Will Whitaker Get Hall of Fame Nod This Winter?

When he retired from the Detroit Tigers, Lou Whitaker didn’t hold a press conference. There were no last-season farewell tours. The All-Star second baseman didn’t really say goodbye.

It was more like Whitaker faded away, receding into the pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia. Which at that time was about the only way you could look up old ballplayers stats.

He could have kept playing. The Tigers would have welcomed Sweet Lou back in 1996 in a part-time role as a three-times a week second baseman and occasional designated hitter. Whitaker was still giving right-handed pitchers nightmares. Had he wanted a final payday, the Atlanta Braves, spurred by former Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie, was offering a two-year contract. But Lou was done with baseball, for right or wrong.

In his last two seasons, Whitaker combined to hit .298 with 26 home runs and 87 RBI in about 570 at-bats. It was probably the best final two seasons a second baseman has ever had.

But while his on-field partner Alan Trammell chose to wear the Old English D for a twentieth season, Lou packed his things and left the city that was never really his home.

Last weekend, feted by the team that rarely knows how to celebrate its past, Whitaker looked comfortable but still a little tentative in Detroit, where he still has a legion of fans.

The man who rarely had a word to speak to media while he was a player, cobbled together what seemed to be an off-the-cuff speech on Saturday during the ceremony that culminated in the unveiling of his retired uniform number on the brick wall inside Comerica Park.

But this is a ballpark that Sweet Lou never wore spikes in. Never lined a single down the left field line, never flipped his powerful right arm toward first to complete a dazzling double play with an arrow-straight throw. And that seems fitting in a way: because the ballpark where his number will display forever, never knew Sweet Lou, just like the rest of us.

Sure, Whitaker has obviously mellowed. During a pair of interviews during Tiger broadcasts over the weekend (something has to distract viewers from the terrible product on the field), Lou was conversational. At times he was even chatty to the point of drawing out his comments almost too far. You could sense Matt Shepherd and Kirk Gibson reigning Whitaker in.

I don’t know for sure, and no one can except Whitaker, but it feels like the former Gold Glove winner and 1984 World Champions has some regrets. I sense that if he was being very blunt, Whitaker would admit that he could have been friendlier during his 19 years in the Detroit uniform. It would have allowed us to know him better. It would have let the city embrace him in a full bear (or Tiger?) hug, rather than the awkward side hug, like Trammell got when the two embraced on stage Saturday.

Sweet Lou remains an enigma. His most enduring legacy are too few highlights we have of his smooth defensive play, which was always his calling card. His place in Tigers history is secure as a keystone member of perhaps the city’s most dominant sports champion. But, he’s not quite like Trammell, is he? The city of Detroit and the state of Michigan doesn’t recognize Lou as iconic, like we do Trammell, Steve Yzerman, Isiah Thomas, and others.

Whitaker was a great complementary piece. We know 1/1000th about him than we do Gibson, who wore his heart and his spit and his blood on his sleeve. We know more about Miguel Cabrera, an understated leader but an effervescent man-child between the lines.

It’s not that Whitaker is forgettable, or that baseball fans in Michigan don’t appreciate him. It’s just that his personality was invisible, even as he spent almost twenty years delighting us with his play. He always seemed like he had something he needed to get to after the game. Somewhere else he might rather be. How many times did Ernie Harwell interview him on the post-game show (brought to you proudly by Florsheim Shoes)? Maybe never.

Dan Petry was Whitaker’s teammate in Detroit for 11 seasons. Last weekend on air, Petry said something very telling.

“Lou probably only talked to me two or three times in all the years we played together,” the former pitcher said. “When he did it was usually not nice, it was [to tell me] something that I was doing wrong.”

Who is Lou Whitaker? Is he a quiet, misunderstood, shy man from Virginia? Is he a skinny kid who grew up too fast under the lights of professional sports, who was uncomfortable with stardom? Was he a good teammate? Or was he not? Did he concentrate and work hard enough to be the best player he could be?

I’m not sure anyone knows other than Lou himself, and he’s not telling people anything personal. The answers would bring Whitaker into focus, give him shape, and allow his fans to glimpse a genuine side of this man. But, Sweet Lou is still that enigma.

Oddly, three of the most prominent things I, or anyone else, remembers about Lou don’t help us understand him any better. In fact, it just makes him seem unapproachable.

In 1979, the Detroit Free Press ran a series of caricatures in the newspaper, each one spotlighting members of the Tigers. Each caricature was accompanied by a set of questions, things like “Favorite Music” or “Favorite Food,” etc. It was very shallow stuff, but fun. When Whitaker’s was printed, he answered “Favorite Color” with “Green, as in money.” And when asked who his hero was, he responded with “myself.”

It was a silly little thing, but enough people noticed that manager Sparky Anderson made a comment about it to the media, chastising the Free Press for publishing material that preyed on a young, impressionable player. Whitaker was barely 22 at the time.

At the 1985 All-Star Game, Whitaker forgot to bring his uniform to Minnesota for the All-Star Game. When he played in the game, he wore a souvenir Detroit jersey with his #1 stenciled on the back in black marker. His embarrassed responses to that brain fart were not well-crafted. He came off as not caring too much about the All-Star Game, and even mentioned he’d rather be somewhere else.

In 1994, Whitaker was no longer a young man, so his actions couldn’t be excused by a deficiency in maturity. That year, MLB players went on strike, ultimately ending the season without a World Series for the first time in 90 years. During labor discussions, Whitaker, who was one of the representatives for the Tigers, arrived at the meetings in New York in a stretch limo wearing a fur coat and flashing expensive jewelry. It’s the type of thing we see all the time now as players arrive for NBA games, for example, but the tone-deaf decision to be so extravagant arriving at labor talks, when many fans were irritated that players were greedy, was a bad look for Whitaker, a veteran who should have known better.

I defy you to tell me any other personality-driven Whitaker stories from his career. Just name one. There aren’t any, because Lou was always off to the side, observing but not stepping into the center of action. Off the field anyway.

The Hall of Fame

Whitaker wasn’t required to be funny, a great interview, or anything else. But the fact that he was so invisible, so unapproachable, so aloof, only serves to make us feel distant from him, even while we may want to show him how much he’s appreciated.

And if Tigers fans and folks in Michigan feel that way, how do you think Hall of Fame voters view Louis Rodman Whitaker?

In his only appearance on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, Whitaker was a one-and-done, garnering just 15 votes in 2002. That was only two more votes than Kirk Gibson got that same ballot.

Now, here we are in 2022 with his partner in greatness Alan Trammell in the Hall of Fame. Even though Lou’s numbers are at least as good, or maybe better.

Jack Morris has a Hall of Fame plaque. There’s not secret that Whitaker and Morris were never close. Even at the ceremony on Saturday, Sweet Lou couldn’t resist a barb at his former teammates’ expense.

“Now even Jack Morris has to admit I helped him [when I was] playing behind him,” Lou said.

This fall, the Baseball Hall of Fame will release a ballot for the modern era. that will consist of candidates the Baseball Writers Association of America rejected. It’s expected Whitaker’s name will be on the final ballot. The last time that body met, Whitaker received six of the 12 votes needed. His stature may have risen since, with the retirement ceremony, with him granting interviews, with Morris and Trammell advocating for him.

But, every Hall of Fame player has former teammates they think should be in Cooperstown too. If Whitaker, what about Dave Concepcion, Johnny Bench might say? If Sweet Lou, how about Fred McGriff, we’ll hear from former teammates and colleagues of The Crime Dog.

It’s easier to get 12 out of 16 votes than 75 percent of 400+ like you need from the baseball writers ballot. But, Whitaker’s case for the Hall of Fame still has its challenges.

Whitaker only once finished in the top ten in MVP voting. He won several Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger Awards, yes, but so did other middle infielders not in the Hall discussion. Then there’s Bobby Grich, who some see as a more worthy second base candidate.

There’s always the persona problem. Who was Lou Whitaker? Did he ever step out on the stage of baseball and show “I’m a superstar” with his play, like Trammell did at the 1984 World Series, and again when he put up an MVP-caliber season in 1987 as a cleanup hitter?

Based on numbers, on the analytics, and on the simple narrative of being one-half of baseball’s longest marriage, Whitaker is a Hall of Famer to me. He was at least as valuable as Trammell to those Tigers teams.

But, I can see why some people don’t think Whitaker is Hall-worthy. He didn’t have that monster season. He didn’t reach big milestones. He was never a face of a franchise, he was sort of a supporting actor. He was distant. He was invisible.

Turns out, it’s important to be visible if you want to be a legend.

Sweet Lou will be a legend of sorts in Detroit forever, but his chances at immortality in Cooperstown are maybe 50/50.

4 replies on “Will Whitaker Get Hall of Fame Nod This Winter?

  • Christopher Revard Jr

    I like Sweet Lou. However, where is the push for Mickey Lolich for the HOF or the tigers wall?

    • lawrence sproul

      Lolich should have been in the hall years ago and Lou also . Maybe the old timers will see fit to vote them in .We can only hope so . Another trip to Cooperstown would be great .

  • John David Danielewicz

    Put “29” on the wall (for the 68 WS, if nothing else) and “1” in the HOF. Don’t believe Tram lived in Detroit either and went off to San Diego at the end of each season. And ask yourself this: “Without “1”, would “3” be in the HOF? “Tramaker” are a duo FOREVER in baseball annals and belong in the HOF as the most UNIQUE/BEST Keystone Combo in baseball history. NUFF SAID!!!!!

  • Douglas W. Bechler

    Yes, Lou was/is an enigma.
    But his stats don’t lie-

    The reality is that for all the buildings that the Illich family have built, including Commerica and the new hockey arena, ALL with excessive and repulsive tax payer funding-
    ( they are cheap and greedy – Chris can call me directly and I will share with him a list a mile long of their repulsive greed)
    the Detroit Tiger franchise DOES NOT CARE about the history of this storied franchise.
    If they did, the campaign to get Lolich into the HALL of FAME would have been a priority for decades. Decades.

    They have not changed the photos of former players throughout Commerica in 20 years.

    THEY don’t care- they ONLY care about money, perception, splashing their father’s name across the grotesque WSU School of Business, for which they gave VERY little ACTUAL money.
    Take a deep dive into Mrs. I’s involvement in Native American casinos and the land deals.
    She is a disgrace.

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