Freehan, Lolich, and Whitaker Belong in the Hall of Fame

This article was originally published in December 2018. It has been revised and expanded.

By Peter Hoyos

The purpose of the National Baseball Hall of Fame is to promote the legends and lore of Major League Baseball.  We honor baseball’s greatest players with induction into the Hall and contemplate not only their statistical achievements, but also their characters and contributions to the world’s greatest game.  “Hall of Fame voting is based upon the player’s record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which he played.” [1]

There are three Tigers players whom I believe were overlooked initially by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) and later by the Veterans Committee: three players with excellent career statistics, fine character, vitally important to the Detroit Baseball Club, and outstanding contributors to the lore and legends of organized baseball. Those three Detroit Tigers are Bill Freehan, Mickey Lolich, and Lou Whitaker.

The Case for Bill Freehan (1961, 1963-1976)

Quiet leadership, strength of character, and commitment to excellence are the qualities that best describe Bill Freehan, one of baseball’s greatest catchers.  It was Freehan along with Al Kaline who provided the Tigers with leadership and stability for 15 years. Both men played their entire careers for the Detroit Tigers.

Recalling the Tigers of the 1960s, Hall-of-Fame third baseman George Kell wrote, “Bill Freehan was the leader of the team.  Kaline was the best player, but Freehan sort of took charge of the leadership. . . . Bill just gave everyone the feeling that everything was under control when he was on the field.  That’s critical to a winning team.” [2]

Of Detroit’s top 24 all-time players ranked by career WAR, Bill Freehan is the only catcher.  His career WAR of 44.7 places him eighteenth on the list.  Freehan caught 1581 games for the Tigers, more than any catcher.  Rudy York is ranked twenty-fourth all-time, but York was predominately a first baseman and caught only 239 games.  Lance Parrish did not make the top 24.  His WAR in ten seasons with the Tigers is 30.1.

Iván Rodríguez and Mickey Cochrane are two Hall-of-Fame catchers who played in Detroit. Rodríguez, who was primarily a Texas Ranger, has a 68.7 WAR, but he played only five seasons in Detroit with a 14.5 WAR for those years.   Mickey Cochrane, whose greatest years were with the Philadelphia A’s, has a career WAR of 52.1.  However, Black Mike played only played only four seasons for the Tigers with an 11.4 WAR.

The Jaffe WAR Score System (JAWS) ranks Bill Freehan as the fifteenth-best catcher in the history of baseball with 39.2 points. [3] Of the top fifteen catchers on Jaffe’s list, only Freehan (#15), Joe Mauer (#7), Thurman Munson (#12), Gene Tenace (#13), and Buster Posey (#16) are not in the Hall of Fame. [4]  I believe that these six catchers belong in the Hall of Fame.

In the 1970s Freehan, Ted Simmons, Munson, and Tenace were overshadowed by Johnny Bench (#1), Gary Carter (#2), and Carlton Fisk (#4).  Before Bench arrived in 1968, the best National League catchers in the 1960s were Smokey Burges (#31), Tom Haller (#38), Del Crandall (#40), and Tim McCarver (#45).  The sensational abilities of Bench, Carter, and Fisk do not diminish the exemplary qualifications of Freehan, Simmons, Munson, and Tenace for induction into the Hall of Fame. [5]

Look at some of the catchers whose JAWS ranking are lower than Bill Freehan in the current second tier of fifteen: Buster Posey (#16), Roger Bresnahan (#19/HOF), Roy Campanella (#22/HOF), Yadier Molina (#24), Charlie Bennett (#25), Lance Parish (#26), and Ernie Lombardi (#28/HOF), Victor Martinez (#29), and Ray Schalk (#30/HOF).

Bill Freehan was the dominant American League catcher in the 1960s and early 1970s. [6] An eleven-time All-Star, he was selected for ten-consecutive games from 1964 until 1973.  He was the starting catcher in the mid-season classic seven times.

From 1966 through 1969, Freehan was a serious MVP candidate.  In 1967 he was third behind Carl Yastrzemski and Harmon Killebrew in MVP votes.  In 1968 He finished second to Denny McLain.  He also received serious consideration in 1964, finishing seventh in the voting, with honorable recognition in 1969 and 1972.

Defense was Bill Freehan’s strength.  He won five Gold Glove awards from 1965 until1969.  His career Defensive WAR is 12, good for fifth among all Detroit Tigers, behind Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Brandon Inge and Billy Rogell.  For eleven seasons in the American League, Freehan was a top-five catcher in fielding percentage.  He was among the top five catchers in the American League for nine seasons in range factor per nine innings.  He also was an AL top-five catcher in range factor per game for twelve incredible seasons.

