From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, a visitor to Detroit’s Tiger Stadium would hear many crowd noises. One noise in particular could confuse spectators unless they were attuned to the Tigers stars of this period. Often, after the visiting team had been retired in the top of the first inning, a distinctive “ooooooooo” sound would swell from the crowd in the ballpark and project itself through the air to those outside the stadium. For the unknowing fan, there might be wonderment as to why the Tigers’ leadoff hitter was being so mercilessly “boooooooed,” especially with the game in its infant stages, without a chance for the hitter to conduct himself in a manner to deserve the ridicule. The vast majority of the crowd, though, were Tigers fans and would know that the sound echoing from within could only mean one thing: “Sweet Lou” Whitaker was about to come to bat for the Tigers. Over his long career, the Tiger Stadium faithful would show their appreciation by serenading Whitaker with “Looooooou” each time he made an appearance and would more often than not be rewarded with a base hit or a stellar defensive play from his second-base post.
Louis Rodman Whitaker Jr. was born on May 12, 1957, in Brooklyn, New York. Lou never knew his father, Louis Sr. When he was about a year old, his mother, Marion Arlene Williams, a restaurant worker then pregnant with Lou’s sister Matilda, moved with her family to Martinsville, Virginia, then a town of about 20,000. Lou was raised there by his mother and grandmother’s family in a house that eventually held 16 people, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. His mother worked the 5 p.m.-to-midnight shift at a drive-in restaurant to support her family. Most nights, Lou would be up waiting for her to get home. The family was not well off, but was close and had food on the table. As a youngster, Lou’s legs grew crooked, and the family couldn’t afford the necessary orthopedic help. His family, primarily his uncles, would therapeutically “work” his legs every day and eventually they straightened out.
On Lou’s father’s side, the relationship was nonexistent. Lou Sr. was involved in illegal activities in New York, and consequently Lou has never used the “Jr.” as part of his name and had no desire to establish contact. A 1979 article in The Sporting News, quoted Lou as saying: “He’s never done anything for me. I don’t hate him. I haven’t got time to hate anybody. I just don’t care to meet him. There’s nothing emotionally happening between us.” While in Virginia, Whitaker enjoyed a positive upbringing. He spent a lot of time at the Charity Christian Church and at English Field, a playground. He played his first organized baseball at the age of 10 and found that he could be successful in the sport. By the time he was 13, locals marveled at his prowess on the diamond, especially his strong arm. At Martinsville High School he excelled as a pitcher for the Bulldogs. He played infield, but also experienced success on the mound. A Tigers scout, Wayne Blackburn, filed a report on Lou during his junior season and saw potential in him.
On the way to Martinsville the next spring, Blackburn was in a car accident, so the Tigers never got a report from him during Lou’s senior season. The Tigers had no choice but to go with Major League Scouting Bureau reports. One scored Lou as a 50 (on a 20-80 scale) and the other a 55. As luck would have it, the 55 was from Billy Jurges, whose opinion was greatly respected by Bill Lajoie, then the Tigers’ scouting director. Jurges typically was tough when it came to scoring prospects, and when Lajoie saw a 55, he figured that Whitaker must be of good quality. Jurges had scored him high as a pitcher as well with a “major-league” curveball. After completing a stellar senior season, Lou, who had just turned 18 a few days before, was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the fifth round (99th overall) of the June 1975 amateur draft as a third baseman. Whitaker had signed with Ferrum (Virginia) Junior College, but never played a game for them upon being drafted by the Tigers.
Lajoie drove to Martinsville to sign Whitaker, after Blackburn had failed to convince him in his initial attempts. Lajoie figured that maybe Lou didn’t want to leave home to be on his own. A new suitcase and a set of clothes helped to seal the deal with Whitaker, and Lajoie drove Lou to his first assignment, at Bristol, Virginia, of the Rookie-level Appalachian League, where he played third base.
