Bill Freehan, an 11-time All-Star catcher with the Detroit Tigers in the 1960s and 1970s, has passed away at 79.
He was the premier catcher of the Second Dead Ball Era, which ran from about 1964 to 1972, and was one of the best of his generation.
The 15-year veteran slugged 200 home runs, including 20 or more in a season three times, and ranked second behind only Johnny Bench among catchers of the 1960s and 1970s in that category.
Indeed, it is difficult to think of a better backstop not named Bench from that two-decade span. Ted Simmons was excellent and so was Gene Tenace. Tim McCarver could hold his own and even Jim Sundberg was beginning to make a name for himself.
But none of them, save for Bench, matched Freehan.
The voters knew it. They selected him to 11 All-Star Games, including 10 in a row, among the most of any player not in the Hall of Fame. And the writers, they were privy to his greatness. They awarded him five Gold Gloves for his defensive acumen—and they were well-earned. He led league catchers in putouts six times and fielding percentage thrice.
At the time of his retirement, he ranked among catching greats—legends, even—in almost all statistical categories. He was just two behind Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey in home runs and was a full ten ahead of Cooperstowner Ernie Lombardi. He ranked just behind Mickey Cochrane in total hits and just ahead of Roy Campanella in walks.
But he wasn’t just great in aggregate.
There was the 1968 World Series. Freehan didn’t contribute much in the actual Fall Classic—just 2 hits and 4 walks—but his regular season propelled them to that point.
Behind Willie Horton, he was the team’s superstar. His 25 dingers tied for second on the club, as did his 24 doubles. He had 84 RBI—good for second on the team—and his .366 on-base percentage finished behind only Al Kaline’s .392.
A few years later, Freehan helped the Tigers to the American League Championship Series. Though the 30-year-old played just 111 games that year, his presence was felt in the postseason. It was a losing effort against the Yankees, but Number 11 did his part. He slugged a home run and knocked a double. He had 3 RBI.
As the seasons passed, wearing the tools of ignorance began to take its toll. Few did it as long as he did. His offense began to slip and, despite still showing flashes of his former greatness, he retired after the 1976 season.
But the voters gave him hardly a look.
Perhaps they can be forgiven. In his only year on the ballot, 1982, he was competing with 14 future Hall of Famers for votes. They included Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew. Juan Marichal and Don Drysdale ranked among them, too. And don’t forget the players who never made the Hall, like Gil Hodges, who were garnering significant support, as well. It’s easy to be crowded out in such a field.
But what cannot be forgiven is the cold shoulder the writers gave Freehan. He didn’t earn a handful of votes and another look in 1983. Rather, he appeared on just a couple ballots, less than one percent of the total, and was swept into the dustbin of history.
This catcher who made more All-Star Games than Torre, Lombardi and Simmons, Hall of Famers all, this catcher who won more Gold Gloves than Carter and Piazza and Fisk was given a couple pity votes and then shooed away.
It’s an injustice.
But one, perhaps, that might soon be corrected. The Hall of Fame has a knack for inducting individuals only after they pass away. It happened to Ron Santo. It happened to Marvin Miller, Nellie Fox and Leo Durocher.
And for the sake of all that is holy,
It’d better happen to Bill Freehan, as well.