Bill Freehan’s Hall of Fame Case (Part Two)

The purpose of the National Baseball Hall of Fame is to promote the legends and lore of Major League Baseball.  Baseball honors its greatest players with induction into the Hall and contemplate not only their statistical achievements, but also their character and their contributions to the world’s greatest game.

“Hall of Fame voting is based upon the player’s record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which he played.” [1]

There are three Tigers players who were overlooked initially by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) and, later, by the various Veterans Committees: three players with excellent career statistics and fine character. Each was vitally important to the Detroit Baseball Club, and all were outstanding contributors to the lore and legends of organized baseball.

Those three overlooked Tigers are Bill Freehan, Mickey Lolich, and Lou Whitaker. Here is the case for Bill Freehan. [Editor’s note: A discussion of Lolich’s and Whitaker’s cases for the Hall of Fame will be featured in future editions of The Catcher’s Mitt.]

Quiet leadership, strength of character, and commitment to excellence are the qualities that best describe Bill Freehan, one of baseball’s greatest catchers.  Along with Al Kaline, it was Freehan who provided the Tigers with leadership and stability for 15 years. Both played their entire careers for in Detroit.

Recalling the Tigers of the 1960s, Hall of Fame third baseman George Kell wrote, “Bill Freehan was the leader of the team.  Kaline was the best player, but Freehan sort of took charge of the leadership. . . . Bill just gave everyone the feeling that everything was under control when he was on the field.  That’s critical to a winning team.” [2]

Of Detroit’s top 24 players ranked by career WAR, Bill Freehan is the only catcher.  His career WAR of 44.8 places him 18th on the list.  Freehan caught 1,581 games for the Tigers, more than any catcher.  Rudy York is ranked twenty-fourth all-time, but York was predominately a first baseman and caught only 239 games.  Lance Parrish did not make the top 24.  His WAR in 10 seasons with the Tigers was 30.1.

Ivan Rodriguez and Mickey Cochrane are two Hall of Fame catchers who played in Detroit.  Rodríguez, who spent the bulk of his career with the Texas Rangers, posted a 68.7 WAR, but he played only five seasons in Detroit (14.5 WAR for those years).   Mickey Cochrane, whose greatest years were with the Philadelphia A’s, has a career WAR of 52.1.  However, “Black Mike” played only played only four seasons for the Tigers (with an 11.4 WAR).

Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric ranks Freehan as the 14th-best catcher in baseball history with 39.2 points. [3]  Of the top 15 catchers on Jaffe’s list, six (including Freehan) are not in the Hall: Joe Mauer (9th), Ted Simmons (10th), Thurman Munson (12th), Gene Tenace (13th), and Buster Posey (15th). [4] Mauer and Posey are obviously not eligible yet, but I believe that all six of these catchers belong in Cooperstown.

In the 1970s Freehan, Simmons, Munson, and Tenace were overshadowed by Johnny Bench (1st on Jaffe’s list), Gary Carter (2nd), and Carlton Fisk (4th).  Before Bench arrived in 1968, the best National League catchers in the 1960s were Smokey Burgess (30th), Del Crandall (37th), Tom Haller (38th), and Tim McCarver (45th).  The sensational abilities of Bench, Carter, and Fisk do not diminish the exemplary qualifications of Freehan, Simmons, Munson, and Tenace for the Hall. [5]

In the second tier of 15 catchers as ranked by JAWS, the Hall of Famers are Buck Ewing (16th), Ernie Lombardi (18th), Roger Bresnahan (22nd), and Roy Campanella (27th).  Between Bresnahan and Campanella are two non-Hall of Fame catchers of significance: Yadier Molina (26th), who will probably be inducted into the Hall of Fame after he retires, and Lance Parrish (25th), who will not.

