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Mensching: Lou Whitaker’s Hall of Fame credentials can’t be denied

By Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
Lou Whitaker

It can’t be long now. Right?

On Sunday, Alan Trammell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Lou Whitaker, arguably the most deserving of the 1980s Tigers, still waits for his laurels, receiving no more respect from voters of the Modern Era Ballot that called Trammell’s and fellow Tiger Jack Morris’ name than he did from the baseball writers.

Trammell knows it takes two to turn a double play and there’s work left to be done.

“For 19 years, Lou Whitaker and I formed the longest running double-play combination in the history of baseball,” he said in his induction speech. “I doubt that record will ever be broken. Lou and I were called up to the big leagues from Double-A on the same day. We both played in our first big league ballgame at Fenway Park on the same day. We both got hits at our first Major League at-bats off the same pitcher, Reggie Cleveland, and we both got our last hits of our careers off the same pitcher, Mike Fetters. Can you believe that? That's truly amazing.

“For all those years, it was Lou and Tram. Lou, it was an honor and a pleasure to have played alongside you for all those years, and I hope – my hope is some day you'll be up here as well.”

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What makes for a Hall of Fame worthy career is of course a little bit subjective. Some people are going to go straight to their memory, thinking about how they perceived a player. Was he intimidating? Did you know when he was at the mound or at the plate that something good was about to happen? If a championship was on the line, is his the name you want to hear?

Statistically, it’s hard to argue for Morris’ inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Tell that to someone who saw him pitch, though, and they’ll dismiss them. Morris was a winner and he was known for being the hard-nosed ace of winning teams. The memory of Morris leading the Twins to a 1-0 victory in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, pitching all 10 innings, may be what locked in his career as Hall of Fame worthy rather than just really good.

But memories aren’t everything. You could look to see how contemporaries thought, but come up empty as well. For as good as Trammell was, he finished no higher than second in the MVP vote, and didn’t even average a top-five finish in his league in the years voters considered him. He didn’t earn the top rookie honor either. That was Whitaker.

Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker in 1992.

Considering it took until this weekend to honor any of the 1980s Tigers at all in the Hall of Fame, maybe the idea that players in Detroit were overlooked is a fair one after all.

So that’s why all these years later, while memories fade, it makes the most sense just to look at the stats and see if a mistake was made by the quick disregarding of Whitaker’s career by those whose job is to seek out Hall of Fame careers.

Like Trammell, Whitaker didn’t have a lot of awards to show for his time in the big leagues, with five All-Star appearances, four Silver Slugger wins and three Gold Gloves.

Yet Sport Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe, who developed a statistic he named JAWS to compare careers, found Whitaker ranked as the 13th best second baseman of all time. Just one player with better numbers than Whitaker is missing from the Hall, while 12 Hall of Fame second basemen had worse careers.

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As a second baseman who could play in the field and hit for power at the plate, Whitaker was especially valuable in his era. His 244 home runs ranks 10th for the position, all time. His 75 WAR is above the 69.5 of the average Hall of Fame second baseman.

Asked by The Athletic’s Katie Strang whether Whitaker should be included, Jaffe said yes (pay site).

“And not just a, ‘Well, sort of.’ I think, ‘Absolutely.’” he said. “I think he’s well-qualified. He wouldn’t be the best second baseman in the Hall, but he’d be better than about half of the ones that are in there.”

Small Hall fans may not find that worthy of an exception, but that’s not the Hall we have. We have one that includes the best players of their era and tells the story of baseball’s history.

Sunday, Morris’ memorable career was immortalized. Trammell’s two-way strengths at last were recognized.

But an error has been made. It was always Lou and Tram for a reason.

While they couldn’t go into Cooperstown together, we can only hope that sooner than later, Lou’s and Tram’s equally Hall of Fame-worthy careers will both be recognized as that.

One mistake was fixed Sunday, but we have one left to go.

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.