Once during a lazy afternoon on the links, Earl Whitehill was nearly plunked by an errant drive from a golfer in the foursome behind him. Ticked, the Tiger pitcher marched back 150 yards to confront the offender. The 5’9, 175-pound Whitehill found himeself nose-to-nose with Jack Dempsey – the heavyweight champion of the world. According to witnesses, Whitehill didn’t back down, orchestrating a spit-flying tirade at the startled Dempsey, who didn’t have a chance to bark back before the little baseball player stomped off.
On the diamond, Whitehill didn’t back down either, earning a reputation as a temperamental competitor who was just as likely to explode at a teammate who made a miscue behind him as he was at an opposing player crowding the plate.
For a decade Whitehill pitched for the Tigers, from 1923-1932, and for nine of those seasons he was a dependable member of the starting rotation. Though he never won 20 games for the Bengals, he won between 14 and 17 games six times. He won ten or more games nine times for Detroit and still ranks in the top ten in victories (133) for the franchise.
Whitehill won 17 games as a rookie for manager Ty Cobb in 1924, flashing a curveball that became his trademark. Slight in build, Whitehill was far from imposing on the hill, and his stuff was not overpowering – his fastball was average at best. But his curve and change of pace were good, and Whitehill did a good job of keeping the ball in the ballpark during a burgeoning home run era. A southpaw, he was especially tough on left-handed batters.
Over the first few years of his career, Whitehill gained a reputation for orneriness. He frequently confronted teammates who made costly errors, even coming to blows with a few. He gained a reputation as a headhunter, ranking among league leaders in hit batsmen. And according to The Sporting News, Whitehill “regarded the umpires as his natural enemies.” Then in the midst of a terrible stretch, Whitehill changed his ways. Or maybe he just got tired of fighting everyone.
In 1930, with his record at 3-9, Whitehill went against his natural tendency and decided to be calmer on the mound, to display a less combative nature. The result? He won 11 straight games and 14 of his final 18 decisions.
Whitehill didn’t completely erase his temper – later when he was with the Senators he was involved in a famous fistfight with Ben Chapman of the Yankees after Whitehill plunked Lou Gehrig with a pitch – but he eased back a bit. Enough that he lasted 17 seasons in the big leagues and won 218 games.
His remarkable consistency in a Tiger uniform – he missed two starts in his nine years as a starter for Detroit – earns him a place as one of the finest pitchers in team history.