As Major League Baseball begins its post-season, let us pause and remember the late, great Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers, who died this past August 19: a Catholic gentleman and a great ballplayer. If I say that Bill Freehan was the Motown equivalent of Brooks Robinson, please understand that as the highest tribute a native Baltimorean could pay to a ballplayer and a man.
After growing up in Detroit, Freehan played baseball and football at the University of Michigan before signing with his hometown Tigers for a $100,000 bonus (which his father didn’t let him have until he’d finished his degree). After a year in the minors, Bill Freehan arrived in the majors to stay in 1962, and for the next fifteen years was the premier catcher in the American League, elected to eleven All-Star teams and winning five consecutive Gold Glove awards. His career as a hitter was no less impressive: 1,591 hits, including 241 doubles, 200 home runs, and 758 runs batted in.
Freehan led the Tigers through an epic 1968 season in which he guided pitchers Denny McLain (who notched thirty-one wins that year) and seventeen-game winner Mickey Lolich; Bill finished second behind McLain in the American League Most Valuable Player voting. Then came the World Series, which pivoted on Game Five, when the St. Louis Cardinals were ahead three games to one and looking to close things out. In the fifth inning, the Series earned its nickname as the “fall classic.” With the Cards leading 3-2 and one man out, future Hall of Famer Lou Brock doubled. Then Julian Javier singled and the speedy Brock flew around third, trying to score. Tiger left-fielder Willie Horton made a terrific throw; Freehan blocked the plate with his foot, tagged Brock out, and held onto the ball even though Brock barreled into him while careening into home standing up. The game and the Series were never the same; the Tigers rallied to win with a three-run seventh inning and then took the next two contests, beating the fearsome Bob Gibson in Game Seven. That bang-bang play at the plate was arguably the greatest moment of Bill Freehan’s sterling career.
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