Bill Freehan, a skilled a defensive catcher and 11-time All-Star for his hometown Detroit Tigers, has died at the age of 79. According to the Detroit Free Press, Freehan had been battling Alzheimer's Disease.
The club announced his death on Thursday and also released the following statement:
It's with a heavy heart that all of us with the Detroit Tigers extend our condolences to the friends and family of Bill Freehan. An all-time great Tiger, the Olde English 'D' was the only logo he wore over his 15-year Major League career, during which he was named to 11 All-Star teams, won five-straight Gold Glove awards and played a key role on the 1968 World Series Championship team. Off the diamond, Freehan made a positive impact in the southeast Michigan community, including as a player and then coach at the University of Michigan, where he changed the lives of many for the better. Our thoughts are with Bill's wife, Pat, and the entire Freehan family.
Willie Horton, one of Freehan's teammates on several Tigers teams, including the 1968 championship team, released the following statement through the club:
Bill Freehan was one of the greatest men I've ever played alongside, or had the pleasure of knowing. I'll always cherish our childhood memories together and our journey from sandlot baseball to Tiger Stadium. His entire Major League career was committed to the Tigers and the city of Detroit, and he was one of the most respected and talented members of the organization through some difficult yet important times throughout the 1960s and 70s. You'd be hard-pressed to find another athlete that had a bigger impact on his community over the course of his life than Bill, who will be sorely missed in Detroit and beyond.
Born in Detroit in 1941 and educated at the University of Michigan, where he played baseball and football, Freehan signed with the Tigers in 1961. He appeared briefly in the majors that same season and by 1963 he'd settled in as the Tigers' primary catcher at age 21. He made his first of those 11 All-Star appearances in 1964, and as a 23-year-old in 1965 he won his first of five Gold Glove awards behind the plate.
Freehan, though, was no mere "catch and throw" backstop. Across parts of 15 big league seasons, Freehan put up a 112 OPS+ at the plate -- a high level of production by positional standards -- and hit exactly 200 home runs despite playing through the heart of the second deadball era of the 1960s. In 1968, Freehan hit 25 of those home runs while spending almost 1,200 defensive innings at catcher and as a result finished second to teammate Denny McLain in the AL MVP balloting. He also finished third in the vote in 1967.
Freehan famously caught Tim McCarver's pop foul to end Game 7 of the 1968 World Series and ensure the Tigers' first title since 1945:
For nine consecutive seasons, Freehan caught at least 100 games for the Tigers, which made him one of the most durable catchers in baseball, as well as one of the best of his era. At the time of his retirement, Freehan held the MLB career records for most chances (10,714) and putouts (9,941), and highest fielding percentage for a catcher (.993). In 1982, he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after only one year.
Freehan retired following the 1976 season and years later served as the head baseball coach at his alma mater of Michigan. During Freehan's tenure as Michigan coach, future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter signed a letter of intent to play for him but wound up forgoing college to sign with the Yankees.