Card Corner, 1973 Topps: Bill Freehanby Bruce Markusen
January 25, 2013
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.
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.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
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