The unapproachable greatness of Sweet Lou

Despite playing 19 seasons for the Detroit Tigers, Sweet Lou Whitaker was something of an enigma.

Despite playing 19 seasons for the Detroit Tigers, Sweet Lou Whitaker was something of an enigma.

Tell me what Sweet Lou sounded like. I dare you. You can’t do it. He didn’t speak, not to George or Al or Paul or even Ernie. No Florsheim Shoes for those size 10 feet.

But even though he didn’t give interviews, Tiger fans fell in love with their second baseman. He was a little man blessed with big talent. We cascaded “LOOOOOU” down onto the field every time he stepped into the batter’s box, every time he delivered a clutch hit, each time he made a great play with the glove.

Yet, for as much as we loved him, for 19 years he was smack dab in the middle of the field where we could all see him, but we never really did get a good look. He was a phantom at second base.

Due to his spiritual beliefs, when the national anthem was played, Whitaker stayed tucked away in the dugout, unapproachable. Similarly, he stood apart from his team. Gibson had raw aggression; Trammell was the accomplished professional, the point guard, the leader on the field; Morris was a conflicted, moody stud who stalked the mound. What was Lou? He was there – making it look easy, but never really getting much attention. He was a victim of his own talents too. As BaseballLibrary.com wrote, his “seemingly effortless play left him open to criticism.”

Whitaker did make playing baseball look easy, but not like Robinson Cano, a modern second baseman who struts super cool Jay-Z-like across the diamond as if he’s trying to show you how great he is. No, Whitaker wasn’t conceited, he just did everything with smooth, fluid action. His play at second base wasn’t flashy – it was remarkably steady and efficient. There was an economy of motion with Sweet Lou – no wasted effort, no unnecessary actions. Glide to the ground ball, brace for the pivot, fire to first. He wasn’t nonchalant, he was precisely calibrated. It was as if God himself scooped up some clay, hand crafted the perfect second baseman, set him down near the middle of a baseball diamond, and nodded his approval.

There are some clips out there of Lou playing baseball, but I defy you to find one where he looks like he’s running really hard, where he dives desperately, where he ever looks out of control. He had that odd ability (Joe DiMaggio had it, and so did Gale Sayers, and Tom Brady does now) of being able to look like he was cruising when he was actually giving it 100%. No strained looks of physical exertion, no frantic scrambling down the first base line, no fumbling of the baseball. With his tippy-toe steps down the line (he was pigeon toed as a child), Whitaker was fast without ever looking like he tried to be. He swung with power, but his body was balanced. He threw the baseball extremely hard (probably harder than any other second baseman of the last 40 years), but he seemed to be flicking the ball. Zip, zip, zip … 108-stitches sailing across the field, dead-on target. In Game One of the ’84 Series, his relay throw from short right field that cut down a poor San Diego runner at third base was probably the most famous play he ever made, but Sweet Lou did that 8-10 times a year away from the big stage. Not even 6 feet tall, he could flick his bat through the strike zone, twist his 29-inch waist toward the pitcher, and send the ball soaring into the upper deck – and once even over the roof-  of Tiger Stadium.

He led off most of the games he played in, almost as if we needed an immediate reminder that he was still there. He never met a first-pitch fastball that he didn’t like, and as he matured, he usually swung at them. If the Tigers were plus or minus three runs, you could bet on a quick AB from Sweet Lou. Did he phone it in at times? Sure. Sparky Anderson believed that had Whitaker approached every trip to the plate as if it were a crucial situation, he would have won a batting title. Economy of motion, no wasted effort.

Teammates marveled at his intuition and his natural knack for the game. But to say that he relied on physical gifts and didn’t work hard would be incorrect, Sweet Lou took the grounders – thousands of them – and he shuffled thousands of baseballs to buddy Trammell over the years. Though some have made this argument, the famed Detroit double play duo was not the case of the white athlete working hard while the black athlete just did what came natural. Whitaker took BP too.

There were probably a few interviews now and again, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you what the hell Lou’s voice even sounds like. Parrish, Gibson, Trammell, they were the voice of the players, when Sparky allowed any dead air to be filled with something besides his own voice. There was one un-Whitaker like moment – after Game #162 of the ’87 season. Detroiter Frank Tanana had just shot out the Blue Jays at The Corner to clinch the division title. As Tanana gave an interview to NBC Sports, Sweet Lou interrupted with a big hug and a beaming smile. It was a rare glimpse at Whitaker’s personality. Moments later, Sweet Lou gave Trammell a gift: the second base bag, which he’d ripped from the infield dirt and signed “To Alan Trammell, MVP, – Lou Whitaker”.

How can we insist that Sweet Lou deserves a bronze plaque in Cooperstown if we ourselves never really got close to him? If Detroit hardly knew him, how can a sportswriter in Iowa be expected to judge him? It’s been said that as time passes, the character and personality of an icon starts to fade, and what we’re left with is the record. It’s true for ballplayers and Presidents. That will probably help Lou, who has numbers on his ledger that only 3-4 second basemen in baseball history can match or surpass, but who was unapproachable and distant even as he was a star on the baseball field. Neither of the two contemporary second sackers in the Hall, Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar, have career numbers that are any better than those of Whitaker. Somehow, though, Sweet Lou was brushed aside by the electors, lasting just one year on the Hall of Fame ballot. If there has ever been a more signature reason for tearing down the entire voting process than this, I am unaware of it.

The man himself says the Hall of Fame is not important, and while athletes often make statements which are pure BS, I believe him. “The players I played with and against, they know what sort of ballplayer I was,” Whitaker told an audience scribbling in notepads a few years ago under a sunny sky in Lakeland. A quiet but thoughtful man, Whitaker has a peace inside him that prevents him from feeling slighted. He also has a confidence, one that was concealed under his easy style of play, that fortifies him with a sense of “I know who I am.”

Tiger fans know who he was, and they approved. Cooperstown should make a similar conclusion and honor Sweet Lou, the most underrated great ballplayer of his time.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.