Saturday is all about Lou Whitaker, one of the best players ever to take the field for the Detroit Tigers, as the organization honors his legacy by stamping his first name, last name and iconic No. 1 on the Comerica Park bricks above the bullpen in left-center field.
Whitaker’s spot is just to the right of his legendary double-play partner, Alan Trammell — much like their positions in the infield for nearly two decades: Trammell, a shortstop, on the left side of second base; Whitaker, a second baseman, on the right.
“Give me some time,” Whitaker, 65, said Friday. “One day, I’ll come back in a few years, or a year or next month and see what it’s like, what it really feels like. Seeing it for the first time, I’m going to be dazed. Up there with people I used to see when I grew up, when we were playing, up there with Trammell and (Jack) Morris, two teammates, that’s huge.”
THE HIGHLIGHTS: Relive Lou Whitaker’s greatest games as a Tiger
Remember, though, Saturday’s event — the retirement of No. 1 — isn’t about Trammell and Morris, the Tigers’ most recent inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame, nor is it about the 1984 World Series championship team. The pregame festivities will be focused solely on recognizing Whitaker — nicknamed “Sweet Lou” — for his 19-year MLB career, which he spent entirely with the Tigers organization, from his selection in the fifth round in 1975 until his retirement after the 1995 season.
His number is the ninth to be retired by the Tigers, along with Trammell (No. 3), Morris (No. 47), Charlie Gehringer (No. 2), Hank Greenberg (No. 5), Al Kaline (No. 6), Sparky Anderson (No. 11), Hal Newhouser (No. 16) and Willie Horton (No. 23). Ty Cobb’s “number” is also retired; though he played in the era before uniform numbers, his name is also on the wall at Comerica Park, with a blank space where the number would be.
Only two of those names on the wall — Whitaker and Horton — aren’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Whitaker is at peace with that.
“I’ve never been disappointed at all,” Whitaker said. “Things happen. Sometimes, just be patient. I haven’t been made. I may have thought about it a time or two, but I’ve never thought about it like, ‘I belong there. I belong there.’ I’ve never said that to myself.
“I always try to keep myself balanced and not thinking ahead, wishing for too much, as some might say. I’ve heard the fastest don’t always win the race, or something like that. That’s what has probably happened in my case. I haven’t got there yet, but people are still hoping and wishing.”
Don’t let Saturday’s memorialization, or Whitaker’s comments, take away from the fact that the five-time All-Star seems worthy of another celebration. He should, at some point, be at the epicenter of the party for baseball royalty that takes place in Cooperstown, New York.
After all, Whitaker produced 75.1 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, tied with Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench for 82nd in MLB history. The Hall of Fame features 340 members, including 268 former MLB players.
Of those 268, 20 were employed primarily as second basemen, and Whitaker’s WAR total fits comfortably among theirs. It ranks behind Gehringer (84.8), Rod Carew (81.2), Joe Morgan (100.4), Nap Lajoie (106.9), Eddie Collins (124.4) and Rogers Hornsby (127.3) but well ahead of (in decending order) Frankie Frisch (71.8), Ryne Sandberg (68.0), Roberto Alomar (67.0, Craig Biggio (65.5), Jackie Robinson (63.8), Billy Herman (57.3), Joe Gordon (55.8), Bid McPhee (52.5), Bobby Doerr (51.5), Nellie Fox (49.5), Johnny Evers (47.7), Tony Lazzeri (47.6), Red Schoendienst (44.5) and Bill Mazeroski (36.5).
“I stayed here,” Whitaker said. “I gave my best. I think about that, too. Everybody that’s in the Hall of Fame goes up on the Tiger board. That has been the case. Willie grew up in the city. He’s a homegrown, just being from this city, doing what he did and what he continued to do after baseball.
“I didn’t grow up in the city, but I am proud. I’ve heard some beautiful comments. One brought tears to me, talking about, ‘Lou, you’re going to have a nice crowd at the field tomorrow, and they’re coming to see you.’ ”
Whitaker spent all 19 of his seasons with the Tigers, turning down offers from the New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves later in his career.
“I didn’t get paid that much,” Whitaker said. “Maybe I could have left and made more money someplace else. But I was happy here and playing the game that I loved. Who knows (what would’ve happened) if I went to another team. I’ve seen people leave their team, go to another team, fail and be out of baseball. Like Kirby Puckett said, ‘The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.’ I was happy to stay here.”
He hit .276 (2,369 hits) with 244 home runs, 1,084 RBIs and a .363 on-base percentage, to go with a 11% strikeout rate and 12% walk rate. He stole 143 bases and played 2,390 games.
The second baseman was the 1978 American League Rookie of the Year and helped the Tigers win the 1984 World Series. Along with five All-Star selections, he was a four-time Silver Slugger and three-time Gold Glove winner.
Whitaker was on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for one year, in 2001, but received only 2.9% of the vote, well below the 5% minimum to remain on future BBWAA ballots. He was a finalist on the 2019 Modern Era Committee ballot — Trammell and Morris were selected by that group in December 2017 as part of the Hall’s class of 2018 — but Whitaker fell short of the 75% — 12 out of 16 votes — needed.
His next opportunity comes in roughly four months, as the Contemporary Baseball Era players committee — essentially the veterans committee of old, looking at players who starred after 1980 — will meet in December to ponder a selection for the Hall’s class of 2023.
“What am I supposed to say, now I’m up there (on Comerica Park wall), that I belong in the Hall of Fame?” Whitaker said. “My friends would say, ‘Now hold up, Lou.’ As they keep crunching the numbers, that’s their job. That’s not my job. Should I say I belong in the Hall of Fame? What do you think? Should I? Shouldn’t I?
“I will wait for that day. I’m sure that day will come. I might be 99 and walking with a cane saying, ‘Finally, what took you so long?’ But that day will come.”