“Today we give Lou the love and respect that he truly deserves,” Trammell told a crowd of 40,101.
As we digest the news this week from the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s worth wondering if the retirement of his number is the pinnacle of honors Whitaker is going to receive for a Hall of Fame-caliber career that still does not include a Hall of Fame induction.
The Tigers retired Whitaker’s number when they did in part to rekindle awareness of his career accomplishments for Hall of Fame consideration by the Contemporary Era Committee, which will vote on another group of former players for induction this fall. That group was unveiled on Monday; Whitaker didn’t make the list.
Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling will be considered for induction by a 16-person panel next month. Whitaker, who has a higher bWAR than five of those eight, will not.
It’s the latest snub for Whitaker, who was passed over by the Modern Era Committee three years ago. He had been left off the ballot entirely two years earlier, when Trammell and fellow Tiger Jack Morris were selected for induction. And, of course, he lasted only one year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, receiving just 15 votes out of 515 ballots in 2000.
In many ways, having Trammell and Morris under consideration in 2017 worked against Whitaker’s cause; it was difficult to ask a committee of Hall of Famers, executives and writers to consider three players from the same team on a limited ballot. Whitaker’s chances seemed better in 2019, when he was the only Tiger under consideration and committee members included former opponents George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith and Robin Yount, not to mention former Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski. Instead, just six of 16 committee members voted for him, half the total needed for induction.
The recent overhaul of the Hall of Fame’s committee format did Whitaker no favors. Instead of players being separated into several eras, the Contemporary Era Committee considers players whose most significant career impact occurred from 1980 on. Thus, instead of being compared with Simmons, Mattingly, Murphy, Steve Garvey, Dwight Evans and Dave Parker, as in in 2019, Whitaker — who made his Major League debut in 1977 — is also grouped in with players who just recently fell off the BBWAA ballot. So the debate with Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro intersects — and arguably interferes — with the long-running argument for Whitaker. Mattingly and Murphy were the only players from Whitaker’s era who made it onto the Contemporary Era ballot.
Whitaker will be eligible again in three years, when the Contemporary Era Committee reconvenes. But the next few years will see Billy Wagner, Gary Sheffield and Jeff Kent become eligible for the committee unless they’re inducted via the BBWAA ballot. Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire will also be eligible again, unless the Committee can reach the kind of consensus that writers have been struggling to find for a decade.
It’s worth noting that the eight-player ballot is determined by a different committee from the one that votes on the candidates. The Historical Overview Committee, a panel of 11 longtime writers and historians, determines the ballot. Candidates must then receive at least 12 votes from the 16-member Contemporary Era Committee for induction.
All this doesn’t mean that the case shouldn’t be made. Anything that keeps Whitaker in the consciousness and conversation among the game’s greats is worthwhile. But at the very least, Whitaker has official recognition as one of the greatest players in Tigers history.