The unapproachable greatness of Sweet Lou

Lou Whitaker

In his 19 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, second baseman Lou Whitaker was in the middle of the field, but he was also hard to get close to.

Tell me what Sweet Lou sounded like. I dare you. You can’t do it. He didn’t speak, not to George or Al or Paul or even Ernie. No Florsheim Shoes for those size 10 feet.

But even though he didn’t give interviews, Tiger fans fell in love with their second baseman. He was a little man blessed with big talent. We cascaded “LOOOOOU” down onto the field every time he stepped into the batters’ box, whenever he soared around third base to score a run, each time he made a great play with the glove.

Yet, for as much as we loved Lou Whitaker—and for 19 years he was smack dab in the middle of the field where we could all see him—we never got a good look at him. He was a phantom at second base.

Due to his religious beliefs, Whitaker tucked tucked himself inside the clubhouse when the national anthem was played,  unapproachable. Similarly, his skills and on-field personality stood apart from his team: Kirk Gibson had raw aggression, an animal who wanted to devour the enemy; Alan Trammell was the calm professional, the orchestrator, the point guard; prickly Jack Morris was a conflicted, moody stud who stalked the mound and thrived on challenges; Chet Lemon was a sunny crowd-pleaser who pursued fly balls with a smile on his face; muscle-bound Lance Parrish was a strong leader, an impressive sculpture behind the plate.

What was Lou? He was there – making it look easy, but never really getting much attention. He was a victim of his own talents too. As the Baseball Library wrote, his “seemingly effortless play left him open to criticism.”

Sweet Lou made playing baseball look easy, but not like Robinson Cano, a modern poser who struts super cool Kanye West-like across the diamond as if he’s trying to convince you how great he is. No, Whitaker wasn’t conceited, he simply couldn’t help doing everything with smooth, fluid action. His play at second base wasn’t flashy—it was remarkably steady and efficient.

There was an economy of motion with Sweet Lou Whitaker – no wasted effort, no unnecessary actions. Glide to the ground ball, brace for the pivot, fire to first. He wasn’t nonchalant, he was precisely calibrated. It was as if God himself had scooped up some clay, hand crafted the perfect second baseman, set him down near the middle of a baseball diamond, and nodded his approval. Even Whitaker’s number was efficient and economical—#1. Which of course, is also the loneliest number.

There are some clips out there of Lou playing baseball, but I defy you to find one where he looks like he’s running really hard. Try to remember a play where Whitaker dove desperately, where he ever looked out of control. The Detroit second baseman had that unique ability (Joe DiMaggio had it, and so did Gale Sayers, and Tom Brady does now) of being able to look like he was cruising when he was actually giving it 100%. No strained looks of physical exertion, no frantic scrambling down the first base line, no fumbling of the baseball. With his tippy-toe steps down the line (he was pigeon toed as a child), Whitaker was fast without ever looking like it. He swung from the left-side with surprising power, but his body was balanced, he never lunged. Whitaker threw the baseball extremely hard (probably harder than any other second baseman of the last 40 years), but he seemed to be flicking the ball. Zip, zip, zip … 108-stitches sailing across the field, dead-on target. He did it so often it seemed routine. In Game One of the ’84 Series, his relay throw from short right field that cut down a poor San Diego runner at third base was probably the most famous play he ever made, but Sweet Lou did that eight to ten times a year away from the big stage. Not even six feet tall, he could trace his bat through the strike zone, twist his 29-inch waist toward the pitcher, and send the ball soaring into the upper deck—and once even over the roof—of Tiger Stadium.

He led off most of the games he played in, almost as if we needed an immediate reminder that he was still there. He never met a first-pitch fastball that he didn’t like, and as he matured, he usually swung at them. If the Tigers were plus or minus three runs, you could bet on a quick AB from Sweet Lou. Did he phone it in at times? Sure. Sparky Anderson believed that had Whitaker approached every trip to the plate as if it were a crucial situation, he would have won a batting title. Economy of motion, no wasted effort.

Teammates marveled at his intuition and his natural knack for the game. Teammate Tom Brookens told me that Sweet Lou never bothered to learn signs that were shared among infielders. But to say that Whitaker relied on physical gifts and didn’t work hard would be untrue. Sweet Lou took the grounders—tens of thousands of them—and he shuffled thousands of baseballs to partner Trammell over the years. Though some have attempted to boil the longtime teammates down to a simple stereotype, the famed Detroit double play duo was one white athlete working hard and one black athlete doing what came natural. Whitaker took BP too.

