They call catcher’s gear the “tools of ignorance” because of the abuse the player receives behind the plate. Catchers take foul tips, bats to the head, home plate collisions, and deal with the home plate umpire. All told, a game can last an eternity for the backstop. Despite the derisive label, catchers serve as field managers, direct traffic, handle the pitchers, and call pitches. Essentially, the game runs through the catcher. The Tigers have boasted a number of top tier catchers in the franchise’s history. Mickey Cochrane won a MVP on the way to two pennants and Detroit’s first world title. Slick fielding Birdie Tebbetts succeeded Cochrane. Bill Freehan led the Tigers in the sixties and early seventies. Likewise, Lance Parrish did the same a generation later. Mickey Tettleton displayed immense power and played multiple positions. Brad Ausmus’ slick fielding and first class intellect proved a plus for the team in the nineties. Ivan Rodriguez brought the franchise back from the abyss. In 2015, James McCann burst onto the scene looking to take his place amongst the greats. The following are the top five backstops to wear the old English “D.”
1. Bill Freehan
Bill Freehan appeared in more All Star games than any player not in the Hall of Fame. The 11-time All Star led the Detroit Tigers throughout the sixties and into the seventies. He appeared on MVP ballots six times in his 15 year career and accumulated five Gold Gloves. Although Freehan never hit 30 home runs or knocked in 100 RBI, he was the greatest catcher of the sixties decade.
2. Lance Parrish
Lance Parrish was Freehan’s natural heir and successor. Freehan retired in 1976 and Parrish made his big league debut in 1977. The “Big Wheel” led the Tigers of the eighties in the same way Freehan did a generation earlier. The eight-time All Star made six of his appearances in a Detroit uniform. On top of this he won three Gold Gloves and six Silver Sluggers (five with Detroit). In 1982, Parrish set the catcher home run record and finished his career with 324 (212 with Detroit). Next to Gary Carter, Parrish was the greatest catcher of the eighties.
3. Mickey Cochrane
Mickey Cochrane led the Tigers in the thirties. Unlike Parrish or Freehan, Cochrane served as player-manager. “Black Mike” learned the game under Connie Mack. The fierce competitor hated to lose and could shame his players with just a glance. Although he only played two full seasons, Cochrane led Detroit to two pennants and the 1935 world championship. His efforts led to the 1934 American League MVP. A bean ball ended his playing career prematurely. Cochrane’s managing career soon followed suit.
4. Ivan Rodriguez
Mickey Cochrane turned the Tigers into contenders. Likewise, Ivan Rodriguez appearance in Detroit coincided with a franchise turnaround. Detroit entered into a dark baseball age in 1989. The team managed winning seasons twice between 1989 and 2005. The Rodriguez signing initiated a turnaround that essentially ran unabated for a decade. In five Tiger seasons, “Pudge” made four All Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, and earned the 2004 Silver Slugger. Overall, he batted .298 with a high of .334 in 2004.
5. Mickey Tettleton
Like Rodriguez, Mickey Tettleton joined the Tigers as a free agent. He showed promise with the Orioles and made the All Star game in 1989, but did not truly blossom until he reached Detroit. Tettleton hit 112 home runs in four seasons and topped 30 round trippers three times. On top of this, he walked 100 times every season except the strike-shortened 1994 campaign when he finished with 97. With Detroit, Tettleton won two Silver Sluggers and appeared in the 1994 All Star game. His career Tiger numbers include an impressive .387 OBP and .480 slugging.