Bill Freehan is arguably the greatest catcher Michigan has ever had. Freehan came to Michigan in 1959, choosing the Maize and Blue over then baseball power Western Michigan because UM also offered him a football scholarship. Freehan had actually wanted to go to Notre Dame, but they too wouldn’t allow him to be a two sport athlete.
It worked out well for Freehan and Michigan. His sophomore season saw Michigan win the College World Series over Santa Barbara University. In his junior campaign (’61), Freehan hit for a .585 average, which is still the BigTen record for a season. It’s such a ridiculous record that the closest anyone has ever gotten was Randy Wolfe (UM ’85) at .514. Three other players have finished with .500 averages (including Scott Weaver, UM ’95 and Scott Erdmann, UM ’85).
I think its safe to assume Freehan’s record will probably stay intact for a long, long time. Bill lead the league that year with 18 RBIs as well, winning him All-BigTen honors. That season is the origin of the University of Michigan Bill Freehan Award, given to the team’s top hitter each season. One of his mother’s favorite facts about Bill was he once caught a triple header against rivals Michigan State. He caught the morning, afternoon, and evening game, but still had the energy to go dancing that night.
That season brought all the teams calling to Bill’s father’s front door. This being the pre-draft era, teams lined up at the front door and offered signing bonuses of unreal magnitude in the 60s. Bill claimed offers up to $150,000 dollars just to sign with a team. To put that in prospective, minor leaguers only made about $6,000 a year salary. Bill ended up signing with the Tigers, but he did managed to earn his degree from UM by taking classes in the fall. Bill’s father made sure the education was the first thing on his son’s mind (from a Baseball Digest Interview):
“The deal with my father was I would never see a dime of my bonus money until I got my college degree. That forced me to live in the YMCA with the rest of the guys and live off the meal money they paid all of us. That was motivational.”
Now if that was only the case for today’s athletes? Freehan went on to play with the Tigers, getting called up almost immediately. He spent the pennant stretch of September that year getting a chance to pinch run or hit here or there. The Tigers were in a battle with the Yankees (this was the season of 61 homers for Maris and 54 for Mantle) for the AL East championship and the management was in no rush to throw a kid out into the fire too soon. Freehan was sent back down to start the ’62 season, but was named the Tigers starter in ’63. Did he ever start the season hot. During one stretch of fifteen plate appearances, he went 9/9 with 3 homers,a triple, 3 doubles, 2 singles, and a 3 set of walks. While that pace certainly didn’t last, but he did solidify his place in Detroit’s lineup.
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Bill would spend the next 13 seasons as the Tigers’ backstop. He made 11 all start teams and won the World Series of 1968. The pitching staff in his early career were all young guys, but all raved about how Freehan gave the them confidence. He called a great game. He was the team leader and the team – the city – knew it. Freehan would go on to play with the Tigers through the 1976 season, posting a career .261 batting average and 200 home runs.
While still playing, Bill would release a book, Behind the mask: An inside baseball diary, offering an in depth look at baseball players lives. Fans didn’t like to think about the players in the way he wrote about them and booed Freehan for a few months, but Bill silenced them by having a great 1971.
He would then start working at his own manufacturer’s representative agency, acting as a salesman. He took on a new job in 1990, the head coach of the University of Michigan baseball team. He returned to Ann Arbor just as the program was entering probation for NCAA violations under coach Bud Middaugh. The school had banned all scholarships for 2 years, post season play for 3 years, and off campus recruiting for the next school year. The program was crippled.
When I took this job, I was advised to expect the worst, andc this is the worst. I was looking to get in heaven or hell, and I am in hell. At least I’m not in limbo.” -Bill Freehan, via Spokane Chronicle February 20, 1990.
Bo chose Freehan for his phenomenal character and hard work to replace Middaugh, and Freehan did fairly well in his first few years given the restrictions. He stayed on at Michigan through the ’95 season when the team fell far short of expectations. Despite being picked to finish as high as 2nd in the BigTen, the team finished dead last. Freehan retired with a record of 166-167-1, the first ever Michigan coach to leave with a losing record. Along with this last place finish came the suspicion of more NCAA infractions. Freehan was accused of giving players free pizza as a reward and offering use of his sports car for exceptional performances. Freehan denied the rumor about the sports car (that it was just a joke), but did admit there might have been minor infractions here or there – nothing serious – and that pizza was occasionally provided for the team.
Since then, Bill has also worked with the Tigers organization as a catching instructor from 2002-2005. He now is retired and living in the southern suburbs of Detroit.
Bill Freehan at The Baseball Biography Project