There are countless memories in the Whitaker databank that Tiger fans can easily withdraw when they like. His first home run was a ninth-inning, two-run walkoff shot off Seattle’s Enrique Romo that Sweet Lou launched into the deep recesses of Tiger Stadium’s right field upper deck. It was as surprising as it was thrilling: it didn’t come until Lou’s 87th career game. At that time, the slim, baby-faced Sweet Lou looked more like a kid who might pick up your bat, not go to the plate with one. There was the time in 1983 when he was on first base when Gibby hit a towering shot to deep center that bounced off the glove of the outfielder. Sweet Lou raced around third toward home, while Gibson barreled down the line two steps behind him. Whitaker, Gibson, enemy catcher Rich Gedman, and the home plate umpire all ended up in a dusty mess at the dish. Sweet Lou was out and Gibby was safe in one of the strangest and most exciting plays you can ever imagine. Then there was the ’84 World Series and that laser-like relay throw to third base that arrived in plenty of time to get Kurt Bevacqua, who seemed amazed that a baseball was anywhere near him that quickly. In that Fall Classic, set free to show off his skills to a national audience, Whitaker was a brilliant pest, leading off four of the five games with a base hit and scoring in the opening frame three times. There was 1983 when Whitaker went the entire year avoiding a slump and batted .320 with 206 hits, doing something only Charlie Gehringer had ever done in a Detroit uniform. Fans will remember the comical episode when the absent-minded Whitaker forgot his uniform and had to wear a souvenir-stand top in the 1985 All-Star Game in Minnesota. In the starting lineup for that game, Sweet Lou was nestled between Rickey Henderson and George Brett, and every starter (except Lou and Jack Morris) is now in the Hall of Fame. The following year, in the game played in the Astrodome, Whitaker decided to show his power in baseball’s biggest ballpark, and he belted a two-run homer off the fastball God of that era, Dwight Gooden that gave the AL their margin of victory. Feed Lou a fastball and it didn’t matter how hard you could throw, his bat was ready. There were four other walkoff home runs at The Corner in Detroit and Gold Gloves and line drive base hits to start games for the Tigers. There was also September 13, 1995, when he and Trammell played their 1,915th game together to set a record. To punctuate that historic moment, Sweet Lou turned on a fastball in the bottom of the ninth and delivered a three-run, walkoff home run to beat the Brewers, game-winner just like his first homer. That was his final hit in the big leagues and less than three weeks later he played his last game.

If you dig deep you can probably find a few interviews with Whitaker, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you what the hell Lou’s voice even sounds like. Parrish, Gibson, Trammell, they were the voice of the players, when Sparky allowed any dead air to be filled with something besides his own voice. There was one un-Whitaker like moment—after Game #162 of the ’87 season when Frank Tanana had just shut out the Blue Jays at Tiger Stadium to clinch the division title. As Tanana gave an interview to NBC Sports, Sweet Lou interrupted with a big hug and a beaming smile. It was a rare glimpse at Whitaker’s real personality. Moments later, under the safety of the ballpark and deep inside the clubhouse, Sweet Lou gave Trammell a precious gift: the second base bag, which he’d ripped from the infield dirt and signed “To Alan Trammell, MVP—Lou Whitaker”.

How can we insist that Sweet Lou deserves a bronze plaque in Cooperstown if we ourselves never really got close to him? If Detroit hardly knew him, how can a sportswriter in Iowa be expected to judge him? It’s been said that as time passes, the character and personality of an icon starts to fade, and what we’re left with is the record. It’s true for ballplayers and Presidents. That will probably help Lou, who has numbers on his ledger that only three or four second basemen in baseball history can match or surpass. But the little Tiger pixie was also unapproachable and distant. Neither of the two contemporary second sackers in the Hall, Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar, have career numbers that are any better than those of Whitaker. Somehow, though, Sweet Lou was brushed aside by the voting body, lasting just one year on the Hall of Fame ballot. If there has ever been a more signature reason for tearing down the entire voting process than this, I am unaware of it.

The man himself says the Hall of Fame is not important, and while athletes often make statements which are pure BS, I believe him.

“The players I played with and against, they know what sort of ballplayer I was,” Whitaker told an audience scribbling in notepads a few years ago under a sunny sky in Lakeland.

A quiet but thoughtful man, the post-baseball Whitaker has a peace that prevents envy or bitterness from enveloping him. In retirement, he also displays a confidence, one that was concealed under his easy style of play, that fortifies the former all-star with a sense of “I know who I am.”

Fans of the Detroit Tigers know who Lou Whitaker was, and they approved. Cooperstown should make a similar conclusion and honor Sweet Lou, the most underrated great ballplayer of his time.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to ‘Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.