Ex-Tigers: Tram, Jack, sweet! Now, how about Sweet Lou?
Detroit — The email popped into the inbox late Sunday night, from a longtime baseball writer with close ties to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“You guys in Detroit happy tonight?”
Getting there, sir. Getting there.
The announcement that Alan Trammell and Jack Morris were, after all these years, Cooperstown-bound was met with practically universal glee from Detroit, the ’burbs, and the entire state of Michigan, from Port Huron to Paw Paw, Pentwater to Petoskey.
And then, in the immediate aftermath of the good word, thoughts turned swiftly — like, say, a 1980s Tigers double play — to Trammell’s longtime double-play partner, Lou Whitaker.
Whitaker remains the forgotten Tiger, certainly not ’round these parts, but definitely nationally.
“I immediately thought of Lou. I went, ‘Now what?’ ” said Dan Petry, who played 11 years alongside Trammell and Whitaker. “He’s the guy that gets tossed off the ballot immediately, and Trammell’s advocating for him, a lot of people are advocating for him. I don’t know. I think it’s gonna be very interesting now.
“Their plaques should be side by side. That’s never going to happen again. That’s not gonna happen. Those are the kind of things people tell stories about, the lore of baseball — fathers pass down to their kids, and grandfathers pass down to their grandchildren.
“I used to watch Trammell and Whitaker.”
Trammell, 59, and Whitaker, 60, debuted the same day, in Boston, in September 1977, and played their entire careers together — 19 in all, with Whitaker retiring one year before Trammell. That was the only thing that separated their careers, that one decision.
And, it was that one year that separated them when it came to the Hall of Fame, with Whitaker appearing on the writers’ ballot one year before Trammell.
In cruel irony, it also was that one year that might’ve done in Whitaker, in that it removed him, for the first time, from the same conversation as Trammell.
Until that year, 2001, when Whitaker first appeared on the ballot, it always was, as former Tigers closer Mike Henneman said, “Tram and Lou, Lou and Tram, Tram and Lou, Lou and Tram.”
Without Trammell by his side, Whitaker received just 2.9 percent of the vote from the writers in 2001, knocking him off the ballot after just one year. Granted, it was a stacked ballot. Two men made the Hall of Fame that year, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett, and five more — Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Rich “Goose” Gossage and Bert Blyleven — made it in future years.
Given the Hall of Fame’s archaic rules that writers can only vote for 10 men, no matter how many are worthy — it’s a rule that remains in place all these years later, despite writers’ overwhelming please for the Hall of Fame to change the rules — Whitaker, the five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner at second base, was a victim of circumstance.
Much more surprising, last month, a committee tasked with putting together the 10-person Modern Era ballot left off Whitaker. His career WAR of 74.9, per Baseball-Reference.com calculations, would’ve made him the most valuable player on the ballot, even better than the two men who made it Sunday night, Trammell and Morris.
“Total (expletive). I’m sorry,” said Henneman, a rookie on the 1987 team — the other Tigers, along with the 1984 World Series champion, that made the playoffs in the 1980s.
“His numbers and what he’s done throughout his career,” said Tom Brookens, “Lou certainly deserves a better look than what he’s gotten.”
To sort out any confusion, were two committees in play here. There was a 11-person committee, made up of longtime baseball writers, that put together the Modern Era ballot, where, again, they were limited to 10 names. Then there was the 16-member committee, made up of Hall-of-Fame players, executives (past and present) and historians that voted Sunday.
Members of the 11-person committee told The News last month that Whitaker’s name was discussed at length, but fell short this time. Maybe there was a fear of the ballot being too overloaded with Tigers. Maybe it’s just that Whitaker’s personality — quiet, aloof, etc. — continues to make folks forget how good he was, with a .363 career on-base percentage and .789 OPS. Unlike Trammell and Morris, Whitaker has stayed mostly away from the game since retirement, too. Baseball-Reference.com lists players who are most similar, and on Whitaker’s page, the five closest are Ryne Sandberg, Trammell, Roberto Alomar, Buddy Bell and Joe Morgan, three of which are in the Hall of Fame, and another, Trammell, who is heading for induction in Cooperstown this July.
Trammell told The News recently his dream always has been to go in with Whitaker. Now, that won’t happen. But there’s a good chance Trammell’s speech this summer will be part stump, for Whitaker’s cause. Whitaker, a fifth-round draft pick by the Tigers out of Martinsville (Va.) High in 1975 and the 1978 AL rookie of the year, will be eligible again in two years, when the Modern Era committee reconvenes.
The election of Trammell and Morris should help raise awareness about his strong case, given all the history lessons baseball fans are about to be treated to regarding the 1984 Tigers.
“Lou was just quiet and went about his business day in and day out. Alan was the same way. They both should be in,” said John Grubb, an outfielder for the Tigers from 1983-87. “Lou was a great second baseman, great hitter, could steal you a base any time you wanted. He played every day, vs. righties and lefties. It will happen with Lou, too.”
Said Lance Parrish: “I hope now maybe this will give everybody an opportunity to take a little closer look.”
The Modern Era committee considers cases of players who made their peak contributions from 1970-87. The good news for Whitaker is that, unlike the writers’ ballot which always is getting a new influx of worthy names, there’s nobody else who can be added to the Modern Era class for consideration. Marvin Miller, the late players-association chief, probably — and rightly so — will be on the ballot again in two years. And longtime catcher/slugger Ted Simmons, a Southfield native who like Whitaker lasted just the one year on the writers’ ballot, probably will be back on ballot, too, after receiving 11 votes Sunday, just one shy of election.
None of the other 10 — not Michigan State alum Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker or Luis Tiant — received even half the votes necessary, so there’s no momentum there, and no reason to continue putting them on the ballot.
So, yes, Whitaker’s time should be coming, even if it’s a long time coming — and long overdue, just like the 1984 Tigers, as a whole. They’re finally getting their first Hall-of-Fame players, after their manager, Sparky Anderson, was inducted in 2000.
The Tigers, themselves, might be able to help the cause by retiring Whitaker’s No. 1 alongside Trammell’s No. 3 and Morris’ No. 47 this August.
“I’ve always been asked the question about, ‘Why do you think that these guys aren’t in the Hall of Fame?’ And I’m always going, ‘Well, geez, I don’t know,’ ” Petry said. “And then people bring it to my attention — it’s not me saying it, they say, ‘Well, hey, the ballclub doesn’t honor the players, so how can a national Hall of Fame honor them if the local team doesn’t?’
“And I always kind of went, ‘Hmmm, boy that’s interesting.”