The worst that could be said of former Detroit Tiger Lou Whitaker’s Hall of Fame candidacy is that the second baseman was a borderline case. The best that could be said is that Whitaker was a more consistently productive player than Hall of Fame second basemen Ryne Sandberg, Jackie Robinson, and Frankie Frisch among others and therefore a slam dunk Hall of Fame choice. Instead, Whitaker appeared on one ballot, in 2001, failed to receive even 5% of the vote, and was dropped, coldly and permanently, from the writers’ ballot. Even more strangely and unfortunate, this snub barely caused a ripple. No Nellie Fox-like societies sprang up to noisily complain and mount a concerted campaign on his behalf.
Over the years, numerous writers have tried to quantify the Hall of Fame election process, including Bill James in his groundbreaking book, The Politics of Glory. In 2004, Jay Jaffe, then at Baseball Prospectus, created what he termed JAWS (Jaffe War Score System) to measure Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing candidates who played the same position to those already in the Hall of Fame. Essentially, Jaffe devised a metric that combined a player’s career WAR (total wins above replacement) and his peak WAR (an average of his top seven years). Jaffe’s work has become the gold standard for many, certainly those who believe in the efficacy of advanced statistics, in determining Hall of Fame merit. There are 19 second baseman in the Hall of Fame and their average JAWS score is 57.0. Whitaker’s JAWS score is 56.3, putting him squarely in the middle of other Hall of Fame second basemen. Indeed, Whitaker’s JAWS score leaves him 11th among already enshrined second basemen. This is hardly the profile of a ballplayer who should be cast off into Hall of Fame oblivion. Whitaker, however, is not the only deserving second baseman to fail to stir Hall of Famer voters. Bobby Grich, with a JAWS score of 58.6 and a ranking of seventh among Hall of Fame second basemen, picked up fewer than 3% of the vote in 1992 and was jettisoned from the ballot forever as well. So, these things happen. Ignorance, as the saying goes, knows no bounds. Then again it’s probably not fair to expect voters to make decisions based on analysis that was anything but mainstream at the time.
But what’s curious about Whitaker’s case, and what separates it from Bobby Grich’s case, is that during Whitaker’s career plenty of people talked about Whitaker as a serious Hall of Fame candidate. I searched through pages of newspaper archives and a few magazines from the 1980s and early 1990s and could find no meaningful mention of Bobby Grich and the Hall of Fame. The idea just never took root among reporters and fans. I was a baseball fan in 1970, albeit a young one, when Grich debuted. I remember his career, with Baltimore and then the Angels. Hyperbole about ballplayers raged among broadcasters then, as it does today, yet I can’t recall any “Is Grich a Hall of Famer?” discussions. If your career ends and no one is asking the Hall of Fame question then the odds you’ll even stay on the ballot past the initial one are as long as coming back from 10 runs down in the ninth.
Whitaker, on the other hand, generated a good deal of discussion about the Hall of Fame. In 1993, for instance, an AP syndicated article about Whitaker opened with this line: “If history is any guide, Lou Whitaker will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.” This suggests that the numbers Whitaker was putting up and his all around game were considered Hall worthy deep into his career. Furthermore, I followed Whitaker’s career from start to finish, while living in Michigan, Colorado, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Dallas. It was not uncommon for broadcasters from opposing teams to refer to Whitaker as a future Hall of Famer. As Whitaker’s career wound down, many started to notice that he was closing in on some of the numbers put up by Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, who was elected in 1990. Sparky Anderson drew attention to this in an interview in 1993. When Whitaker finally retired, at the end of the 1995 season, his Hall of Fame chances were usually paired with that of his keystone partner, Alan Trammell, with whom he set a major league record for most games played all-time by a keystone combination. In April of 1995, Sports Illustrated pondered the future of the Tigers without their double play combo and offered this bit of doggerel at the end: “Their [Whitaker and Trammell] final double play might be scored Trammell-to-Whitaker-to-Cooperstown.” Other national writers considered the same thing. Writing in 1996 about the potential of the Orioles double play tandem of Cal Ripken and Roberto Alomar, the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell, one of the pre-eminent baseball writers at the time, compared them to other Hall of Fame keystone duos and one potential one, Trammell and Whitaker, both of whom he suggested, “may someday join that Hall of Fame combo category.”
Five short years later, Whitaker finished only a couple of percentage points ahead of such esteemed ballplayers as Tom Henke, Steve Bedrosian, Jose Rijo, and John Kruk. With 2.9% of the Hall of Fame vote Whitaker was exiled from all future writers’ ballots.
That Whitaker didn’t stampede his way into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot was not surprising. That he failed to survive the initial cut was. How did Whitaker go from Sports Illustrated contemplating his Hall of Fame plague in 1995 to riding coach with the likes of Tom Henke in 2001?