Bill Freehan also provided power at the plate.  He is tenth among Tigers hitters with 200 home runs, and twenty-first among all catchers in baseball.  Freehan had three 20-home run seasons.  He is eighth among Tigers in sacrifice flies with 48.  His power and RBI numbers were good for his era.

Like teammate Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan is forever remembered as one of the Tigers of 1968.  He started more games (155) than any other Tigers player during that season.  Freehan caught Major League Baseball’s last 30-game winner.  Although he did not hit well in the World Series, he caught seven complete games.  Freehan was involved in the critical defensive play in Game 5 of the Series when he caught Willie Horton’s throw from left field, blocked home plate, and tagged out Lou Brock.

In 1972 he suffered a broken thumb on a critical play at the plate against Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox, but still came back to play in the final three games of the ALCS.  In that exciting series against the Oakland A’s, Bill Freehan caught Joe Coleman’s 14-strikeout gem in Game 3, Lolich in Game 4, and Fryman in Game 5.  In Game 5 Freehan was involved in yet another exciting play at the plate when Reggie Jackson was injured sliding home.

The case for Mickey Lolich (1963-1976, 1978-1979)

With intelligence, courage and determination, Mickey Lolich overcame adversity and led his team to victory with his incredible stamina and competitive spirit. In his sixteen-year career, he compiled a WAR of 48.  Among pitchers, Lolich ranks fifty-ninth all-time in innings pitched with 3638.1, twentieth in all-time strikeouts with 2832, and eighty-fourth all-time in wins with 217.  His 41 shutouts rank him forty-second all-time.

According to George Kell, “Mickey not only was the MVP of the World Series for winning three games, he also was one of the most underrated pitchers in major league baseball almost throughout his career.” [7]  Lolich’s career is most similar to Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning (942). The next most-similar pitcher is Jerry Koosman (934.3). [8]

Jay Jaffe ranks Mickey Lolich 119th among all-time pitchers.  In the Jaffe WAR Score System, Lolich scores a JAWS total of 42.9.  At 119 he is just below Waite Hoyt (#117/HOF) and Bob Lemon (#118/HOF). Lolich is ranked higher than several notable pitchers, including, Ron Guidry (#120), Addie Joss (#122/HOF), and Jack Chesbro (#128/HOF).  Further down the list, one will find Hall-of-Famers Jack Morris, (#168), Catfish Hunter (#169), and Lefty Gomez (#175). [9]

Look up the term workhorse in the dictionary, and you’ll find Mickey Lolich’s picture next to the Budweiser Clydesdales.  George Kell said, “Mickey never missed a start.  He was the best friend any manager could have.  He never gave you a really bad performance.  Even in the games he lost, he pitched well. . . . Mickey Lolich had a rubber arm and just kept coming at you till you dropped.” [10]  Lolich led Major League Baseball in games started with 45 in 1971.  He also had 42 starts in 1973, and 41 starts in 1972 and in 1974.  In each of those years, he was second in the majors to knuckleball pitcher Wilbur Wood.

Mickey Lolich’s statistics as a Detroit Tiger emphasize his contributions to the team.  He is the career leader for Detroit pitchers in games started (459), shutouts (39), and strikeouts (2679).  Among Tigers pitchers he is number four in career WAR (47.0) behind Hal Newhowser (59.4), Justin Verlander (55.8), and Tommy Bridges (52.4). [11] In career wins as a Tigers pitcher, Lolich ranks fourth (207) behind Hooks Dauss (223) and George Mullin (209).  He is fifth in strikeouts per 9 innings with 7.172 behind Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and John Hiller.  Lolich is also third in innings pitched (3361.2) behind George Mullin and Hooks Dauss, and sixth in complete games with 190.

A three-time All-Star pitcher, Mickey Lolich was a Cy Young Award candidate in 1971 and 1972.  In 1971 he finished in second place behind Vida Blue for the Cy Young Award with nine first place votes.  Blue received 14 first-place votes.  In 1972 Lolich finished third in the CY Young Award voting behind Gaylord Perry and Wilbur Wood.  He was also a factor in the American League MVP voting in 1967, 1971, and 1972.  In addition to his post-season heroics in the 1968 World Series, Mickey Lolich was also spectacular in the 1972 ALCS.  Lolich squared off with Jim Catfish Hunter in games 1 and 4.  He started two games with a record of 0-1.  Lolich pitched 19 innings with a 1.42 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP.  He gave up four runs in two games, but only three were earned runs.

