'I can only say thank you': After HOF snub, Tigers decide to retire Lou Whitaker's No. 1

Julie Walker Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The sour taste sure didn't last long for Sweet Lou.

Less than two weeks after he again was passed over for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Tigers informed him they would ditch team protocol and retire his No. 1 anyway. The ceremony will take place Aug. 29.

Lou Whitaker

The announcement came Tuesday afternoon, in a Twitter post from the team, saying, simply, "It's time." For many fans, it more appropriately would've said, "It's past time."

His number will be side by side with, who else, Alan Trammell's No. 3, the Tigers having left the space open, not coincidentally, when the retired Trammell's number in 2018.

"It’s one of those things that you just don’t know what to say," Whitaker said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. "Even after watching the wall with all the names for 19 years. Now here is a day for you, for me, and now it’s hard to put words into the meaning. It’s so much love and appreciation that goes with it from the many years that I played there. The support from all the fans, of course the Detroit organization giving me an opportunity. I can only say thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Whitaker said he learned the news Tuesday morning, in a phone call from CEO Christopher Ilitch.

Interestingly, the Ilitch family, at least with the Tigers, have typically waited until a player had been inducted into the Hall of Fame before retiring their number. That was the case for Trammell's No. 3 and Jack Morris' No. 47, retired in the summer of 2018 after they were enshrined in Cooperstown.

More: Tigers great Lou Whitaker misses out on Baseball Hall of Fame

This time, the Tigers decided to say the heck with that. After weeks of promoting Whitaker's Hall of Fame case on Twitter, and after Whitaker was passed up at the winter meetings earlier this month, they finally decided he had waited long enough. Whitaker retired from the Tigers after the 1995 season.

“The Detroit Tigers are one of the most storied franchises in the history of America’s pastime. Tradition. History. Championships. Generations of fans have supported this baseball team with pride and passion as countless all-time Tiger greats have taken the field," Christopher Ilitch said in a statement.

"Today’s announcement regarding the retirement of No. 1 at Comerica Park is a tribute to that history, tradition and passion demonstrated over the course of his career."

The ceremony will take place on a Saturday, Aug. 29, prior to the Tigers night game against the Red Sox.

Whitaker, 62, played his entire 19-year major-league career with the Tigers, exclusively at second base. His career was spent entirely alongside Trammell, the duo forming the longest-running double-play combination in baseball history. Trammell retired one year later than Whitaker, which threw off going on the Hall of Fame ballot the same year, which could've hurt Whitaker's case.

Whitaker wasn't flashy, at least on the field, but could do it all, a true five-tool guy. He had 244 home runs. He had 143 stolen bases. He had three Gold Gloves, and made five All-Star Games (one of which he hilariously forgot to pack his jersey).

Some would say his low-key demeanor has cost him Hall of Fame consideration. How else can you explain a guy with a 75.1 career WAR lasting just one year on the writers' ballot (he received 2.9 percent of the vote, less than the 5 percent needed to continue on to future ballots), while a guy with a shockingly similiar career WAR, Derek Jeter, could be a unanimous first-ballot selection when results are announced in January? Contemporaries like Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar breezed through the writers' ballot, but Whitaker never built a lick of momentum, until recently. Or so we thought.

Whitaker was a popular fan choice in the weeks leading up to the vote by the Modern Era Committee, but received just six votes from the 16-person commitee last month; he needed 12 to be elected. Ted Simmons, the long-time catcher and Southfield native, made it, as did Marvin Miller, the late players-union executive.

"I think I was more excited this time than I was before," Whitaker said. "Maybe just after all the years, you know, just listening to the fans, you know, bringing up the WAR. I think that was the big thing to me. They really showed over the years what I had done as a baseball player playing with the Detroit Tigers. It sort of put the icing on the cake for what you did as a player.

"A player has no control over the voting process. I’ve always said my job was to get an opportunity to play. I got that."

After Whitaker missed out on the Hall of Fame, social-media sentiment was strong toward the Tigers, imploring them to retire Whitaker's number anyway.

Alan Trammell greets longtime double-play partner Lou Whitaker after Whitaker spoke during a ceremony to retire Trammell's jersey at Comerica Park in August 2018.

Whitaker will be back on the Hall of Fame ballot in three years, hoping time continues to be his friend and continues to bolster his case in this era of analytics.

For once, though, the Tigers aren't willing to wait.

He'll be the 10th Tiger to have his number retired — ninth if you don't count Ty Cobb, who played when they didn't wear numbers — joining Trammell, Morris, Charlie Gehringer (2), Hank Greenberg (5), Al Kaline (6), Sparky Anderson (11), Hal Newhouser (16), Willie Horton (23). The Tigers also have retired Jackie Robinson's No. 42, which is universally retired through Major League Baseball.

Only two players had worn No. 1 since Whitaker retired: shortstop Jose Iglesias from 2013-18, with Whitaker's blessing, and second baseman in Josh Harrison on 2019.

Whitaker had hoped to be side by side with Trammell in Cooperstown, so much so that after taking part in Trammell's ceremony in August 2018, he met with the media, then concluded with, "See y'all in two years."

Yes he will. Just in Detroit. Not Cooperstown.

But he'll still be with Trammell, who was a shoulder to lean on earlier this month when Whitaker didn't get the Hall of Fame call.

"First thing Tram said, 'Lou, did you get the call?' And I said, 'No, they said they would call. … I hadn’t heard anything. … We basically knew, that, nothing happened," Whitaker said. "You know., disappoint on his end; disappointment on my end. Life is like that.

"You learn as a man learn how to accept victories and also learn how to accept losses and defeats."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984