In his first start in the big leagues Jim Walewander got two hits and two runs batted in off Mariners ace Mark Langston. Asked how he found Langston, the fresh rookie quipped “I walked from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box and there he was on the mound.”
In addition to the two off Langston, Walewander only produced 12 more RBI in his brief major league career, but that didn’t stop Tiger faithful from forming an official Walewander fan club. The offbeat utility infielder was the biggest flake to don a Detroit uniform since Mark Fidrych.
Like Fidrych, Walewander’s zaniness wasn’t an act. He was naturally goofy. In the minor leagues he once played 18 holes of golf wearing combat boots because he left his golf spikes at home.
He was famous for his simplistic interior decorating. While at Toledo with the Mud Hens, Walewander lived in a modest apartment to say the least. The apartment had no furniture and aluminum foil curtains. “I had a pillow and a blanket and the place was carpeted so I was comfortable,” Walewander explained. “I also had a TV, but I could only watch it five minutes at a time before the picture gave out.”
Walewander never needed much. When he finally earned a call-up to Detroit in the middle of the 1987 season, he commented that the only thing different about being in the big leagues was that the hotels didn’t have bugs in them.
Manager Sparky Anderson liked Walewander’s speed and his ability to back up Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell at second and short, but the skipper used the rookie sparingly. Even so, Walewander was popular in Detroit. Once he met a girl in a local club and asked if she wanted to come to Tiger Stadium the next day to watch him work. When she arrived she was surprised to see Walewander playing second base. “She thought I was a peanut vendor or something,” Walewander said.
After Walewander hit his first (and only) homer against the Angels in Tiger Stadium a fan club sprung up. The Jimmy Walewander Fan Club banner was draped over the right field upper deck for the remainder of the season. When Walewander revealed his love of punk rock and the eclectic band The Dead Milkmen, sales of their albums soared in Motown. A Detorit rock band recorded a song titled “The Jim Walewander Blues.”
Though Walewander rarely got to play other than to pinch-run and play the last half-inning of defense, he played a role in the victory that vaulted the Tigers into first place on the season’s final weekend. In the next-to-the-last game of the year, on a Saturday afternoon in Tiger Stadium, the Tigers faced the Blue Jays, the teams locked in a deadlock atop the division. In the 12th inning Walewander pinch-ran for Whitaker and later scored when Trammell singled, giving the Tigers a 3-2 victory. The next day the team won 1-0 and captured the division crown.
Walewander wasn’t on the post-season roster, but he came back the following year and spent most of the season with the big league club. He played very briefly with the Yankees and Angels and also in Italy and the minor leagues before retiring at the age of 32.
So why was little Jimmy Walewander, a utility infielder who rarely played, such a folk hero to Tiger fans? His manager summed it up perfectly:
“I pull for him because he tries so hard.”