SI Vault
Detroit Tigers catcher Bill Freehan
Ron Fimrite
July 28, 1997
APRIL 14, 1969
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 28, 1997

Detroit Tigers Catcher Bill Freehan

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

APRIL 14, 1969

It wasn't mere capriciousness that impelled us to depict Bill Freehan in star-spangled chest protector, shin guards and mitt on the above cover. Garish though his getup may have been, it was appropriate. Freehan was an All-Star 11 times during his 15-year career with the Detroit Tigers, as well as a Gold Glove winner five straight times. During the Tigers' championship season of 1968, he caught 155 of their 162 regular-season games and all seven in their World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. He hit 25 home runs that year and set an American League record, since broken, of being hit by pitches 24 times. Says Freehan, "Nobody ever said a catcher had to be smart or quick on his feet."

Freehan, who was born in Detroit, is one of those rare American sports figures who played his entire career for his hometown team. The Tigers signed him in 1961, following his sophomore year at Michigan. Freehan played tight end for the Wolverines and batted a Big Ten-record .585 as a sophomore. Detroit teammates took to calling him Big Ten Billy because of the collegiate enthusiasm he brought to pro baseball. Freehan continued to attend classes at Michigan in the off-season until he earned a bachelor's degree in history in '66.

In a roundabout way he would return to campus again after retiring from baseball in 1976. During the summer of '89 Freehan, then a successful Detroit businessman, called Wolverines athletic director Bo Schembechler to inquire about the troubled state of what had been a tremendously successful baseball program (six Big Ten championships in the 1980s). An NCAA investigation had just uncovered illegal payments to players—Michigan would be put on two years' probation—and coach Bud Middaugh had resigned. "I was trying to find out what was going on," says Freehan. "Two weeks later I was the coach."

He took time off as president of Freehan-Bocci & Co. Inc., a manufacturers' representative agency, to "put the program on honest footing," finishing six years later with a 166-167-1 record. Today Freehan and his wife, Pat, live in the suburban Bloomfield Hills house they've had for 27 years. Neighbors include Tigers teammates Gates Brown, Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich and Mickey Stanley. "We never made the big salaries," says Freehan, now 55. "Most of us did better financially after baseball. Detroit has been good to us. We made our homes here, stayed loyal to the community. That's the way it should be."