For starters, it’s clear now, his Hall of Fame support did not run deep, despite the odd mention from nationally respected sources and sycophantic local broadcasters. But it certainly was prevalent enough in 1995 that Whitaker should have hung around for a few more ballots. Below I do some spitballing about why Whitaker’s Hall of Fame candidacy ended before it ever really started.
1. Whitaker retired in 1995. Everyone thought Trammell would retire the same year but he held on for one more season. That meant Whitaker and Trammell appeared on separate ballots, for the 2001 and 2002 classes respectively. This may have damaged the chances of both Whitaker and Trammell, because by the end of their careers most Hall of Fame conversation about the two centered on them entering the Hall together. When confronted with just Whitaker in 2001 it’s possible voters couldn’t wrap their minds around an independent vote for just one of them.
2. Whitaker never announced during the season that he was retiring, although he hinted at it. Even if he had made a public announcement the baseball world was transfixed by something else in September 1995: Cal Ripken and his pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game’s played streak. The story dominated baseball coverage in September of 1995, a year in which baseball was struggling to recover from the damage done by the strike-canceling World Series from the year before. Whitaker played in front of only 14,000 fans in the Tigers final home game that year, and then he and memories of his career seemed to fade quickly into black.
3. “Sweet Lou” shunned publicity with the determination of a cloistered monk. “Lou has never brought attention to himself, so Cooperstown may be tough,” said his manager Sparky Anderson in 1991. Of course one doesn’t need to be a self-promoter and publicity hound to gain admission to the Hall of Fame. Pitcher and notorious recluse Steve Carlton is proof of that. But Carlton owned the kind of flashy numbers that Hall of Fame voters lapped up, such as 300 wins and Cy Young awards. Whitaker fell short of 3000 hits, topped .300 only twice in his career, only once finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, and won only three gold gloves. Perhaps worse, Whitaker possessed a few personality quirks that certainly did him no favors with Hall of Fame voters. One of Whitaker’s more damning habits was that he never saluted the flag during the National Anthem, an act that likely offended many but especially the older voters who came of age during WWII or Vietnam. His most celebrated “tone-deaf” act took place in the middle of the contentious 1994 strike when Whitaker showed up at a union meeting in a limousine, no doubt rankling many Hall of Fame voters, and fans, who still tended to sympathize with the owners in labor disputes and thought ballplayers made too much money. Further complicating things was that many in baseball considered Whitaker aloof. Avoiding publicity and exhibiting a few oddball traits was one thing. But being quiet and distant was seen by some reporters as a character flaw. One scribe for the Chicago Daily Herald, Terry Boers, who was also a well-known sports talk radio host in the Windy City, called Whitaker “an unfriendly jerk” in a 1995 article. And finally, Whitaker played baseball with a calm ease that many fans and media mistook for indifference. For instance, when he ran the bases it appeared as if he was jogging, because he ran with little motion, keeping his hands to his side and his head steady. Whitaker fought the “he doesn’t care” charge throughout this career.
4. His hometown Tigers did him no favors. First, the franchise was in the throes of a decline that would persist for a decade. The Tigers won more games than any other MLB franchise in the 1980s, but by 1995 they had posted a winning record in only two of the previous seven years. In the immediate post retirement years of Whitaker, the five-year period when support for Hall of Fame candidacy should be building, Detroit slipped completely out of the consciousness of the national media. As for the Tigers themselves, the franchise was singularly focused on getting a new ballpark. It seemed as though the heroics of the 1980s, when Whitaker shined, were swept under the rug, hidden there while the baseball world moved on from Detroit and the Tigers found a new home. When Whitaker showed up on the ballot in 2001 his resume lacked the Hall of Fame anchor that propels other stars from currently failing franchises into the Hall, such as 3,000 hits or 600 HRs.
5. And finally, in 2001 the prototype middle infielder had changed. Power cropped up everywhere on the diamond, including second base. Middle infielders were regularly hitting 30 and 40 home runs. Although Whitaker’s 244 career home runs puts him among the all-time leaders at his position, the most he ever hit in a season was 28 (in 1989). His national league contemporary and future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg better fit the mold of the millennium’s new second baseman. Sandberg clubbed 40 home runs one year, 30 another. Voters in 2001, however subtly, probably developed biases in favor of candidates who hit for power the way the modern middle infielders hit for power.
Whatever the reasons for Whitaker’s bizarre descent from strong Hall of Fame possibility to first ballot implosion the fact remains that Lou Whitaker was one of the greatest second baseman in the history of major league baseball. For that reason he deserves to be in the Hall.