Bill Freehan dies at age 79 after long battle with dementia

Bill Freehan, catcher for 1968 World Series champion Detroit Tigers, dies at 79

Bill Freehan, an 11-time all-star catcher with the Detroit Tigers and key player on the 1968 World Series championship team, died Aug. 19. He was 79.

The Tigers announced the death. The cause of death was not disclosed, but family members in recent years have publicly said that Freehan had Alzheimer’s disease.

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 is best remembered for that 1968 season, in which he caught 155 regular-season games — including nearly all of Denny McLain’s 31 victories —  before handling World Series MVP Mickey Lolich’s three complete-game victories in the Fall Classic. As the runner-up to McLain for the American League MVP award that year, Freehan posted career highs in home runs (25), RBIs (84) and runs scored (73).

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. 

“He often kidded me about the famous picture of me jumping into his arms when we won the ’68 World Series,” Lolich said Thursday. “He said, ‘it’s the most famous picture taken of me and you have my number up with your arms. Nobody knows who I am.’

“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,” the team said in a released statement Thursday morning.

“It’s amazing how long Bill hung on. God bless him. Now we have to lay him to rest,” Lolich said Thursday. “… We started out as rookies and developed the same mind. I basically called my own game and after awhile Bill was right with me. He knew what I wanted to throw and I rarely had to shake off his sign. We became one mind working together.

“… He was our leader on the field and caught nearly every day. His mind was always in the game.”

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