Today is the first installment of Tigers by the Numbers, where I will profile a current or former player that wore each jersey number. No reason not to start with number one, right?
My love of baseball and the Detroit Tigers began in or around 1984. I had just turned seven years old when the Tigers won the World Series that season. My favorite player at the time, and for all-time, was Lou Whitaker.
#1-Lou Whitaker played second base for the Tigers from 1977 through 1995. For 19 seasons he paired with shortstop Alan Trammell to form the longest tenured middle infield in major league history. You simply cannot mention Whitaker without Trammell, and you cannot mention Trammell without "Sweet Lou".
They even made their major league debuts in the same game. I wonder if that doesn't end up taking away from each individual when it comes to historical perspective. For this purpose, I will be looking only at Whitaker, and save Trammell for another number.
Louis Rodman Whitaker, Jr. was drafted by the Tigers in the fifth round of the 1975 amateur draft and immediately began his rise to the majors. The Tigers were in the middle of a lean stretch of years where they would finish higher than fifth in the division just once (fourth) in six years.
Whitaker played well in the minors, posting a .297 average as a 19-year-old in Lakeland in 1976. He spent the 1977 season playing Double-A ball in Montgomery, Alabama and posted a .280 average with 38 stolen bases. With a slew of non-descript talent at the big league level, the 20-year-old Whitaker was called up in Sept. of 1977, after just 273 minor league games, and all of five home runs.
Whitaker made his major league debut on Sept. 9, 1977, starting at second base in the second game of a doubleheader at Boston. He hit second in the order behind Ron LeFlore. He made a very good first impression.
Batting in the top of the first, Whitaker lined a single off Boston starter Reggie Cleveland for his first major league hit. One batter later, he stole his first career base. He would finish the game 3-5 with a double, a run scored, and an RBI. He would go on to play in 11 games total that season posting a .250/.333/.281 line with two steals.
By the end of April 1978, Whitaker took over the everyday job at second base for the Tigers. The job was his until he retired following the 1995 season. He won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1978, posting a .285 batting average for the Tigers. Whitaker and the Tigers showed steady improvement for the next several seasons.
1983 was perhaps the finest of Whitaker's career. He hit .320/.380/.457 for the season and scored 94 runs. That year he made his first All-Star game, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award, and he finished eighth in the league MVP balloting.
For his career, Whitaker posted four seasons with at least 20 home runs, including the 1989 season, when he set career highs with 28 long balls and 85 RBI. Whitaker won a total of four Silver Slugger awards and three Gold Gloves. He was a five-time All-Star in an era of great second basemen, often competing with Willie Randolph and Frank White for those honors.
When Sweet Lou retired, he did so with 2,369 hits, 244 home runs, and 1,087 RBI. Bill James ranked Whitaker as the thirteenth greatest second sacker in history. Whitaker ranks sixth on the all-time Tigers hits list, sixth in home runs, eighth in RBI, and second in walks.
When it came time for Whitaker's inclusion on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2000, his timing couldn't have been worse. A new era had enveloped the sport, leading to huge numbers being posted by middle infielders all across the league.
The baseball writers overlooked Whitaker on his first ballot, and he received only 2.9 percent of the vote, forcing his name off the ballot for subsequent years. He will not be eligible for the games highest honor until 2015, when the veteran's committee will have the chance to enshrine him along side the other great second basemen in Cooperstown.
There are currently only 17 second basemen in the Hall of Fame, of those only nine had more hits than Whitaker. Only Rogers Hornsby, Ryne Sandberg, and Joe Morgan had more home runs, and Whitaker drove in more runs than all but 10 of them. Whitaker's career .363 OBP would place him tenth in that group, and his 1386 runs scored would place him ninth.
While Whitaker was not the best second baseman ever, the numbers show he was among the best. Since his final game in 1995, no one has worn his number. The Tigers have yet to officially retire number one, but hopefully, they will do so soon.
Lou Whitaker had a career worthy of such an honor.
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