At the October SABR Detroit Chapter meeting, following a great presentation by Mickey Lolich and Tom Gage on their new book, there was a pretty lively discussion about the rise and fall of the 1968 Tigers.
An interesting conversation that came out of that panel discussion was the importance of Bill Freehan to the team during that era, as well as his Hall of Fame credentials. Freehan’s name comes up a lot more in Hall of Fame discussions now that the old Veterans Committee has been replaced by committees specified to eras—which is important.
During the Golden Era (using the term based on the name of the Hall of Fame committee that deals with the time frame when Freehan played), Freehan was one of the most pivotal players and the most distinguished catcher.
Freeman was an 11-time AL All-Star during his 15-year career. Detroit fans have known this fact for a long time and it has been a main point in pushing for Freehan’s enshrinement. To be fair, All-Star Game selections do not mean as much to the Hall of Fame voters—nor should they—because of the subjectivity and popularity that goes into picking players for the Midsummer Classic.
But 11 All-Star Games is astonishing. Looking even closer, it is even more amazing. Freehan played 15 years, but only played four games his first season in 1961 and played 71 games in his final season in 1976. Disregard those two seasons, and the Tigers’ catcher made the All-Star team 11 of his 13 full seasons. Furthermore, he only had 345 plate appearances in 1963, so that was a little more than half a season.
Factoring this in, Freehan really made 11 All-Star teams in a 13-and-a-half-year period, making the 11 look even better. Clearly, he was the dominant catcher of his time.
Not counting banned players or Steroids Era players, most people considered the dominant player of their time at their position have made the Hall of Fame. There have been exceptions: Gil Hodges was the dominant first baseman of the 1950s and has come very close to making the Hall of Fame several occasions, but he is still on the outside looking in. Davey Concepcion was considered the dominant shortstop of the 1970s and is not in, remaining on the ballot for the full 15-year term, but not coming anywhere as near as Hodges. Some people now say Bert Campaneris was a better shortstop than Concepcion, especially based on new metrics, but he also is not in the Hall of Fame.
The third and final player widely considered the best of his time at his position is Freehan. In addition to the All-Star appearances, he won five Gold Glove awards and finished second in the 1968 MVP voting behind teammate Denny McLain and was third the year before when the Tigers lost the pennant on the last day of the ’67 season.
Freehan had a relatively short career, but not that short for a catcher. He hit 200 home runs and had an OPS+ of 112 in an era extremely light on offense as pitchers dominated the 1960s. So Freehan’s 1,591 hits, .262 batting average, 758 RBIs and .752 OPS don’t look particularly good, but it looks much better when one considers the era and the position he played.
Thanks to new metrics, Freehan is back in the conversation again. His WAR is 44.8, which is not sensational by any means; for a catcher, however, that places him 15th all-time. He is also ranked as the 14th-best catcher by way of Jay Jaffe and JAWS.
The only catchers ahead of Freehan who are not in the Hall of Fame are the just-retired Joe Mauer; Ted Simmons, who missed by one vote on the 2017 Modern Era ballot; Thurman Munson, who has been a finalist; and Gene Tenace, who is just slightly ranked ahead of Freehan.
One can make an easy Hall of Fame argument for Mauer and Simmons, and a strong one for Munson. Tenace is a WAR-based candidate who made one All-Star team (at first base). The Athletics’ 1972 World Series MVP made 40 percent of his starts at first base and played a handful of games at other positions aside from catcher, which is why Freehan ranks ahead for most.
It would not water the Hall of Fame down to have Simmons, Munson, and Freehan added. They rank just below the average Hall of Fame members at the position in regards to metrics, but clearly in a group that belongs.
Hall voters have struggled with catchers over the years aside from the immediate, easy choices like Johnny Bench, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza. Gary Carter ranks second in WAR among catchers and has strong traditional stats, yet it took him six ballots to make it.
Simmons retired as the all-time hits leader for catchers and had the second-most RBIs ever by a catcher. Only Rodriguez has since passed Simmons in hits, yet the Cardinals’ star received just 3.7 percent of the vote on his initial ballot: one-and-done.
Freeman’s fate was even worse. His only year on the ballot was in 1982, and he received just 0.5 percent of the vote—two measly votes. For reference, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were elected on the first ballot that year. That year’s ballot also included (in order of votes) Juan Marichal, Harmon Killebrew, Hoyt Wilhelm, Don Drysdale, Luis Aparicio, Jim Bunning, Red Schoendienst, Nellie Fox, Richie Ashburn, Billy Williams, Orlando Cepeda, and Bill Mazeroski. All would eventually be elected.
Yet Freehan also finished behind non-Hall of Famers Maury Wills, Roger Maris, Tony Oliva (though he has come close), Harvey Kuenn, Lew Burdette, Frank Howard, Don Larsen, Munson, Roy Face, Vada Pinson, Tommy Davis, Dave McNally, Rico Petrocelli and Lindy McDaniel.
It is clear that the various Cooperstown electorates have never known what to do with catchers. Bench, Rodriguez, Fisk, Piazza, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett, Roy Campanella, and Buck Ewing were easy choices. Carter should have been a little easier. Several catchers were elected really early in Hall of Fame history, though a lot of them were enshrined in the last 20 years.
There was a period from 1956–86 where only Berra and Campanella were elected, along with Josh Gibson from the Negro Leagues. Then Ernie Lombardi made it via the Veterans Committee, followed three years later by the writers electing Bench, which brings up another point.
Freehan’s candidacy, like that of Simmons, Munson, etc., suffers from Bench envy. Bench was so good that everyone else looked inferior. It is true that Bench was much better than the rest, but that does not make the others less qualified for the Hall of Fame. There are 18 catchers in the Hall of Fame and Freehan’s inclusion would not dilute anything. He is solidly in a group that belongs.
With 11 All-Star teams in 13 years, five Gold Gloves, 200 home runs in an era lacking offense, and with modern metrics to back up his place as the top catcher of his time, Freehan’s case continues to look better: it is just up to the voters to see that.
Also see Bill Freehan’s Hall of Fame Case: Part Two by Peter Hoyos.