In one game Whitaker committed three errors and cried afterward, but he came back the next day ready to get back at it. The Tigers were impressed from the beginning. Whitaker played in 42 games with Bristol and batted .237, which wasn’t spectacular, but he showed potential. He began making strides with a confident attitude and playing ability. Whitaker told Tigers general manager Jim Campbell when he met him in 1976 spring training, “I’m Louis Whitaker and I’ll be playing for you soon.” Whitaker backed up his statement by having a great year at Class A Lakeland. He played third base and in 124 games batted .297 and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Florida State League. After the season Lou met someone who became an important part of his blossoming career. Campbell had made the decision to move Lou to second base and pair him with Alan Trammell.
Trammell had been drafted in 1976 and had played at Bristol that season. During the 1976 Fall Instructional League in St. Petersburg, Florida, the pair were roommates at the team hotel. Their careers were intertwined from that time on. Whitaker initially balked at the idea of playing second base, but eventually relented. That fall they worked with Eddie Brinkman, a former major-league shortstop for the Senators and Tigers, who was an instructor for Detroit. After the Instructional League season, Brinkman and the Tigers could see they had something special in the young double-play duo. Brinkman said, “Whitaker is such a natural athlete that he took to second base right away.” Campbell had promised the pair sports coats if they performed well. They didn’t disappoint. Campbell recalled that he drove them to a store “they went right to the rack where they had two suits already picked out. I had promised them a sports coat, remember, but I bought them suits.”
When the 1977 season began, Trammell and Whitaker played for the Montgomery Rebels of the Double-A Southern League, and became close friends. Whitaker said, “We did everything together,” and Trammell echoed that statement: “We didn’t have anybody else. We comforted each other a little. If one of us had a bad night, the other one wouldn’t let him stay down. We became pretty close.” Whitaker played in 107 games for Montgomery and had 111 hits, four triples, three home runs, and a .280 batting average. Trammell was named the league’s MVP, but Brinkman, who managed the team, said, “They could’ve been co-MVPs that year.” Montgomery won the league championship and, after the Rebels defeated Jacksonville in the playoffs, Whitaker and Trammell were rewarded with a trip to the major leagues.
On September 9, 1977, Lou Whitaker made his major-league debut in the second game of a doubleheader in Boston, starting at second base against the Red Sox in front of nearly 35,000 fans. Although the Tigers lost, 8-6, Whitaker showed that he was capable of being successful at the big-league level. In the first inning, he ripped a single in his first at-bat against veteran right-handed pitcher Reggie Cleveland. Lou also collected his first stolen base in that inning. In his second at-bat, he drove in a run with a double to left field. Rick Wise struck Lou out in his third at-bat, but Whitaker greeted Wise with a single to center field his next time up. In his final trip to the plate, Bill Campbell, the Red Sox’ tough closer, struck him out. Lou finished his debut with three hits in five at-bats with one run, one double, one stolen base, and one RBI. Trammell had success as well, collecting two hits in his debut.
As the season drew to a close, the Tigers finished in fourth place in the American League East Division. Whitaker played in 11 games and batted .250 in 32 at- bats. He was flawless at second base, handling 35 chances without an error. During the offseason, the Tigers sold second sacker Tito Fuentes, who had batted .309 in 1977 but made 26 errors, to the Montreal Expos. The Tigers also acquired Steve Dillard from Boston, so that if Whitaker was not ready they would have someone to play second base while Lou developed. Whitaker and Trammell performed so well in spring training that both went north with the club and by May, they became entrenched as the starters at second base and shortstop, replacing Dillard and Mark Wagner. Manager Ralph Houk compared the duo to the combination of Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson that he had managed at the New York Yankees’ Denver farm club. “It’s the damnedest thing,” said Houk. “You tell one of them something and he says, ‘We can do it.’ Like they’re a team.” Houk played a crucial role in their development by letting them play through mistakes without putting pressure on them.