In the eleventh inning of ALCS Game 1 with the Tigers leading 2-1, Lolich gave up singles to Sal Bando and Mike Epstein.  Chuck Seelbach replaced Lolich and recorded one out before Gonzalo Marquez singled to right field.  With Gene Tenace heading from first to third, Al Kaline fielded the hit and threw to third base.  His throw hit the runner and bounced away.  It was a tough error that allowed the winning run to score, and Lolich was tagged with the 3-2 loss.

Mickey Lolich will be forever remembered for his three complete-game victories in the World Series.   In Detroit baseball lore, his legendary accomplishment is Bobby Thomson’s home run, Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off, and a Sandy Koufax no-hitter all rolled into one.  As Bill James noted, “In 1968 Mickey Lolich won more World Series games in one week than Don Drysdale won in his career.” [12]  The defeat of Bob Gibson and the Cardinals was magical.  It is incredibly important to the Detroit Baseball Club and its connection with the fans.

The photo of Mickey Lolich jumping into his catcher’s arms in the Game 7 World Series victory is iconic.  It exemplifies the competitive spirit and the joy of baseball.  Someday the photo should be used to create a sculpture to be placed beside the other statues of Tigers who have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The case for Lou Whitaker (1977-1995)

Lou Whitaker’s career WAR is 75.1.  He was the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year.  Sweet Lou was an All-Star for five-consecutive years (1983-1987).  He won three consecutive Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards (1983-1985).  Sparky Anderson praised his second baseman’ abilities, “[Lou Whitaker] has outstanding hands and extremely quick feet around second base.” [13]

The players with careers most similar to his nineteen-season career are: Ryne Sandberg (901.8), Alan Trammell (868.4), Roberto Alomar, Buddy Bell, Joe Morgan and Barry Larkin.  Of these six players, only Buddy Bell is not a Hall of Fame inductee. [14]

In the history of the Detroit Tigers, Lou Whitaker is in the top-ten of nearly all team batting categories.  His career WAR is fourth behind Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, and Charlie Gehringer.  Alan Trammell is fifth with a 70.7 career WAR.

His career defensive WAR is 16.3, good for second among Tigers behind Alan Trammell.  He played 2308 games at second base and 32 at DH.  George Kell described Whitaker’s extraordinary defense when he wrote, “Lou threw as well as any second baseman I have ever seen.  He could go deep behind the bag and fire it over to first as easy as lobbing a ball to a child.” [15]

According to Jay Jaffe’s WAR Score System, Sweet Lou is ranked as the thirteenth-best second baseman of all time with 56.5 points.  Jackie Robinson is twelfth with a 56.6 JAWS.  Jaffe ranked only three non-inductees ahead of Whitaker: Robinson Cano (# 7 JAWS 58.9), Bobby Grich (# 8 JAWS 58.7), and Chase Utley (# 11 JAWS 56.8). [16]  There are a dozen Hall-of-Famers with lower JAWS numbers than Whitaker, including Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, Billy Herman, and Johnny Evers. [17]

Lou Whitaker never placed great value on celebrity.  The Media never quite understood him.  I believe that was largely due to his religious faith. His talent was a gift from God, and through hard work and dedication to his craft, Whitaker honored the Lord.  He was no flashy ballplayer.  Instead, he played second base with poise and balance, combining elegant movement with a rocket arm.  Regarding Lou Whitaker’s aversion to the Media, George Kell wrote, “He didn’t want the press to bother him; he didn’t want write-ups in the paper.  He just went out and did his job.” [18]

Whitaker and Trammell were Detroit’s double-play combination for nineteen years.  In 1984 Sparky Anderson wrote, “[F]rom pure physical talent, they’re the best in the game.  At the top of their game, they are like a couple of dancers.  They make you watch and shake your head in disbelief.” [19]

Hall-of-Famer George Kell offered his opinion as to the greatness of this duo, “As a former player, I still can’t believe they played together for the same team for their whole 20-year [sic] career . . . . As a broadcaster, I got as spoiled as the fans.  When a ground ball was hit to shortstop or second base I knew Trammell and Whitaker would be there. . . . They were an absolute joy to watch.  They could turn a double play in their sleep.” [20]

Lou Whitaker belongs in the Hall of Fame with Alan Trammell.  As individuals each man has earned the honor of induction.  Together they are a superb and legendary pair. Trammell and Whitaker, like Tinker and Evers, belong together in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

 

No Tres Triste Tigres

Three Sad Tigers (a Spanish tongue-twister) might lament the politics surrounding Hall of Fame voting.  Freehan, Lolich, and Whitaker are worthy candidates for selection.  They each had huge careers in baseball, they rank among the top 24 all-time Tigers players, and they are quintessential Tigers.  The Veteran’s Committee should reconsider their cases.

