Detroit — The Sweet Lou Whitaker comedy revue was nearly over.
You read that right. It was the Whitaker comedy routine where he made people double over in laughter. The man, who was always portrayed as sullen and distant, had people in stitches during the second annual Negro Leagues Weekend Legacy Luncheon at the Tigers Club inside Comerica Park.
"Hey, are there any cameras around?" he asked a small group of reporters afterward.
The lights were off moments after a luncheon where he was honored as the Detroit Tigers African American Legacy recipient. He leaned forward and let his inner self go, something he is not known for.
"I knew I was good. I knew how good I was," he said. "Nobody could tell me."
He was trying to explain why he did not enjoy talking about himself as a player. That may have played a part in getting booted off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year because he did not receive the required five percent of votes. He was not the most engaging Tiger during his 19 years with the team. He was Sweet Lou on the field, winning Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger awards, but he never had a silver tongue. It is a travesty he is not at least eligible for the Hall.
If more writers had seen this side of him, they might have given him more consideration.
None of this matters to Whitaker. He came to the ballpark to play ball, not talk about it. He did his best to be the best player he could be. He did not play to make the Hall of Fame.
"I never liked talking about baseball," Whitaker said. "I don't know why. It was just me. My theory was, you saw the game. You were watching. What did you miss? I just didn't want to talk about baseball. I knew how well I played and how much I loved playing baseball. I could not do that 162 days a year."
Former Tiger Hall-worthy
Whitaker can never come to town without hearing from angry Tiger fans who wonder why he isn't in the Hall. Alan Trammell and Whitaker were part of the best and longest-running double-play combination in baseball history and baseball should honor them in some way. His numbers, which included 2,369 hits, 244 home runs and 1,084 RBIs, compare favorably with current Hall of Fame players.
If Johnny Evers (.270, 12 home runs, 536 RBIs), Joe Gordon (.268, 253 home runs, 975 RBIs) and Bill Mazeroski (.260, 138, 853) are in, then why not Sweet Lou?
But here is what voters don't consider. His defense was stellar and he turned a double play better than anyone else and more consistently.
"I appreciate all of the support from others," Whitaker said. "When I came to play in the Major Leagues, that is not anything that stood out — I want to be a Hall of Famer. I just wanted to go out there and play and do the best I can do. Yes, my numbers (were good). I understand that. I am not going to sit here and say what you might really want to hear. The Hall of Fame is not for me to even say."
Whitaker felt at home Friday afternoon. He was surrounded by people who loved and respected him. He remains one of the most popular former Tigers and was greeted with a trademark "Louuuu!!" from the audience.
"This gentleman here is one of the greatest second baseman in Major League history," said Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski. "I think one of the greatest disservices is he was not close to making the Hall of Fame. There were quirky rules where he did not get the five percent."
Whitaker said: "When I didn't get the five percent, I didn't shed one tear. Maybe it was an injustice but the thing is, I wasn't a media guy. I might have rubbed people the wrong way. It was not me being rude. Maybe it was others because I don't want to talk to one person, they go around telling everybody else he don't talk. I will speak but I have to be approached in a way with respect and not just when I do bad. I can handle that."
I once approached Whitaker at Tiger Stadium prior to a game hoping for an interview.
"You know I don't talk before games," he said.
I was in a salty mood and replied: "Sorry. I didn't get the memo."
Whitaker laughed and told me to come see him after the game and granted an interview.
If the media had experienced the Whitaker we saw on Friday, more would have voted for him.
Whitaker had the crowd in stitches when talking about leaving his uniform and bat at home. He said he packed his bags and put them in the car the night before. The problem is he drove a different car to the airport. Whitaker bought a uniform at the gift shop and played. He said he could cut off his dress pants and play ball.
"It's not what you wear, it is how you play," Whitaker said. "If everybody is looking professional and I am looking like a clown at the end of the day, I am going to win."
Why was he called Sweet Lou?
"I am from Virginia and Virginia is for lovers," he quipped.
'You have to play'
Five Negro League players came to honor Whitaker, along with current Tigers pitcher David Price. The percentage of African-American players has dwindled to eight percent and Whitaker had interesting things to say about that.
"You have kids from around the world today," he said. "Baseball is something I did as a kid that you play every day. They (foreign players) don't have computers and all the other stuff. They are learning baseball. All I can say is, I hope the kids of color put in more time. We had to. You want to play at this level? This is not a once-a-week job. It is something you have to have love for the game in your heart. You have to play and the opportunity may arrive."
The problem is black kids in America do not have passion for the game as Whitaker did. When he met Trammell, they fielded ground balls for hours for 30 days in a row. They did not become the best double-play combination by luck. It was skill and hard work.
That is why Whitaker was honored by the Tigers and why he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.