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.
...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.
Posted: September 23, 2013 at 08:20 AM | 44 comment(s)
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