When Whitaker made an Opening Day appearance in front of 52,000 fans at Tiger Stadium for the first time, the Tigers fans had already picked up the chant of “Loooooooou.” Whitaker could hardly believe it. “I thought they were booing me at first,” he said. During the season, the 20-year-old Whitaker continued to impress the Detroit brass, as well as his teammates. Midway through the season, Houk was asked if he had ever seen a better young second baseman in his four decades in baseball. “No,” he answered without hesitation. “The only one I could think of was Bobby Richardson. He was a hell of a ballplayer, but not as good as Whitaker. Those two kids [Trammell and Whitaker], they just play good every day. They’re the best I’ve ever seen for their age. On the double plays, knowing where the ball is going to be, that’s something you can’t teach.”
Whitaker’s always-present confidence in his abilities came through when asked if anything had bothered him. “Didn’t anything bother me from spring training on,” he said. They stuck with us and gave us a chance and now we’re playing every day. I’m playing with a lot of baseball instinct. I try not to let anything get me down.” The Tigers won 86 games in 1978, 12 more than the year before and their best in six years, but still finished only fifth in their division. Houk left at the end of the campaign.
Whitaker batted .285 with 12 doubles, seven triples, and three home runs. His first homer came on July 28, a two-run shot in the bottom of the ninth off Enrique Romo to defeat the Seattle Mariners, 4-3, at Tiger Stadium. Defensively, he finished with a .978 fielding average, making 17 errors. He and his keystone partner, Trammell, led the American League with 95 double plays. Whitaker was named the American League Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America, winning 21 of 28 first-place votes. He was only the second American League second baseman, after Rod Carew of Minnesota in 1967 to win the award. (In The Sporting News ballot, which was voted on by the players, Whitaker was second to Paul Molitor of Milwaukee.) The Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association named Lou the Tigers Rookie of the Year.
The 1979 season brought changes to the Tigers that eventually led to success for the team and Whitaker. Les Moss replaced Houk as manager. Moss lasted only 53 games and was replaced by George “Sparky” Anderson, who had managed Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine teams earlier in the 1970s and had won two World Series. The Tigers finished in fifth place again, 18 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. Whitaker batted.286 with 121 hits, 75 runs scored, and 20 stolen bases in 121 games. At second base, his errors fell from 17 to nine. In November Whitaker was married to Crystal McCreary at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit.
Before the 1980 season the Tigers traded Ron LeFlore to Montreal for pitcher Dan Schatzeder, opening up the leadoff position for Whitaker. Anderson and the Tigers felt that Lou would be the ideal leadoff hitter. “He’s got a great eye and he doesn’t pull the ball,” said Anderson. “There’s no other spot better suited to him.” By the beginning of June, it was obvious that the plan was failing miserably. Whitaker’s batting was below .200, and on June 8 Anderson took Whitaker out of the leadoff spot. “He’s got to relax,” Sparky said. “Hitting somewhere else will give him a breather.”
Whitaker hadn’t experienced anything like this. He began to hear a scattering of boos from the crowd, but he dealt with it in a professional manner. “I can’t let it get to me, “he said. “I’m not hitting very good, but I do what I can to help. My fielding hasn’t suffered. I don’t throw bats or helmets. I don’t use obscene language. Those things just make you look bad.” Batting coach Gates Brown continued to work with Lou on being more aggressive at the plate, to avoid being too selective and putting himself into bad hitting counts. The Tigers once again finished fifth, 19 games behind the Yankees. Whitaker finished with a .233 average in 145 games, but his defense was still strong with a .985 fielding percentage.
In 1981 major leaguers went on strike on June 12 and did not resume playing for 50 days. As a consequence, the season was played in two halves. The Tigers finished fourth in the first half, but were one game behind Milwaukee entering the final weekend of the second half and could have made the playoffs by sweeping the Brewers. But the Brewers thwarted the Tigers by taking the first two games of the series. Whitaker ended the abbreviated season with a .263 batting average and five home runs. He had been hitting near .300 until a leg injury sidelined him for nearly three weeks. His fielding was again stellar at .985.
