 RBIs. He also put up a career best mark in another category; with 24 hit-by-pitches, Freehan led the league for a third time and also set a new single-season American League record. Of his penchant for getting hit by pitches, Freehan told Sports Illustrated, “Nobody ever said a catcher had to be smart or quick on his feet.”

Freehan withstood those pitched balls well enough to play in 155 games for the second straight season, with most of those appearances coming behind the plate. To call Freehan a toughened workhorse behind the plate would have been selling him short.

Freehan’s 1968 numbers took on greater importance within the context of Detroit’s season. After barely losing out on the 1967 pennant, the Tigers blew away the field in ‘68, setting up a classic match-up with the Cardinals in the World Series.

The Tigers lost three of the first four games against the Cardinals, as most of their hitters, including Freehan, slumped. But Freehan helped turn the tide in Game Five, leaving a memorable image in his wake. With the Cards already leading by a run in the fifth inning, Lou Brock doubled and then raced for the plate on Julian Javier’s single. Freehan skillfully blocked the plate with his left leg as Brock tried to score standing up instead of sliding. Freehan withstood a collision, held on to the ball, and applied the tag, negating a St. Louis run and altering the course of the Series.

The Tigers rallied to win the game, and then the Series. Freehan recorded the final out of Game Seven, snaring Tim McCarver’s pop up in foul territory along the first base line and then catching a bear hug from a 200-pound Mickey Lolich.

The Tigers’ world championship put several players in the spotlight, including Freehan. In its baseball preview issue, appearing in April of 1969, Sports Illustrated featured Freehan on the cover, showing him wearing patriotic catcher’s equipment emblazoned with white stars and red, white and blue colors.

The Sports Illustrated jinx subsequently hit Freehan. Even though Major League Baseball lowered the mound and altered the strike zone prior to 1969, Freehan’s home run total fell to 16 and his OPS dropped to .747. It was an unexpected tail-off for a player who was still only 27.

It’s possible that Freehan’s off year was affected by an off-the-field endeavor. Smart and well-spoken, Freehan decided to keep a handwritten diary, beginning with spring training. He then approached veteran sportswriter Dick Schaap about editing his work. From there, Freehan signed a contract to write a book, Behind The Mask, which chronicled the entire 1969 season. The book would stir up considerable controversy in the spring of 1970, when Sports Illustrated ran excerpts that emphasized criticism of Tigers ace Denny McLain.

The book came out at approximately the same time as the groundbreaking Ball Four, but it was not particularly well written and had nowhere near the literary impact of Bouton’s tome. Freehan also faced more immediate repercussions than Bouton. While Bouton exposed a number of secrets of the Seattle Pilots’ clubhouse—they were the primary focus of the book—he was long gone from Seattle by 1970, the year that the book was released.

In contrast, Freehan remained a Tiger in ‘70, forcing him to face the wrath of some teammates who felt betrayed by his diary of revelations. Freehan alleged that manager Mayo Smith employed one set of rules for the team, and an entirely different set of rules for McLain. That allegation enraged Tigers GM Jim Campbell. “Two sets of rules?” Campbell asked sportswriter Milton Gross. “That’s a crock of manure… It’s unfair to Mayo. It’s a bad rap on him, which he does not deserve.”

With both the front office and his teammates angered by the book, the turmoil created a distraction for Freehan. He also had to deal with a broken nose and a bad back, the latter ailment forcing him to undergo spinal surgery. He hit only .241 that summer, his lowest mark since 1966.

By the spring of 1971, Freehan’s back was healthy and, approaching his 30th birthday, hit with renewed vigor. He once again made the All-Star team, an especially gratifying honor because of that summer’s venue: Tiger Stadium. He flashed impressive power; that August, he tormented the Red Sox to the tune of three home runs in one game. For the year, he would hit 21 home runs, his highest total since the world championship season.

Beginning in 1972, Freehan’s chronic back problems affected his durability, ending his days as a 140-game player. The Tigers spotted him more often, giving additional playing time to backup Tom Haller and midseason pickup Duke Sims. The arrangement worked beautifully, as Freehan gave the Tigers the strongest defense among the three, while remaining an offensive threat. With Freehan deftly handing a staff that featured Lolich, Joe Coleman, and waiver pickup Woodie Fryman, the Tigers took the strike-shortened division title by a half game over the Red Sox.

A hairline fracture in his thumb prevented Freehan from playing the first two games of the playoffs against the A’s. He did his best to make up for lost time in the final three games, though. In Game Three, he doubled and homered. In the fourth game, he drove in three runs in an extra-inning win. And then in Game Five, he plated the Tigers’ only run, as they fell short to the A’s in a 2-1 heartbreaker.

