Bill Freehan, the 11-time All-Star catcher who led the Detroit Tigers’ brilliant pitching duo of Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain when the Tigers defeated the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1968 World Series Championship, died Thursday at his home in the village of Lake Wallonia in northern Michigan. He was 79.
His death was announced by the Tigers. His wife, Pat, revealed in 2018 that he had dementia and that he had been in hospice.
Born in Detroit, Freehan spent his entire 15-year Major League career with the Tigers. They signed him for a $125,000 bonus in 1961 from the University of Michigan, where he caught for the baseball team and also played soccer. He made his debut with the Tigers in September 1961, was assigned to their minor league system and was a lasting centerpiece for Detroit from 1963 to 1976.
Freehan finished third in voting for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1967 when he hit 20 home runs and batted in 75 runs for a Tigers team that, along with the Minnesota Twins, finished one game behind the pennant-winning Boston Red Sox .
In the 1968 MVP vote, Freehan was the runner-up to McLain, who won 31 games in the regular season. Freehan hit 25 home runs that year and drove 84 runs.
“Bill was our leader and we had a lot of independent guys, but he made sure everyone got involved,” McLain told The Detroit Free Press after Freehan’s death. He said Tigers pitchers “had to throw the ball from the same position every time, and he knew if you were gone and could then keep you in one spot.”
Freehan, he added, “made the most of a pitcher you could get.”
Freehan won the American League Gold Glove Award for catchers every season from 1965 to 1969. He caught all 15 innings in the American League’s 2-1 loss to the National League in the 1967 All-Star Game.
He was best remembered for a key play in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, when the Tigers trailed the Cardinals by three games to one. Lou Brock of the Cardinals tried to score from second base on a single in the fifth inning with St. Louis leading 3-2.
Freehan, 6 feet 3 inches tall and 200 pounds, held out. He picked up a superb throw from leftfielder Willie Horton, blocked home plate, leaned over and tapped Brock, who had entered standing.
“I expected him to slide, and when he didn’t, his foot left traces in the earth about an inch from the plate,” Freehan said after the game.
Brock insisted he had touched the record before the tag was applied, but this was long before it was immediately replayed.
The Tigers, with a lineup that also included future Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, rallied for a 5-3 win in Game 5 and then captured the last two games of the World Series.
Freehan caught a pop-up error from Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver before the final of Game 7 and ran to the mound to celebrate with Lolich, who had landed his third full game win of the Series. McLain was 1-2.
The encounter between Freehan and Brock at home plate and the joy on pitching mound were captured in photos that Tigers fans have endured for a long time.
William Ashley Freehan was born on November 29, 1941 in Detroit, the son of Ashley and Helen Morris Freehan. His father was a sales representative for a company that installed insulation.
He grew up in the Detroit suburbs of Royal Oak, but his family moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, when he was a teenager and he attended high school there. He set a Big Ten baseball record that still stands when he hit .585 for Michigan in 1961; he also played tight end for the soccer team.
He continued to take classes through his baseball off-seasons and received a bachelor’s degree from the Dearborn branch of the University of Michigan in 1966.
Freehan retired from baseball with 1,591 career hits, 200 home runs and a .262 batting average. He caught 1,581 games for the Tigers and played first base occasionally.
He later coached the Michigan baseball team from 1990 to 1995 and was a coach and catching instructor in the Tigers’ organization and a color commentator for Tigers and Seattle Mariners games.
In addition to his wife, Patricia O’Brien Freehan, his three daughters, Corey, Kelley and Cathy, and several grandchildren are among his survivors.
“We started out as rookies and developed the same spirit,” Lolich told The Free Press on Thursday. “He knew what I wanted to throw and I rarely had to shake his plate. We became one in spirit by working together.
“He was our leader on the field and caught almost every day. His mind was always with the game.”