Lou really flexed his muscles during the 1982 season. Restored to the leadoff spot by Anderson in July, he responded by hitting .313 the rest of the way, pounding out 15 round-trippers and batting .286 for the season. Whitaker seemed to be maturing and developed a knack for hitting balls into the short upper-deck porch in right field at Tiger Stadium, as most left-handed hitters enjoyed doing. He made only 10 errors that season and led AL second basemen with 470 assists, 120 double plays, and a .988 fielding average. Detroit finished a disappointing fourth, 12 games behind the division-winning Brewers. After the season Whitaker signed a five-year contract for about $3.5 million.
In 1983, Whitaker and the Tigers both took another step forward. The Tigers won 92 games and finished second in the division, six games behind Baltimore, and if they had not lost five of seven games to the Orioles down the stretch, they might have overtaken them for the division crown. Whitaker played in 161 games and collected 206 hits for a .320 average, finishing third in the American League batting race (his partner Trammell finished fourth at .319). Whitaker was the first Tigers left-handed batter to collect more than 200 hits since 1943 (Dick Wakefield) and the first Tigers second basemen to collect more than 200 hits since 1937 (Charlie Gehringer). Lou whacked 12 home runs and drove in 72 runs.
Whitaker credited hitting coach Gates Brown with giving him some advice that helped him turn the corner as a hitter. “In the past, if I got two or three hits in a game, I’d kind of let up,” Whitaker said. “I’d lose my concentration at the plate if we had a team beat. I went to Gates and told him this. He told me none of the great hitters give up outs. He said, ‘Get all you can get.’” Milwaukee’s manager, Harvey Kuenn, chose Whitaker as a reserve on the All-Star squad. It was the first of five consecutive All-Star selections for Whitaker. In the game, played in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Whitaker batted twice and had a triple and a sacrifice fly for two RBIs in the American League’s 13-3 win. At the end of the season, Lou was selected as Tiger of the Year for his accomplishments, won his first Silver Slugger Award for being the best hitter at his position in the league, was chosen for his first AL Gold Glove Award, and finished eighth in the league Most Valuable Player vote.
The 1984 season began in unbelievable fashion; the Tigers won their first nine games and 35 of their first 40. Detroit never relinquished first place the entire season and finished with 104 wins, winning the East Division by 15 games. Whitaker played in 143 games and had 161 hits for a .289 average. He scored 90 runs and hit 13 home runs. Once again he won the Gold Glove award for American League second basemen and his hitting got him his second consecutive Silver Slugger Award. Lou’s productivity and the Tigers’ fantastic season contributed to his popularity as he was voted to start the All-Star Game at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. A nagging wrist injury and a sore back and shoulder almost kept him on the bench, but he played and contributed a single and a double in three at-bats. The National League won the game 3-1.
In the first round of the playoffs, Detroit faced the Western Division champion Kansas City Royals. Lou had three singles in 14 at-bats and scored three runs as the Tigers swept the Royals in three straight to go to the World Series against the National League champion San Diego Padres. The Tigers were making their first World Series appearance since the storied 1968 championship team that defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. The teams split the first two games, in San Diego. In Detroit, the Tigers won the next three games and took the world championship. In Game Four, which put the Tigers in command of the Series, Whitaker had two hits, including a double, and scored two runs as the Tigers won, 4-2. He led off the first inning with a double and Trammell followed with a home run. In the third, Whitaker singled and scored when Trammell hit another homer. Game Five was doubly memorable for Whitaker; Detroit clinched the Series with an 8-4 win behind two home runs by Kirk Gibson; and Lou’s wife gave birth to their second daughter on the same day. Whitaker finished with a .286 average for the Series and added six runs, two doubles, and four walks to the team effort. (Whitaker and Trammell, made a television appearance on a Magnum P.I. episode in ‘84. The series’ title character, played by Tom Selleck, was a Tigers fan — as was Selleck — and visited Detroit while working on a case. He “bumped” into Whitaker and Trammell, not recognizing them, during his trip to the Motor City.)