Defense was Freehan’s strength, and he won five Gold Glove awards from 1965–1969.  His career defensive WAR is 12, good for fifth among Tigers, behind only slick-fielding infielders Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Brandon Inge and Billy Rogell.  For 11 seasons in the American League, Freehan was a top-five catcher in fielding percentage.  He was among the top five catchers in the American League for nine seasons in Range Factor per nine innings and a top-five catcher in Range Factor per game for 12 incredible seasons.

Freehan also provided power at the plate, ranking 10th among Tigers hitters with 200 career home runs and 21st among all catchers.  Freehan posted three 20-home run seasons, is 8th among Tigers in sacrifice flies with 48, and his power and RBI numbers were good for his light-hitting era.

Like teammate Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan is forever remembered as one of the ’68 Tigers.  He started more games (155) than any other Detroit player that season, catching MLB’s last 30-game winner.  Although he did not hit well in the World Series, he caught seven complete games.  Freehan was involved in the critical defensive play in Game 5 of the Series when he caught Willie Horton’s throw from left field, blocked home plate, and tagged out Lou Brock.

In 1972 Freehan suffered a broken thumb on a play at the plate against Carl Yastrzemski and the Red Sox on September 21, but still came back to play less than three weeks later in the final three games of the ALCS.  In that exciting series against the Oakland A’s, Freehan caught Joe Coleman’s 14-strikeout gem in Game 3, caught Detroit’s 10-inning win in Game 4, and caught the Tigers’ heartbreaking loss in Game 5.  In the final game, Freehan was involved in yet another exciting play at the plate when Reggie Jackson was injured sliding home with Oakland’s first run in the second inning.

Bill Freehan was the dominant American League catcher in the 1960s and early 1970s. [6] An 11-time All-Star, he was selected for 10-consecutive Midsummer Classics from 1964–1973, and he was the AL starting catcher seven times.

From 1966 through 1969, Freehan was a serious MVP candidate.  In 1967 he finished third behind Carl Yastrzemski and Harmon Killebrew in MVP votes.  In 1968 he finished second to Denny McLain.  He also received serious consideration in 1964, finishing seventh, with honorable recognition in 1969 and 1972.

Freehan was a quintessential Tiger.  The Veterans Committee should reconsider his case. It is undeniable that Freehan was a premier ballplayers in his time and an outstanding ambassador of baseball. He exemplified the virtues of ability, integrity, sportsmanship, and character. He affected pennant races, postseason play, and contributed mightily to the legends and lore of the game.  Whether one is a “Small Hall” or “Large Hall” advocate, he is an exceptional candidate for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Also see Bill Freehan’s Hall of Fame Case: Part One by Dan D’Addona.

This article originally appeared in The Catcher’s Mitt from SABR Detroit. Used by permission of SABR Detroit. 

Primary Resources

The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe. St. Martin’s Press (2017).

What Happened to the Hall of Fame? by Bill James. First Fireside edition, Simon & Shuster (1995).

SABR Bio Project biography of Bill Freehan, by Trey Strecker.

https//www.baseball-reference.com.

Notes

[1] Taken from the HOF guidelines for voting and cited in The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe, St. Martin’s Press (2017), p 22.

[2] Hello Everybody I’m George Kell, by George Kell, Sports Publishing (1998), The Year of the Tiger, p134.

[3] The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe, St. Martin’s Press (2017), p126-127.

[4] Buster Posey will pass Bill Freehan after the 2019 season, and Joe Mauer retired after the 2018 season.  The Hall-of-Fame catchers in the top 15 are Johnny Bench (#1), Gary Carter (#2), Ivan Rodriguez (#3), Carlton Fisk (#4), Mike Piazza (#5), Yogi Berra (#6), Bill Dickey (#8), Mickey Cochrane (9), and Gabby Hartnett (#11).  See https//www.baseball-reference.com, Catcher JAWS Leaders.

[5] The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe, St. Martin’s Press (2017), Catchers, p107-127.

[6] Motor City Bengals, Detroit Tigers: Bill Freehan should be in the Hall of Fame, by Andy Patton, August 2018, motorcitybengals.com.

 

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