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A Catholic gentleman behind the plate

If I say that Bill Freehan was the Motown equivalent of Brooks Robinson, please understand that as the highest tribute a native Baltimorean could pay to a ballplayer and a man.

As Major League Baseball begins its post-season, let us pause and remember the late, great Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers, who died this past August 19: a Catholic gentleman and a great ballplayer. If I say that Bill Freehan was the Motown equivalent of Brooks Robinson, please understand that as the highest tribute a native Baltimorean could pay to a ballplayer and a man.

After growing up in Detroit, Freehan played baseball and football at the University of Michigan before signing with his hometown Tigers for a $100,000 bonus (which his father didn’t let him have until he’d finished his degree). After a year in the minors, Bill Freehan arrived in the majors to stay in 1962, and for the next 15 years was the premier catcher in the American League, elected to eleven All-Star teams and winning five consecutive Gold Glove awards. His career as a hitter was no less impressive: 1,591 hits, including 241 doubles, 200 home runs, and 758 runs batted in.

Freehan led the Tigers through an epic 1968 season in which he guided pitchers Denny McLain (who notched 31 wins that year) and 17-game winner Mickey Lolich; Bill finished second behind McLain in the American League Most Valuable Player voting. Then came the World Series, which pivoted on Game Five, when the St. Louis Cardinals were ahead three games to one and looking to close things out. In the fifth inning, the Series earned its nickname as the “fall classic. With the Cards leading 3-2 and one man out, future Hall of Famer Lou Brock doubled. Then Julian Javier singled and the speedy Brock flew around third, trying to score. Tiger left fielder Willie Horton made a terrific throw; Freehan blocked the plate with his foot, tagged Brock out, and held onto the ball even though Brock barreled into him while careening into home standing up.

The game and the Series were never the same; the Tigers rallied to win with a three-run seventh inning and then took the next two contests, beating the fearsome Bob Gibson in Game Seven. That bang-bang play at the plate was arguably the greatest moment of Bill Freehan’s sterling career.

I met him once or twice in the narthex of St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Bethesda, Maryland, where his daughter Cathy Jo and I are parishioners. We spoke of baseball in the 60s and 70s, and while the dementia that eventually killed him had begun its wicked work, Bill was the essence of graciousness, telling me how much he’d enjoyed playing against my adolescent heroes, the aforementioned Brooks Robinson and the immortal Frank Robinson. Why were those games so great, I asked? Because the terrific Orioles of their dynasty years played hard but clean, he responded. In describing my guys, the modest Bill Freehan was unintentionally painting a self-portrait.

He was married to Pat for 63 years and raised three daughters who loved him dearly — as did Detroit fans and the Tigers organization, which paid him a 15-minute pre-game tribute the night of his death. That abiding affection and esteem had more to do with his achievements on the diamond, however. It had to do with Bill Freehan as a man, and an exemplar of the kind of professional athlete to whom parents once directed their children as a role model.

Players of that caliber are in shorter supply today as professional sports, like politics, too often resembles performance art. The men I grew up admiring wouldn’t have been caught dead spiking a football in the endzone, or doing “the wave” with the fans in the stands while supposedly guarding third base, or self-presenting, hairstyle and tattoo-wise, like a character out ofRipley’s Believe It or Not. In their minds, and I dare say in Bill Freehan’s, demonstrated athletic excellence was complemented by a manly reticence about that excellence.

My heroes didn’t think of themselves as jocks, and certainly not as dumb jocks, but as men with dignity — a dignity that ought to be displayed on the field. One only wonders what today’s gazillionaire athletes, vastly talented as so many of them are, think of themselves as being or representing. One hopes that the most garish and outrageous of them find something in Bill Freehan’s example to emulate. They’ll be a lot happier in life for it.

They might also try adopting Bill Freehan’s deep Catholic faith. It sustained him through life and I’m confident that it brought him, on August 19, to the Hall of Fame that really counts.


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About George Weigel 357 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

7 Comments

  1. All true, Mr. Weigel.

    However you neglected to point out that the “fearsome” Bob Gibson actually set the record for low ERA in the modern era and was, thus, arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.

    Those Tigers hold a special place in my heart. They used to hold an annual banquet in support of Fr. Solanus’ soup kitchen at Detroit’s St. Bonaventure monastery. My father took me up one time in the early sixties.

    As part of the festivities, attendees were given a ball autographed by the entire team of starting Tigers.

    That was the first of hundreds of gifts that came from my resulting devotion to Fr. Casey.

    Thank you, Mr. Weigel, for the beautiful memories.

  2. Mr. Weigel, I grew up in Detroit and had much respect for Bill Freehan and his teammate, Al Kaline. A little baseball fact: Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich still hold the major league record for number of games together by a catcher/pitcher. As I recall, that 7th World Series game featured that same Tiger battery of pitcher/catcher.

  3. Many fond memories of Mr Freehan and the Detroit Tigers of my youth.The era Bill,Kaline
    Horton,Stanley and so many others played in is “Long Gone” as Ernie Harwell our famous announcer would intone over the airwaves.And not for the better of fans or players.
    Little did I realize in that magical October of 1968.I would be in Vietnam with the
    Marines shortly,and life for me would change so drastically.The memory of Mr Freehan and Mr Brock meeting at home plate in game #7 still burns bright 52 yrs later.

  4. While not Catholic, other players from the 1968 Tiger team were true gentlemen. Beside Bill Freehan, Al Kaline although not Catholic was a super star with a true humble demeanor, lived a very Christain life and was noted for helping willing other ball players to succeed. Just to add a little detail Mickey Lolich pitched and won 3 complete games in the 1968 world series. Something that will never happen again. Unfortunately being a catcher Bill Freehan likely had multiple episodes of baseball hitting his mask resulting in the brain injury causing his dementia. Others classy players on that team include Mickey Stanley and Willie Horton among others.

    Your review of Bill’s blocking the plate preventing Lou Brook from scoring probably was the pivotable moment that allowed the Tigers to comeback from a 3 game deficit to win the 1968 World Series. It is a good example of how seeemingly doing the little things right can mean a lot.

  5. Great to see this. Lots of great memories of Bill Freehan and the ’68 Tigers. He was a terrific ballplayer and a fan favorite for sure. Good to see that his faith made such an impression. May he RIP.

  6. Good piece Mr. Weigel – thanks.

    The best – and baddest – football player ever was Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns. When he scored a touchdown, which happened frequently, he would merely hand the ball to the referee and trot off. The message was clear – I’ll be back.

    I love hot dogs, but only when they’re right out of boiling hot water and placed in a nice bun with a touch of onion and mustard. Otherwise, I don’t care for them.

    Yes, I’m an old coot, and proud and happy to be so.

    • Dear Mr.weigel,
      THANKS FOR RECOMENDING A DISTANT TRUMPET. MY ONLY REGRET IS THAT i DID NOT KNOW OF IT SOONER (i AM 92 )AS MY READING SKILLS ARE SOMEWHAT SLOW.
      GOD BLESS YOU
      L3

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