Legendary Tigers catcher Freehan dies at 79

August 19th, 2021

DETROIT -- Bill Freehan, an 11-time All-Star catcher who was a cornerstone of the Tigers’ 1968 World Series championship team, passed away Thursday at age 79.

“It’s with a heavy heart that all of us with the Detroit Tigers extend our condolences to the friends and family of Bill Freehan,” the Tigers said in a statement. “An all-time great Tiger, the Olde English ‘D’ was the only logo he wore over his 15-year Major League career, during which he was named to 11 All-Star teams, won five straight Gold Glove Awards and played a key role on the 1968 World Series Championship team. Off the diamond, Freehan made a positive impact in the southeast Michigan community, including as a player and then coach at the University of Michigan, where he changed the lives of many for the better. Our thoughts are with Bill’s wife, Pat, and the entire Freehan family.”

Freehan’s death came after a lengthy battle with dementia. His wife, Pat, took care of him at home with help from hospice care, a labor of love she detailed a few years ago. What the condition took away from Freehan’s memory, those who followed and admired him will never forget.

Though Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich were the stars of the 1968 Tigers, Freehan was arguably the team’s heart and soul.

“He was consistently, in my opinion, the best player I played with for a long period of time,” Kaline said in 2018 as he prepared for the 50th anniversary of the 1968 team. “There were some guys that had better years than him, but I’m talking about a long period of time. His name is not mentioned, and his name should be out there on the wall, in my opinion.”

Freehan was also about as Michigan as a Tiger could get. Born in Detroit and raised in Royal Oak, Freehan was a two-sport student-athlete at the University of Michigan before the Tigers signed him for a $125,000 bonus in 1961. Two years later, he was behind the plate in Detroit, home for his entire 15-year Major League career.

“Arguably the best catcher in the history of the organization, and deep Michigan roots,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said Thursday morning. “I had a chance to meet him. [Pitching coach] Chris Fetter actually coached his grandson at the University of Michigan. Anybody that’s been around the organization a long time has a heavy heart today. Obviously a true Tiger.”

Freehan was a .300 hitter and an All-Star as a 22-year-old in 1964, and began a run of five consecutive Gold Glove Awards the following year. His offense blossomed along with the team around him. He hit 20 home runs to go with 74 RBIs in '67, when the Tigers took the American League pennant race to the season’s finale day, and 25 homers with 84 RBIs during the Tigers’ run to destiny in '68. More impressive, he led the team in games played in both seasons.

"Bill Freehan was one of the greatest men I’ve ever played alongside, or had the pleasure of knowing," said Horton, a lifelong friend, in a statement released by the team. "I’ll always cherish our childhood memories together and our journey from sandlot baseball to Tiger Stadium.

"His entire Major League career was committed to the Tigers and the City of Detroit, and he was one of the most respected and talented members of the organization through some difficult yet important times throughout the 1960s and '70s. You’d be hard-pressed to find another athlete that had a bigger impact on his community over the course of his life than Bill, who will be sorely missed in Detroit and beyond."

Though McLain was a unanimous choice for AL MVP on the strength of his 31 wins in 1968, Freehan finished second in voting after placing third the year before. He was on the receiving end when Horton famously threw out Lou Brock at home plate in Game 5, and caught the popout Lolich induced from Tim McCarver to close out Game 7 before Lolich leapt into his arms.

“Great catcher,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “I was a big Cardinal fan growing up, and Brock did not slide at home plate."

Freehan caught 1,581 games in a Tigers uniform, more than 500 more than anyone else in franchise history. His five Gold Gloves rank fifth among catchers in Major League history and second only to Kaline for Detroit players at any position. His 10,714 chances, 9,941 putouts and .993 fielding percentage topped the all-time list for Major League catchers when he retired.

“The last thing I’m going to do before I check out of here is get him in the Hall of Fame,” McLain said during the Tigers’ 1968 reunion in September 2018. “Nobody played the game better. Nobody was more in the game. Nobody.”

After a head coaching stint back at Michigan, Freehan rejoined the Tigers as a catching instructor from 2002-05 before retiring to his home in suburban Detroit.

“He was around quite a bit, and in Spring Training he’d be there the whole time,” said Avila, who joined the Tigers' front office in 2002. “And one of the things I took away from when I first got to know him was that he was like a guardian of the Detroit Tigers. He was about making sure that the Detroit Tigers were good, were solid as far as the people that worked within the system.

“He was like a father figure, like Kaline was. These guys of that era, they looked upon the organization as their home, their people, and he wanted to make sure that everybody was taken care of, and whoever came in was worthy of the English D.”

Freehan's condition kept him out of the public spotlight over the past several years, but his wife attended the 1968 reunion. Their grandson, Blaise Salter, was a Tigers Draft pick in 2015 and a first baseman in the farm system until he retired in '18.

“It’s been a good, wonderful, beautiful, blessed life,” Pat Freehan said during the reunion luncheon. “We’re very fortunate.”