#CardCorner: 1973 Topps Bill Freehan
Freehan’s exploits jump off the page, even if his traditional statistics do not. A .262 lifetime hitter over 15 big league seasons, Freeman played during an era where most catchers were expected to prioritize defense and leadership.
He succeeded in those roles so well that he earned All-Star Game selections in 11 seasons, more than any catcher not named Berra (15), Bench (14), Rodríguez (14) or Piazza (12).
Born eight days before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Freehan grew up in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak before moving with his family to St. Petersburg, Fla., when he was 14. But he would return to Detroit each summer to play sandlot ball and enrolled at the University of Michigan after graduating high school in 1959 – earning a scholarship to play both baseball and football.
By 1961, Freehan – only a sophomore – was one of the most celebrated players in the nation. He set a Big 10 record by hitting .585 for the conference champion Wolverines that year, demolishing the previous mark of .500 set by Purdue’s Bill Skowron.
On June 16, he signed with the Tigers for a bonus of $100,000.
Many newspapers reported that Freehan turned down more money from other teams, but Freehan apparently didn’t see his riches for several years – promising his father that he would not touch the money until he graduated from college.
“I picked Detroit because I think the Tigers have a sound organization,” Freehan said the day he signed his contract. “I’ve wanted to for Detroit for as long as I can remember.”
The Tigers sent Freehan to Duluth-Superior of the Class C Northern League, where he hit .343 before earning a promotion to Class A Knoxville. Under the rules of the day, Freehan – due to the size of his bonus – had to be put on the big league roster at the end of the season. He debuted in the big leagues on Sept. 26, 1961, going 2-for-4 against Kansas City before appearing in three more games before the end of the season.
Then in 1972, the Tigers returned to the postseason by winning the AL East title. Freehan hit .262 with 10 home runs and 56 RBI, earning his seventh consecutive start in the All-Star Game along the way. A fractured right thumb on Sept. 21 cost him the final two weeks of the season, but Freehan returned to the lineup in Game 3 of the ALCS vs. the Athletics, doubling and scoring in the fourth inning and homering in the ninth in Detroit’s 3-0 win to cut Oakland’s series lead to 2-games-to-1. Behind the plate, Freehan helped orchestrate Joe Coleman’s 14 strikeouts on the mound for the Tigers.
“I told myself before the game I was just going to try and make contact,” Freehan told UPI. “I didn’t know what to expect.
“We’ve gotten this far, and we could go all the way.”
Game 4 would once again find Freehan at the center of the action. With the score tied at 1 in the eighth inning, Freehan missed a suicide squeeze attempt, resulting in Dick McAuliffe being thrown out at home plate. But in the bottom of the 10th, Freehan came to the plate with the bases loaded and no outs with Oakland holding a 3-1 lead. Freehan grounded to third, and A’s third baseman Sal Bando attempted to start a 5-4-3 double play. But catcher Gene Tenace was playing second base for the A’s – a result of Oakland’s ongoing tactic to pinch hit for its second basemen whenever they came to the plate – and Tenace missed the catch, allowing McAuliffe to score and reloading the bases.
A Norm Cash walk tied the game, and Jim Northrup – the hero from the 1968 World Series – followed with a single that scored Gates Brown to win the game.
“About that time,” Freehan said of his at-bat in the 10th inning, “I figured I had the chance to redeem myself.”
The next day, Freehan gave the Tigers an early lead with an RBI groundout in the first inning, but Oakland rallied for a 2-1 win to advance to the World Series. The Athletics’ first run of the game came in the second inning when Reggie Jackson stole home on the back end of a double steal, with Freehan rifling the ball to second base before Jackson slid home just ahead of the return throw.
Jackson injured his left hamstring while colliding with Freehan at the plate, ending his season. But the run proved crucial in a game the A’s won when George Hendrick – who replaced Jackson in the lineup – scored on a Tenace single in the fourth inning.
“You can’t hold the ball. That’s for Little Leaguers,” Freehan told the Associated Press. “It was early in the game and you’ve got to throw. He was safe by just inches, but that’s the way it goes.”
Tigers manager Billy Martin platooned Freehan for much of the 1973 season, and Freehan totaled career lows in homers (six) and RBI (29) in 110 games. But new manager Ralph Houk made Freehan the starter again in 1974, and Freehan hit .297 with 18 homers and 60 RBI.
The Tigers, however, were looking to get younger after their 72-90 season, and arranged to trade Freehan, Mickey Stanley and Bill Slayback to the Phillies in exchange for catcher Bob Boone. Tigers general manager Jim Campbell even called Freehan to get his permission for the deal – as a player with 10 years in the big leagues and the last five with the same team he could have vetoed the trade – but the Phillies pulled the plug on the deal at the last minute.
“As long as I’ve been in baseball, I’ve never been through anything like this,” Houk told the AP. “Let’s face it: The player we wanted was Boone and they suddenly wouldn’t give him up.”
Back as the Tigers’ starter in 1975, Freehan hit .246 with 14 homers and 47 RBI. But when Detroit traded for Milt May after the season, it became apparent that Freehan’s time in Detroit was ending. He appeared in just 71 games in 1976, then was given his release on Dec. 12, ending his career.
Freehan ran his own business in the automotive industry after retiring and later broadcast games for the Mariners and the Tigers. From 1989-95, he returned to the University of Michigan to serve as the Wolverines head baseball coach, compiling a 166-167-1 record over six years.
In 15 big league seasons, Freehan hit .262 with 1,591 hits, 200 home runs and 758 RBI. His .993 fielding percentage was the best ever at the time of his retirement, and he remains a part of Tigers lore as the field general of the 1968 World Series champions.
“It was the fulfillment of a lot of dreams,” Freehan said of the World Series title. “To experience it, to feel that honest emotion, there’ll never be anything like it again.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum