Saturday, June 25, 2011

Before Sparky, the Tigers had another memorable No. 11

When Number 11 in navy blue and white is raised to the rafters today at Comerica Park, it will be all about Sparky Anderson.
And rightly so. George Anderson, of course, was the most storied manager in franchise history (with the possible exception of the brief meteoric reign of catcher-manager-MVP Mickey Cochrane in the 1930s).
For nearly two decades, from 1979 to 1995, Sparky was the face and the voice of the Detroit Tiger franchise.
Sparky won more games, made more headlines, and burned a more indelible place in the memories of fans not only in Southeast Michigan but across the nation, wearing the Number 11 on the back of his Olde English D jersey on those creaky trips out to the mound.
The 1984 World Series championship and the stretch charge to the AL East Division title in 1987 remained the high point of the team’s fortunes for nearly three decades.
With his distinctive white hair, Casey Stengel-style monologues sprinkled with folksy quotes, Sparky remained the dominant personality of the team for the Eighties and much of the Nineties.
So there’s every reason for the Tigers to honor Sparky Anderson by sending his jersey to the rafters today.
Former stars Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell, now on the coaching staff of the opposition Arizona Diamondbacks, will be among the many paying tribute. But before Sparky ever set up camp in the Tiger Stadium dugout, Number 11 had already been worn with distinction, by one of the greatest catchers in franchise history, Bill Freehan.
From the early Sixties to the mid-Seventies, Freehan, a native of Detroit and a resident of Royal Oak throughout most of his youth, including stints at Royal Oak Shrine in grade school and Royal Oak High School, patrolled the plate at Michigan and Trumbull as one of the best catchers in the American League.
Freehan, the gristle and grit behind the 1968 World Series champions, rose in the Tiger organization after graduating from the University of Michigan, where he was one of the greatest players in the Wolverines’ storied baseball history.
Freehan hit a Big Ten-record .585 in his final season in Ann Arbor, after leading U-M to the College World SerieS title as a sophmore in 1962. Freehan had attended Michigan on a dual scholarship, playing baseball and football for the Wolverines.
As a football player, Freehan, at 6-3 and 205 a solid tight end, showed plenty of promise, but it was in baseball where his future appeared brightest.
After his stellar junior season, the Tigers, churning through a series of nondescript catchers, shelled out about $100,000, a massive bonus at the time, to put him in uniform.
Quickly zipping through the minor league system, Freehan arrived with the big club in 1963 and established himself as one of the best young catchers in the AL. Hitting .300 with 18 homers in 1964, Freehan earned the first of his 11 All-Star Game selections in his 15-season career.
It’s arguable -- and many baseball historians such as Bill James have opined on numerous occasions -- that Freehan is one of the best catchers not in the Hall of Fame.
The Tigers were in the doldrums in the early 1960s, but quickly started to impove with the addition of Freehan, fellow Michigander Willie Horton, workhorse pitchers Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain, along with solid holdovers including Norm Cash, Mickey Stanley, Hall-of-Famer-to-be Al Kaline and the recently-deceased Jim Northrup.
By 1967, the Tigers were ready to contend, and they did, storming to the final day of the season before finally falling to the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox in a four-way race also including Minnesota and Chicago.
After the frustration of 1967, the Tigers came back with authority in 1968, roaring to the AL title with 104 wins and then stunning the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals with a dramatic seven-game victory.
Bill Freehan will always be the Tiger of my youth, since the day in 1969, at age 11, when I met him at a brief appearance in Lansing.
Freehan, still basking in the afterglow of the 1968 Series victory, was quick with jokes and took time out to give batting tips to kids in the crowd.
He asked if I played baseball, and I said, “yeah, but football too,” and he laughed. “So did I!” he exclaimed, then asked if I planned to go to Michigan.
“Probably not,” I replied, “both my parents went to Michigan State.” He gave a mock growl and said, “Ahhh, you’re one of THOSE guys,” then gave me a grinning slap on the back.
After 1968, Freehan remained a mainstay for the Tigers, a key contributor to the 1972 AL East Division winners, and continuing until his retirement in 1976.
Freehan’s Michigan loyalty carried on after his playing career was finished, when he served as the Wolverines’ coach for six seasons.
But his legacy will always be his time with the Tigers, and despite his other accomplishments, the enduring snapshot of Freehan for Tiger fans will always be two plays in the 1968 Series: first, blocking the plate against Cardinal speedster Lou Brock as Brock attempted to score what could have been a  Series-clinching run in Game 6, and finally, grabbing a pop foul for the final out in Game 7, and then hoisting the hefty Lolich skyward in the iconic image of celebration after the championship.
So when Number 11 is raised to the rafters today, it will be in honor of Sparky Anderson, and deservedly so.
But for anybody who followed the “Sock It To ‘Em Tigers” of 1968, Number 11 already held a lofty place in franchise history.

Joe Howley is a sports design editor for the Daily Tribune. Contact him at


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