Bill Freehan Dies, Tigers All-Star Catcher, Gold Glove Winner & Author
Before Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk arrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was no question as to who was the best catcher in the American League. It was the Detroit Tigers Bill Freehan.
I won’t recount Freehan’s excellent baseball career or personal story in too much detail here. Freehan told it himself while at the height of his playing days in a little known autobiography.
Freehan’s terrific 1970 book, Behind The Mask: An Inside Baseball Diary (World Publishing) was written with editors Dick Schaap and Steve Gelman and was quickly forgotten.
It is one of the best books ever written about the nuances of baseball. Behind The Mask was overshadowed because it came out the same year as ex-Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton’s explosive tell-all Ball Four.
Freehan had been keeping a diary since his arrival in the major leagues. The manuscript was edited down from 500,000 words to a readable 80,000. In Behind The Mask, Freehan recounts his road to the majors and gives an insider’s account to a disappointing 1969 season, after winning the 1968 World Series. Behind the Mask has some stark criticisms of Tiger superstar pitcher Denny McLain and manager Mayo Smith, but it is not sensationalist like Bouton’s Ball Four.
What Behind The Mask accomplishes is something many baseball books don’t succeed at; an intelligent analysis of the game. Coming across is Freehan’s integrity, faith and strong family relationships all playing a huge role in his life and success. But it is Freehan’s observations about the game itself that make it fascinating reading. It is a difficult book to find, but the reward is insight from one of baseball’s most intelligent players.
Bill Freehan passed away August 19, 2021 at age 79 from complications of dementia. Freehan had been in hospice care for several years at his home in Walloon Lake, Michigan. During college, Freehan had played football at Michigan under coach Bump Elliott. Freehan also had several violent collisions at home plate during his 15 year baseball career, all with the Tigers. Back then concussions were just part of the game and not thought of as having long term health impacts.
Freehan’s wife Pat told the Detroit Free Press in 2018 about Bill’s dementia and believed Freehan’s history of concussions had played a part in his decline.
“It’s only an educated guess,” Pat said. “We don’t have a history of dementia in our family, and sometimes it is an inherited tendency. We don’t have a history of that.”
A Tough Baseball Player
Freehan was an eleven time All-Star and five time gold glove winner. That was despite that Freehan played most of his career in constant pain in addition to suffering typical catcher’s injuries. Freehan had spondylolisthesis, a congenital condition of the back in which the lower vertebrae are not connected and eventually cause pressure on the sciatic nerve. A back operation in September1970 helped relieve some of the discomfort that Freehan experienced for years.
Yet, pain apparently never impaired Freehan’s defensive skills. Writers and competitors openly admired his prowess as a premier defensive catcher who you could not intimidate.
From the SABR website comes this contemporary anecdote from the Los Angeles Herald’s Milton Richman.
“What makes Freehan so extraordinary is that he plants his two big feet firmly in the ground, doesn’t bother giving the base runner barreling down on him from third base so much as a sidelong glance and plain refuses to budge even when said base runner hits him at midship like a torpedo. For that he has the respect of ballplayers everywhere. They know they don’t make catchers like Freehan anymore.”
White Sox manager Eddie Stanky added, “On any close play at the plate, it’s like running into a freight train.”
The Tigers did not offer Freehan a contract for the 1977 season. Unceremoniously, Bill Freehan retired at age 34 with a career .262 batting average, a .340 on base percentage and 200 home runs. Freehan went to work full-time at Freehan-Bocci & Company, an automobile manufacturer’s representative agency he founded in suburban Detroit in 1974, working with former teammate Jim Northrup. In 1990 Freehan became the head coach of the Michigan baseball program for six seasons.
As anyone who ever saw Freehan play, they will tell you he played the game hard and played it right. After offense, if defense and leadership are truly qualifiers for baseball immortality, then Freehan should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is not.
Bill Freehan’s survivors include his wife Pat and their three children, Corey, Kelley and Cathy, their spouses and several grandchildren.