When you think of the great players in Detroit Tigers history, your first thought usually is not about the guys wearing the gear behind the dish. Only a handful of players that have flashed the signs in Detroit warrant consideration for the top 3 catchers in Detroit Tigers history. After digging deep into the storied tradition of the Tigers I found six players that were standouts during their tenure as Tigers. Here is my list representing the top 3 (actually 4) catchers and two honorable mentions in the great annals of Detroit Tigers baseball.
#1 – Bill Freehan (1961-1976) – Freehan played his entire 15-year career as a catcher for the Detroit Tigers. Drafted out of the University of Michigan, Freehan hit an absurd .585 for the Wolverines in 1961, accounting for a Big 10 record in the process. In the majors, he was a lifetime .262 hitter and hit 200 homers, 2nd among all Tigers catchers. His 241 doubles, 706 runs, 758 RBI’s, and 1,774 games rank 1st at his position. These numbers are as much a testament to Freehan’s talent level as they are to his longevity. During his run with the Tigers, Freehan made 11 All-Star games, won 5 Gold Gloves, and caught 155 games during the 1968 World Series championship season. His career year came during the ’68 pennant run when he hit .263 with 25 home runs and 84 RBI’s. From 1963-1975 Freehan caught at least 100 games in each of the 13 seasons. He had the privilege of catching two of the greatest pitchers in Tigers history; Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain. Freehan recorded the final out of the ’68 World Series by catching a Tim McCarver popup.
#2 – Lance Parrish (1977-1995 – first 10 seasons with Tigers) – Originally drafted as a 3rd baseman, “Big Wheel” was one of the top offensive/defensive catchers in baseball during the 1980’s. He helped lead the Tigers to a World Series championship in 1984. His 212 home runs with the Tigers is tops among all catchers. His per season averages ranked much higher than Bill Freehan’s. Lance was a .263 hitter in his 10 seasons in Detroit. He smacked 201 doubles and drove in exactly 700 runs in 1,146 games. His best all-around season with the Tigers was 1983 when he hit .269 with 27 homers, 42 doubles, and 114 RBI’s. He set his career-high in homers in the 1984 title season with 33. Parrish was selected to 6 All-Star games while with the Tigers, won 3 Gold Gloves, and 5 Silver Slugger Awards. On April 7th, 1984, Parrish caught Jack Morris’ no-hitter against the White Sox in Chicago. Parrish homered in the decisive game 5 of the ’84 series against San Diego.
#3 – Johnny Bassler (1913-‘14, 1921-’27 – played for Tigers from ’21-’27) – Bassler was one of the best on-base % men in Tiger history during his 7-year run. Bassler’s .406 on-base % is 3rd only behind Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg. He is 2nd to only Mickey Cochrane among all catchers for career on-base %. Bassler batted .308 for the Tigers, racking up 690 hits in just 767 games. He knocked in 312 runs. He finished in the top 7 in AL MVP voting in 1922-1924. In 1925 he set the Tiger record that still stands for averaging 57.3 at-bats per strikeout. During his 7 year run, he was considered to be the best catcher in the major leagues. Historian Bill James is on record as saying, “if his major league career wasn’t so short, he would rank among the top 20 catchers of all time.”
#4 – Ivan Rodriguez (1991-present, played for Tigers from ’04-’07) – “Pudge” is the player probably most responsible for bringing the Tigers out of the doldrums of the early 2000’s and surging them back to prominence. The prolific catcher took a highly scrutinized multi-year deal to join the Tigers in 2004. He was the first significant free agent to sign with the team in years. Over his stellar 4-year run with the Tigers he batted .298 covering 611 games, including 62 home runs, exactly 300 runs and RBI’s, 140 doubles, and 17 triples. Throw in his dominance behind the plate and Pudge certainly earned a spot on this list. The only thing keeping him from being listed higher is that he played just 4 years in Detroit. His best year with the Tigers was his first (’04) in which he hit .334 with 19 home runs, 32 doubles, 176 hits, 86 RBI’s, and 72 runs. Pudge won the Silver Slugger Award while with the Tigers in 2004, was named to the All-Star team each of his 4 seasons in Motown, and earned Gold Gloves in 3 of the 4 years.
Mickey Cochrane (1925-1937 – played for Tigers ’34-’37) – After 9 prolific years with the Philadelphia A’s, Cochrane was sold to the Tigers by legendary A’s manager Connie Mack as he started to sell off his team once again. Cochrane played 2 full seasons with the Tigers and parts of 2 others. He was also the manager of the Tigers during those 4 seasons. In 1934, he was named American League MVP for hitting .320 with 32 doubles, 74 runs, and 76 RBI’s. As player/manager, he guided the Tigers to the ALCS in 1934 and the World Series title in 1935. He was voted an All-Star in ’34 and ’35. His career was cut short as he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1936, playing in just 44 games. A year later, he managed just 27 games as he was almost killed when he was hit in the head with a pitch. He spent 7 days in the hospital, finished out the season as manager, but never played baseball again.
Mickey Tettleton (1984-1997 – played for Tigers ’91-’94) – Patience, power, and unconventional are probably the 3 words that best summed up Mickey Tettleton’s career. Though he played just 4 seasons with the Tigers, Tettleton is 3rd on the Tigers’ all-time home run list for catchers with 112. Using his stand up straight batting stance, he drove in 333 runs in those 4 seasons while also hitting 85 doubles. Tettleton was a part of the early 90’s Tiger teams that were notorious for playing long ball. Mickey suited up with free swingers Cecil Fielder, Rob Deer, and others. Tettleton won 2 Silver Sluggers while with the Tigers (1991 and 1992) and was named an All-Star in 1994. In ’92, he led the American League with 122 walks. In ’93, he set career highs with 32 homers and 110 RBI’s.
For more on my all-time Tigers by position, click the links below: