Henning: A Hall snub, Lou Whitaker will be deservedly honored among Tigers greats

Detroit News

On one of those summer nights at Tiger Stadium in 1978, after a game that had not meant a great deal except for the way some young players already were shining, Tigers manager Ralph Houk sat in a stuffy corner office inside the Tigers clubhouse.

He had marveled at something that had happened on a simple double-play pivot at second base. It had to do with a rookie named Lou Whitaker.

“I’ve never seen a snap-throw like Whitaker’s,” said Houk, who in the early ’60s managed Yankees teams that won a pair of World Series and included its share of celebrities: Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Bobby Richardson, etc.

“He’s the best I’ve ever seen on a snap-throw.”

Houk, who was a United States Army major in World War II, who had come all but face-to-face with German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge — and who never said a word about it in any baseball setting — had observed much during his years.

But in Whitaker’s ability to take a toss from shortstop — in this case, from another rookie named Alan Trammell — and with one nearly underhanded blur of a motion,  a snap-throw, whip a ball to first base with fury and accuracy, Houk had witnessed something within baseball’s realm that was quite extraordinary.

Such skill from a then-21-year-old second baseman who even in 1978 also was featuring a left-handed swing that suggested there could be something big brewing inside a lithe, 5-foot-11 man.

Sparky Anderson liked Whitaker, also. A lot.

A year after Whitaker’s debut in ’78, Anderson became Tigers skipper. On a Sunday afternoon, June 4, 1995, Anderson was parked in a chair within the visitor’s clubhouse after a Tigers-White Sox game at Comiskey Park II. It happened to be Anderson’s last year with the Tigers — as well as Whitaker’s.

The game was tied 5-5 in the ninth. Bases loaded. Whitaker stepped to the plate, waving a quick half-swing, his basic ritual as he dug into the batter’s box.

Scott Radinsky of the White Sox fed him a 1-0 fastball. Drive to deep left-center. One bounce over the fence. Ground-rule double, two Tigers runs home, a 7-5 lead in what became an 8-5 victory.

More: How does Whitaker stack up against contemporaries?

More: Ten memorable moments from Tigers great Lou Whitaker

Afterward, in his office chair, Anderson took a sip from his tobacco pipe, shaking out the match-flame. He was asked about Whitaker’s go-ahead bomb that was hit far, and deep, and with velocity too extreme for White Sox center fielder Lance Johnson.

“You always can count on a good at-bat from Louis,” Anderson said, nodding. “Always a good at-bat.”

A simple testament, a low-octane plaudit, perhaps, considering the tributes and hosannas that had come, and were yet to follow, in any assessment of Louis Rodman Whitaker.

But what Anderson had said in concise and no-frills words was a kind of ultimate compliment to a player who had statistical luster, which even in his waning years, was not then fully appreciated.

Honoring No. 1

Whitaker on Saturday will be at Comerica Park. His uniform number — 1, some would say it’s fitting — will be retired and enshrined for as long as Comerica Park’s brown brick walls stand. Never again will it be worn by another Tigers player.

The motive is one-part history, one-part justice seemingly denied by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Whitaker’s 19-year double-play partner, shortstop Alan Trammell, four years ago was awarded his Hall of Fame plaque at Cooperstown, New York. Whitaker, whose numbers place him in the top 13 of all-time second baseman, has not yet cracked it. The reasons are semi-mysterious, all the more after a HOF review committee turned him down in December 2019.

Consider why his number is being tucked on that wall, alongside those of Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Al Kaline, Harry Heilmann, and others.

He played 19 seasons, all with the Tigers. He worked in 2,390 games, had 2,369 hits, 244 home runs, played in five All-Star Games, won three Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers, and in 1983 was eighth in Most Valuable Player voting.

He was one-half of the longest-enduring, double-play combination in MLB history.

The irony to a career so great: He actually got better as he approached retirement, at age 38. His final five years featured All-Star grade OPS numbers of, in order: .881, .847, .861, .867, and .890.

And then he called it quits.

Growing his game

More history is helpful. It tends to help understand Whitaker’s complexities.

It’s early August 1980, and Whitaker — then regularly batting ninth in Anderson’s order — arrives for a ninth-inning at-bat against Royals closer extraordinaire, Dan Quisenberry.

This is Whitaker’s third year in the big leagues. He is hitting .236 (Trammell is batting second, hitting .317) and, alarmingly, is finishing swings with his right leg pointed toward first base. His bat drags, which like a golfer with a slice, means the ball often careens to the opposite field.

Whitaker, in the ninth inning of a game at Tiger Stadium, comes to bat with runners at the corners, none out, in a game the Royals lead, 6-2.

He spins through a Quisenberry pitch and lines it, almost predictably, to left field.

To extreme left field, that is. So extreme, Royals left-fielder Willie Wilson races and catches the line drive on a dive — in foul territory near the then-Tigers bullpen.

So, one sees, and remembers, this was not always an easy or ever-successful early career Whitaker was stitching together in Detroit. Not until 1982, followed by an All-Star invitation in 1983, leading into the epic 1984 season that saw Whitaker and Trammell become a dual-name colossus for a championship team, did Whitaker settle into becoming, well, Whitaker.

And then he stayed there — adding power, steadily, with 21 home runs in 1985, peaking at 28 in 1989. He had 40 doubles in 1983.

This, too, was something Houk had forecasted even back in 1978.

“I think he’s going to be a difficult player to defend against,” Houk said, “as he gets older and stronger.”

So, what about Whitaker away from batter’s boxes and snap-throws? What was his story? His persona? And isn’t this why he was scarcely noticed on his one and only crack at conventional Hall of Fame consideration, in 2000, when he got just under 3% of the vote (5% was necessary to remain on the ballot) from the Baseball Writers Association of America?

In fact, no.

Whitaker, almost always, was civil, agreeable, approachable. In the fashion of most players, he was neither particularly liked nor was he disliked by everyday media people. So, the populist notion that he missed the writers’ ballot because he was a poor interview is nonsense.

True, he was not a “good interview” as that term would be defined. He could be tangential. He could speak in non-sequiturs. Having a thematic chat with him could be a bit like eating soup with a fork.

But it was no big deal.

“Lou’s world,” even his teammates would say, with a smile, at Whitaker’s often-bemusing speech.

There never was any animosity. He was simply … different.

Why, then, the absence of Cooperstown love?

This was a question put, not for the first time, to Jay Jaffe, whose Cooperstown Casebook is the most comprehensive compendium of all-time MLB players and their Hall of Fame credentials.

Jaffe is creator of the JAWS metric, which measures Hall of Fame worthiness. Jaffe uses the common Wins Above Replacement (WAR) analysis and further crunches numbers to compare players with those already enshrined in Cooperstown. Hence, his trademark JAWS application.

Jaffe long has held that Whitaker is the 13th-best second baseman in MLB history — tall cotton, for sure. He bests five second basemen who have made the Hall even since his retirement: Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, Joe Gordon, Nellie Fox, and Bill Mazeroski.

“I think he’s got a claim as one of the top second basemen outside the Hall,” Jaffe said last week. “Longevity is his hook, where Bobby Grich and Chase Utley (two also popularly cited as Hall-worthy) have more of a short career/high-peak hook that rests on stronger defensive metrics …”

Note that Whitaker has lost his shot at induction, twice, the second time with a voting bloc heavy on Hall of Fame players and executives.

That was especially stunning, his miss at making the 2020 HOF class, and not only because of a review committee’s makeup when it met at the Winter Meetings in December 2019. There were six Hall of Fame players and Whitaker contemporaries; six front-office/owner reps, including former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski; and four media members.

The earlier ballot slight in late 2000 might more accurately be considered an oversight as it came at a time when metrics and the Internet had not yet illuminated candidacies as fully as they are today. That slip-up, at least as it was weighed by Tigers’ fans, figured to change once the Modern Era Committee was offered a shot at restitution during those 2019 Winter Meetings.

But even with the player-exec core holding 12 of 16 votes and even with 2019 analytics making Whitaker’s case crystal-clear, he finished far out of consideration. Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller were inducted the following July. Sixteen committee members gave players such as Dwight Evans and Dave Parker more support than Whitaker.

Will he get another shot? Probably, even this year, but his chances appear dim. A format change has taken place at Cooperstown. The former Modern Era Committee has been replaced by a Contemporary Baseball Era Committee.

Other names likely will be part of the cast: Fred McGriff, Grich, Utley — as well as (pensive music) Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling, all of whom lost narrowly as their writers-ballot eligibility expired last winter. Toss in Evans, Parker, and Garvey, and Whitaker has some work to do.

“I wouldn’t hold my breath for his election this year,” said Jaffe, explaining how the Bonds-Clemens appearances, alone, will make Whitaker’s bid tough. “Still, the fact that his candidacy is back in circulation, with Trammell and Morris (Whitaker’s ex-Tigers teammate Jack Morris) in the Hall, gives him a fighting chance to join them.

“I tend to think Whitaker’s performance in 2020 (the Modern Era vote in late 2019) is more of a glass half-full than half-empty showing. He got on the ballot then for the first time and out-performed former MVPs (Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly).

“That shouldn’t be overlooked.”

Whether he is, or isn’t, will not be of relevance Saturday at Comerica Park. The Tigers and their audience long ago concluded this was a player too exceptional to not in some way hallow.

So, his number will depart, forever. It will rest in peace and adulation on heightened brick walls, alongside other Tigers immortals.

A man separated himself from the ranks of good and great players to craft his own legacy. Saturday, it will merely be formalized.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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