The 1985 season began on an odd note for Lou. In spring training, Sparky Anderson was very high on a rookie, Chris Pittaro. Sparky decided that he would move Whitaker to third base to make room for Pittaro at second. He called Whitaker in to his office and asked him to try it for the good of the team. Initially Lou agreed, but after three days and an article in which Lou had mentioned not being comfortable at third, Sparky talked to him and decided that he would move Lou back to second and try Pittaro at third. The year started well for Lou as he led the American League in mid-May with a .368 batting average (he finished at .279), but the 1984 magic wasn’t there. The Tigers finished in third place, 15 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. Whitaker had his best season so far for power numbers. He hit 21 home runs, including one that cleared the right-field roof at Tiger Stadium, the first leadoff hitter or second baseman to accomplish the feat. He contributed 73 RBIs and scored 102 runs. Lou won his third consecutive Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. He was selected as a starter for the All-Star Game at the Metrodome in Minnesota While traveling to the game, Whitaker left his uniform in his car at the airport in Detroit. Upon realizing his mistake, he asked that an emergency uniform be sent, but it was lost in transit. Lou purchased a replica jersey from a vendor and wrote the number 1 on the back. He borrowed a Cleveland Indians batting helmet and a glove from Cal Ripken Jr. He went 0-for-2 in the game, and the American League lost, 6-1. His “uniform” was eventually collected by the Smithsonian Institution for display purposes.
In 1986 the Tigers improved, but finished in third place, 8½ games behind Boston. Once again Lou was selected to start in the All-Star Game and he hit a two-run homer off Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets in the second inning at the Astrodome in Houston. The home run proved to be the difference in a 3-2 American League victory. He ended up at .269 for the year and had 157 hits, 95 runs, 20 homers, and 73 RBIs. He did not win the Gold Glove Award for the first time in four years as Frank White of the Kansas City Royals reclaimed the award that he had won prior to Whitaker’s three-year run.
The next year, the Tigers reached the postseason. Detroit won 98 games and finished two games ahead of Toronto after sweeping them in the final weekend of the season at Tiger Stadium. They went on to face the upstart Minnesota Twins in the playoffs and were defeated by the underdog Twins, four games to one. Minnesota went on to win the World Series by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. In Game Two, at the Metrodome, Lou hit his only career playoff home run, off Twins right-hander Bert Blyleven. Whitaker hit just .176 in the series. This was his last postseason appearance. During the season he batted .265 with 16 home runs and 59 RBIs, and scored 110 runs, which led him to regain the Silver Slugger Award. He was selected as a reserve for the All-Star Game in Oakland, but did not get into the game during the National League’s 2-0 victory.
The 1988 season ended in embarrassment for Whitaker. With the Tigers in the midst of a pennant race in September, Lou tore cartilage in his knee while dancing with his wife at an anniversary party. “We were doing a fast dance and I did the splits,” Whitaker said. “The first time, nothing happened. The second time I went down, I heard something pop.” Lou didn’t need surgery, but his absence left a hole in an already depleted Detroit lineup that had suffered other injuries. Whitaker had been one of the team’s hottest hitters at the time of the injury. Lou felt bad that he couldn’t contribute, and it made it worse when the Tigers finished in second place, one game behind the Red Sox. He finished with a .275 average, 12 home runs, and 55 RBIs in his abbreviated season.
The bottom fell out of the team in 1989. The Tigers finished 30 games behind Toronto, in last place in their division. Early in the season, Whitaker was put into the third spot in the order. From that position, he attempted to hit more for power, but his average dropped. He ended up hitting a career-high 28 homers and drove in 85 runs (also a personal best), but his batting average fell to .251. With all the problems the Tigers had with injuries as well as players having down years, Whitaker was a bright spot. He felt that he needed to make up for the embarrassment at the end of the previous season, and Sparky understood how important his contribution was by saying, “I hate to think of what the season would be like without him, so I won’t. I know how it is to dwell on everything that’s gone wrong this year. But there are always positive individual accomplishments you can focus on.”
