Bill Freehan died Thursday. It wasn’t sudden. He suffered from dementia for several years. Bill Freehan was a champion–the starting catcher on the World Champion 1968 Detroit Tigers. I was just a kid growing up in New York in ’68. A damn Yankee fan, but I was a real happy kid when I opened my pack of Topps baseball cards and Bill Freehan’s big, beefy body filled the one hiding just under the stick of stale bubblegum. Man, he was a great backstop and I had a special affinity for them. Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, John Roseboro, Jerry Grote and Bill Freehan.
Maybe it’s because I’m a lefty and there are no lefty catchers because you need to be able to snap the ball over to first for a pitchout. In the Little League they stuck me in the outfield. When I volunteered to catch, the manager usually sneered, “Sitdown! You’re a damn lefty!”
But catchers were in every play. They ran the show. The great catchers were burly and tough and stuck their bodies between the plate and a guy barreling in from third to lay on the tag and watch the runner skulk off to the dugout when the umpire called them out.
Bill Freehan was like that and I admired him for not only being a catcher, but a great one. Yeah…even when he prevented a Yankee from scoring.
Who knew many years later as a reporter for CNN I’d have a chance to grab a brief moment with Freehan. It was the day the final game would be played at glorious Tiger Stadium. Oh, a bunch of ex-Tigers were there before the game to reminisce about their time at the old ballpark and how much it meant to them.
Damn! There was Bill Freehan shaking hands, hugging his old teammate Suddenly this wonderful player whom I only knew from his trading card and watching his All-Star performances on TV or in the stands was standing right in front of me. When I approached with our camera crew, would he put the body on me and sneer and act all catcher-y?
See for yourself. He comes in around 35 seconds in. This version is before it aired so the identifying supers aren’t there. You’ll hear Bill Freehan very briefly as the real person he was–kind, reflective, respectful. A righty catcher, giving this lefty a memorable moment. Lucky guy…you got to be a catcher. Lucky us. We got to watch.