It is undeniable that Bill Freehan, Mickey Lolich, and Lou Whitaker had were premier ballplayers in their time.  They were also outstanding ambassadors of baseball, exemplifying the virtues of ability, integrity, sportsmanship, and character.  They affected pennant races, post-season play, and contributed mightily to the legends and lore of baseball.  Whether one is a Small-Hall or Large-Hall advocate, these three Tigers are exceptional candidates for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

 

Primary Resources

The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe, St. Martin’s Press (2017).

What Happened to the Hall of Fame?, by Bill James, First Fireside edition, Simon & Shuster (1995).

SABR Bio Project, biographies of Bill Freehan, by Trey Strecker, Mickey Lolich, by Dan Holmes, and Lou Whitaker, by John Milner.

https//www.baseball-reference.com.

Notes:

[1] Taken from the HOF guidelines for voting and cited in The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe, St. Martin’s Press (2017), p 22.

[2] Hello Everybody Im George Kell, by George Kell, Sports Publishing (1998), The Year of the Tiger, p134.

[3] Freehan ranked 14th in The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe, St. Martin’s Press (2017), p126-127.  In August 2020 https//www.baseball-reference.com has Hall-of-Famer Buck Ewing listed 14th.

[4] Buster Posey has a 41.8 WAR and may play in 2021.  Joe Mauer retired after the 2018 season.  The Hall-of-Fame catchers in the top 15 are Johnny Bench (#1), Gary Carter (#2), Ivan Rodriguez (#3), Carlton Fisk (#4), Mike Piazza (#5), Yogi Berra (#6), Bill Dickey (#8), Gabby Hartnett (#9), Ted Simmons (#10), Mickey Cochrane (#11), and Buck Ewing (#14).  See https//www.baseball-reference.com, Catcher JAWS Leaders, August 12, 2020.

[5] Updated with information from https//www.baseball-reference.com, August 12, 2020,The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe, St. Martin’s Press (2017), Catchers, p107-127.  Ted Simmons is now a Hall-of-Fame catcher.

[6] Motor City Bengals, Detroit Tigers: Bill Freehan should be in the Hall of Fame, by Andy Patton, August 2018, motorcitybengals.com.

[7] Hello Everybody Im George Kell, by George Kell, Sports Publishing (1998), The Year of the Tiger, p135.

[8] See https//www.baseball-reference.com, Mickey Lolich, Similarity Scores.

[9] See https//www.baseball-reference.com, Starting Pitcher JAWS Leaders, updated August 12, 2020.

[10] Hello Everybody Im George Kell, by George Kell, Sports Publishing (1998), The Year of the Tiger, p135.

[11] Motor City Bengals, Detroit Tigers: Where does Jack Morris rank among Tigers pitchers?, by Andy Patton, November 2018, motorcitybengals.com

[12] Bill James, What Happened to the Hall of Fame?, First Fireside edition, Simon & Shuster (1995), p 396

[13] Bless You Boys: Diary of the Detroit Tigers1984 Season, by Sparky Anderson, Contemporary Books Inc (1984), p 113.

[14] See https//www.baseball-reference.com, Lou Whitaker, Similarity Scores.

[15] Hello Everybody Im George Kell, by George Kell, Sports Publishing (1998), The Year of the Tiger, p 139.

[16] Updated https//www.baseball-reference.com, August 12, 2020;The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe, St. Martin’s Press (2017); and What Happened to the Hall of Fame?, by Bill James, First Fireside edition, Simon & Shuster (1995), p167-174.

[17] See https//www.baseball-reference.com, Second Base JAWS Leaders.

[18] Hello Everybody Im George Kell, by George Kell, Sports Publishing (1998), The Year of the Tiger, p 139.

[19] Bless You Boys: Diary of the Detroit Tigers1984 Season, by Sparky Anderson, Contemporary Books Inc (1984), p115.

[20] Hello Everybody Im George Kell, by George Kell, Sports Publishing (1998), The Year of the Tiger, p138-139.

3 Replies to “Freehan, Lolich, and Whitaker Belong in the Hall of Fame”

  1. How true it is that these three players have their all for baseball, and deserve to be in their rightful position in the Hall of Fame. Never will the world series of 1968 be forgotten, they had all of us on the edge of our seats. Give them their due.

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