The 1990s saw the Tigers franchise steadily decline, along with its 1980s stars. Whitaker’s average dropped to .237 in 1990, but he hit 18 home runs. He rebounded in 1991 by increasing his average to .279 and socking 23 homers with 78 RBIs. Detroit had a losing record while finishing third in 1990, but won 84 games and finished second in 1991. The 1992 season was a crossroads for Whitaker. He had another solid year (.278 average, 19 homers, 71 RBIs). Sparky Anderson began to rest Lou against left-handed pitchers and at the end of the season, Lou was granted free agency from the Tigers. The Tigers fell to sixth place that year, and there were opportunities for Whitaker to play elsewhere. Lou and his wife wanted to stay in Detroit to keep life stable for their daughters, but he was courted by his old Tigers associate, Bill Lajoie, who was the general manager of the Atlanta Braves. There was also interest from the Orioles and Yankees. Eventually, Lou decided to stay in Detroit and signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract. This turned out to be the last contract Lou signed with the Tigers.
His playing time steadily declined over the next three years, going from 119 games in 1993 to 92 games in 1994 and 84 games in 1995. His batting average for those three years was very good given his limited time, .290, .301, and .293, respectively. The Tigers finished fourth in 1993 with 85 wins. The 1994 season saw the American and National Leagues split into three divisions for the first time. There was also the matter of a players’ strike that cut the season short. Detroit finished fifth — last — in a reconstituted AL East. They finished fourth in 1995, Sparky Anderson’s last season after 16-plus years at Detroit’s helm. Whitaker, his Tigers contract expired, had offers from the Tigers, as well as overtures from the Atlanta Braves, Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox, but he decided that he would call it a career after 19 seasons with the Tigers.
His career totals include 2,390 games, with 2,369 hits, 1,386 runs, 1,084 RBIs, 244 home runs, 143 stolen bases, a batting average of .276, and an on-base percentage of .363. He finished with an overall fielding average of .984, and despite the hubbub of a potential switch to the hot corner in 1985, the only defensive position he ever played was second base. Upon completing his career, Lou joined Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan as the only second basemen to score 1,000 runs, have 1,000 RBIs, collect 2,000 hits, and launch 200 home runs, including four of the inside-the-park variety.
Along with Alan Trammell, who retired after the 1996 season, Lou was involved in a couple of other records. On September 13, 1995, they played in their 1,915th game together, which surpassed the American League record set by George Brett and Frank White of Kansas City. The double-play duo was also a member of an exclusive club of middle infielders who had won Gold Gloves in the same season — the eighth combination to accomplish the feat, doing so twice (1983-84). Also, Whitaker found himself in the top 10 in 10 career offensive categories for Detroit. This includes top-five finishes in games (third), at-bats (fourth), and runs (fourth). Defensively, he finished as the Tigers’ all-time leader in double plays turned with 1,527, and was second in assists with 6,653.
Whitaker settled into retirement by keeping a low profile, moving to Lakeland, Florida, and living there with his wife and daughters. He helped his wife open an upscale boutique in the Lakeland area. “If I wanted to play, I’d have to make a decision,” he said. “My wife and I are going into business. She has supported me, and I’m going to do what I can to support her.” Whitaker also became heavily involved in his religion. He concentrated heavily on missionary work for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He routinely spent at least 840 hours a year on such work. In 1997, the Tigers honored Whitaker and Trammell before a spring-training game and at Tiger Stadium in Detroit before a June 7 game. In the winter of 2001, Whitaker became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame vote. His statistics matched up favorably with those of many Hall of Fame second basemen — especially Joe Morgan — but Whitaker was named on only 2.9 percent of the 515 votes cast and was dropped off the ballot; leaving his election to the Hall up to the Veterans Committee. In 2003, the Tigers hired Trammell as their manager and he opened the door by inviting Lou to help out during spring training. The spring coaching role lasted through 2009. Whitaker felt that with his four daughters — Asia, Angela, Jessica, and Sarah — being almost fully grown, he could devote some time to help the Tigers as an instructor. Whitaker helped his buddy Trammell in the ensuing years as well during spring training and continued to live in Lakeland and spend time with the things he loved: his religion, his family, and baseball.
Last revised: December 1, 2012
This article appeared in "Detroit Tigers 1984: What A Start! What A Finish!" (SABR, 2012), edited by Mark Pattison and David Raglin.
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National Baseball Hall of Fame