Detroit — Fireworks popped, fans cheered and it became official: No Detroit Tiger will ever wear the No. 1 again.
That’s because the Tigers unveiled Lou Whitaker’s number on the brick wall in left-center field before their game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday. He’s the ninth Tiger to have his number retired, joining his former teammates Alan Trammell and Jack Morris, as well as his former manager, Sparky Anderson, on the bricks.
Whitaker’s number is placed right next to Trammell’s. The middle-infield duo played 19 seasons together in Detroit and helped lead the Tigers to a World Series victory in 1984. On the other side of Trammell’s number is Morris’, forming a row of three Tigers greats from that 1984 roster.
“Today, we are going to give Lou the love and respect that he truly deserves,” Trammell said in his speech during the ceremony. “I’m going to take you back to the first time Lou and I met. Florida Instructional League, 1976. Lou had just been selected the MVP of the Florida state league, and his manager was Jim Leyland. … He was a third baseman. The first day of practice, they moved Lou to second.
“Now, I don’t know about you, but if I had just won the MVP of the league, I might’ve said something. I don’t think I would have done it as well as Lou did, but in typical Lou Whitaker fashion, he did what was best for the team. For two months we worked together. The following season, we went to Double-A, we were promoted to Detroit in September and I guess you could say the rest is history.”
The number retirement ceremony for Whitaker was originally supposed to be held in 2020, but with fans not being allowed in the stadium due to the pandemic, the Tigers elected to hold off on the festivities.
“The right decision was made,” Tigers play-by-play commentator Dan Dickerson said during the ceremony. “To only retire Lou’s No. 1 when we’d be certain a full Comerica Park crowd would be here to celebrate.”
The mostly full crowd certainly appeared to make the wait worth it. As a number of former Tigers in attendance were announced, fans showered each with cheers and applause, the biggest belonging to Trammell, at least until Whitaker came out.
As the former second baseman made his way to the microphone, he was met with a thundering rendition of the signature “Louuuuuuu” chant commonly associated with his name. He first tried to speak over the crowd, but then caved and lifted his arms up in encouragement and welcoming the chant, raising the audio levels at least a few decibels.
“As I’ve been trying to think of something over the last few days of what to say, it’s just really how much I appreciate (what) everything and everyone has done on my behalf,” Whitaker said. “I look at my players, the guys that I played with over the years. What tremendous effort and love they showed for the game.
“We all loved our manager, Sparky Anderson, and we went out there and gave him everything that he came to this organization to do. That was to win, play the game right and enjoy what we were blessed to do. I truly tell you, this will be one of the greatest moments of my life. Just knowing that my number will be retired and I’ll get a chance to see my name on the wall with some legends from Tiger history. What a great honor.”
Although it wasn’t directly touched on during the ceremony, the topic of Whitaker being snubbed from the Hall of Fame looked to be flirted with.
Actor JK Simmons, who is a Michigan native, narrated a tribute video for Whitaker that played on the jumbotron. During his narration, Simmons talked about Whitaker’s career highlights, as well as the accolades he accumulated in his 19 seasons, such as his three gold gloves, four Silver Slugger awards and five All-Star nods.
Simmons then brought up some stats, and the video displayed a list showing the second basemen with the best WAR in MLB history. Whitaker’s 75.1 ranks him seventh all-time.
“They say that baseball is a game of numbers,” Simmons said. “And today’s numbers just tell us what we already knew. This kid from humble beginnings is one of the greatest second basemen to ever play the game.”
Dickerson said his piece, too.
“The numbers confirm what our eyes saw,” he said. “Lou Whitaker ranks right alongside Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Ryne Sandberg and Tigers’ own Charlie Gehringer as one of the greatest second basemen in the history of this game.”
Moreover, the Tigers tweeted a graphic before the ceremony showing players in Cooperstown who have a lower WAR than Whitaker. Of the dozens shown, 15 were second basemen.
Whitaker didn’t touch on any of that, though, rather opting to focus on his connection to the Tigers and the city as a whole.
“I want to give my love to the city of Detroit, the Detroit baseball town and all of Michigan and all the fans that we have all over this country,” he said. “Because they still follow (the) Tigers, they love their Tigers and they will always love their Tigers.”
Of everyone who spoke during the roughly 30-minute ceremony, no one could have summed up the day better than Trammell, who enjoyed his number retirement in 2018.
Without his double-play partner up there with him, things just didn’t feel right.
“For four years, I’ve been uncomfortable,” he said. “I’m extremely honored and grateful to have my No. 3 retired, but there wouldn’t be a No. 3 on the wall without No. 1.”