The 1972 division win represented a figurative last hurrah for Freehan and the Tigers, who aged simultaneously. Now on the wrong side of 30, Freehan struggled badly in 1973, putting up the worst full season of his career. GM Campbell placed some of the blame on manager Billy Martin, who repeatedly second-guessed Freehan’s pitch calling.

Perhaps learning from his experience with Behind The Mask, Freehan tried diplomacy with regard to Martin. “I just don’t care to start on Billy,” Freehan told sportswriter Jim Hawkins. “If I’m going to look for excuses for the bad season I had, I have to blame myself first. I could dwell on the Martin thing if I wanted to, but all that would do is eat at my mind.”

Freed from Martin, who was now managing Texas, Freehan rebounded to post an .840 OPS in 1974. That winter, the Tigers appeared to finalize a trade that would send Freehan and center fielder Mickey Stanley to the Phillies for a young Bob Boone. At one point, Phillies GM Paul Owens phoned Freehan to inform him of the trade and welcome him to Philadelphia. But the deal suddenly and mysteriously fell through.

Remaining in Detroit, Freehan closed out his career with two final seasons as a part-time catcher and first baseman. In 1976, Freehan’s last season, the Tigers finished with only 74 wins, putting them in fifth place in the AL East. It was time for the Tigers to rebuild, and time for Freehan to call it a career.

By the time of his retirement, Freehan had left a sizable imprint. Defensively, he was the best American League catcher of his era, capturing five Gold Gloves and establishing major league records for most chances and putouts and the highest fielding percentage by a catcher.

Freehan’s offensive numbers, which included exactly 200 home runs, become more impressive when taken in context. He had the misfortune of playing his prime seasons in a pitcher’s era. And by the time the American League adopted the DH in 1973, Freehan was already 31. Even then, Freehan served as a DH in only a handful of games, with most of those at-bats going to Gates Brown and others.

After his playing days, which ended at the relatively young age of 34, Freehan became a broadcaster. He joined the legendary Dave Niehaus as part of the Mariners’ television crew in 1979. Ten years later, Freehan moved into coaching, becoming the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Michigan. He held that position with the Wolverines until 1995. Freehan then stayed out of baseball for several years until he returned to the Tigers’ organization as a roving catching instructor in 2002.

Sadly, Freehan is out of baseball, and for reasons that go beyond the factor of age. He is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the same ailment that has already claimed teammate Jim Northrup. The disease makes it difficult for him to communicate, which is particularly sad for an intelligent ex-player who likely has many good stories to tell.

Bill Freehan could use some prayers right about now. He’s a good man who gave us two excellent careers, one as a player and one as a coach. Not to mention a vibrant and distinctive 1973 Topps card.

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Comments

  1. bumphadley said...

    …i don’t really think it’s arguable…freehan *was* the best catcher in baseball in the 60’s, until that Bench fella came along.

    he was an outstanding player.

  2. Clete6 said...

    That wasn’t the most awkward slide into home that Celerino Sanchez ever made. I remember seeing him slide on his back, with his legs straight up in the air. (He was safe that time.)

  3. bucdaddy said...

    Freehan’s 1965 and ‘66 don’t look quite so terrible when you consider:

    1965
    Freehan 234/306/339
    Detroit 238/312/374
    League 242/311/369

    1966
    Freehan 234/294/352
    Detroit 251/321/406
    League 240/306/369

    Thanks for the nice recap of the career of a fine player.

    Goddamn Alzheimer’s.

  4. Philip said...

    ‘‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’’ – Sherlock Holmes

    According to Retrosheet.org, Celerino Sanchez scored only one run against the Tigers in 1972.

    And that run was in a game played in Detroit: a night game Tuesday, June 27, 1972 at Tiger Stadium.

    (Freehan, by the way, went 4-4 that day.)

    According to Retrosheet:

    ‘‘YANKEES 7TH: Sanchez doubled to center; Torres singled to center [Sanchez to third]; Michael struck out; ELLIS BATTED FOR GARDNER; Lolich threw a wild pitch [Sanchez scored, Torres to second]; Ellis grounded out (third to first); Clarke lined to center; 1 R, 2 H, 0 E, 1 LOB.  Yankees 1, Tigers 5.’‘

    The photo makes it unlikely that’s a play on which Sanchez is trying to score on a wild pitch. Of course, we already know it couldn’t be that game because of the uniforms the players are wearing in the photo on the card. Unlike the NHL of that era, MLB wasn’t in the habit of having reverse sweater night.

    And 1972 was Sanchez’ rookie year, so that rules out a photo from any earlier year.

    So what is left?

    The answer: Games played against the Tigers in Yankee Stadium in which Sanchez did not score a run but was involved in a play at the plate.

    He did play in all four games of a series against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium in August, the only games he played at Yankee Stadium during his career in games against Detroit. And Sanchez didn’t score any runs in those games.

    So the only possible explanation for the photo is: could the home plate umpire have blew a call?

    Let’s look at Retrosheet again.

    Game Played on Tuesday, August 8, 1972 (D) at Yankee Stadium. (4-2, Yankees win)

    YANKEES 4TH: White homered; Alou singled to center; On a bunt Murcer struck out; Sanchez was hit by a pitch [Alou to second]; Swoboda singled to left [Alou scored, Sanchez to second]; Michael flied out to right; Peterson singled to left [Sanchez out at home (left to catcher), Swoboda to second]; 2 R, 4 H, 0E, 2 LOB.  Tigers 1, Yankees 2.

    Freehan was the Tigers’ catcher that day. So it all fits. And there were no other plays at the plate involving Sanchez during that August series at Yankee Stadium.

    The home plate umpire that day was Dave Phillips. He called games for 32 years in the big leagues. In 1982, Phillips ejected Gaylord Perry from a game (the first time the Hall of Fame pitcher was ever tossed) for throwing an illegal pitch.

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Wd1eAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ilMNAAAAIBAJ&pg=1731,4604983&dq=gaylord+perry+ejected+for+doctoring+baseball&hl=en

    When umpire Jim Joyce blew a potentially game-ending play to cost Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game a few years ago, Phillips had this to say:

    http://www.ksdk.com/news/article/203568/6/Retired-umpire-Dave-Phillips-reflects-on-Jim-Joyce-blown-call

    It would sure be fun to have Phillips interviewed about this call immortalized on a baseball card.

    (Note: 1972 was a strike year in which a number of April games were wiped out. The Tigers won the AL East by but one-half game over Boston. So the call didn’t have a direct impact on the race but might have had the Red Sox won just one other game.

    If Bruce is indeed correct that the Yankees’ runner is Sanchez (and not any other Yankee call-up who happened to be wearing #10 that year in a day game against the Tigers played at Yankee Stadium), a blown call at the plate can be the only possible explanation.

  5. Philip said...

    Perhaps this is one more explanation after all. But it is almost as improbable as the one above: that umpire Phillips actually got the call correct!

    That could have only happened if Sanchez missed tagging home plate completely and Freehan then correctly applied the tag.

    Too bad there’s almost certainly no video of the game.

  6. Bruce Markusen said...

    Based on the hair alone, it is definitely Sanchez. And yes, it is rather remarkable that he was ruled out on the play. As John said, I think it’s likely Sanchez overslid the bag and was tagged on the way back.

  7. John said...

    I think it is just a matter of perspective and angle. it looks like freehan is trying to make tag with wrong hand.  I think it more likely that he is pivoting and will use his glove hand as a brace and then lunge to tag sanchez with the ball in hand. 

    I would also bet that Sanchez has slide or fallen past the plate which is why he is not safe yet.

  8. Brandon said...

    Awesome article. Didn’t know about Freehan’s book, the trade to Philly that never happened, nor his present condition.

  9. Dennis Bedard said...

    $15.95 on Amazon. Thought it would be less than $1.00.  I bought it anyway.  The ‘69 Tigers were a very good team.  This is the first I ever heard of him publishing a book. Funny hoe you think you know it all but in reality you know very little.

  10. Bruce Markusen said...

    Bob, I’m trying to remember whether the Cardinals argued the play. I vaguely remember Brock saying that he felt he was safe, but cannot remember if he argued the play on the field.

  11. BobDD said...

    Oh, it was argued alright at the time, and most commentators observed that Brock would have been safe if he had slid – possible but so what.  The replays were very good for their time but Brock’s foot was twisted a bit to the side by Freehan’s blocking (moving) knee and his foot either missed the plate or hit the plate by a quarter inch or less.  With today’s technology we would probably have been able to definitively known if safe or out, but the photo’s of the day only showed that it was so close that all of Detroit was certain he was out and all of SL knew he was safe.  The commentary of “if he had slid he’d have been safe” helped let people kind of have it both ways.  A call that could have gone either way, so no injustice or scandal, just disappointment for me (and others of my ilk).  I don’t really blame Tiger fans for chortling with glee over the call, but I still react with a visceral growl when they do so (damn gloaters).

    There!  That was much cheaper than a therapist.

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