Talk to just about any baseball fan in Martinsville and Henry County, and most will tell you the greatest injustice in sports is the fact Lou Whitaker isn’t in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
Are they biased? Sure. But it’s also because they’ve seen the infielder nicknamed “Sweet Lou” first hand. They watched him grow up, jumping over the fence at English – now Hooker – Field to play with broken bats and found foul balls from sun up to sun down. They fielded his home runs over the fence at Martinsville High School, where he graduated in 1975.
They followed his storied 19-year career with the Detroit Tigers, a career that started with a Rookie of the Year title in 1978, included a World Series ring in 1984, and ended with five all-star game selections, four silver slugger awards, and three gold gloves as one half of a legendary double-play combo alongside Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell.
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They knew the way he carried himself, his humble attitude and quiet, often shy, demeanor. He played with the same sensibility and work ethic from the time he was 10 to the time he was 38.
Whitaker isn’t in the Hall of Fame – yet – but this weekend, Martinsville’s own will receive the biggest honor of his career, so far. The Tigers will hang his jersey and retire his number so no other who takes the field at Comerica Park in Detroit blue can wear the No. 1 he made famous. The team held a ceremony honoring the former Bulldog prior to the start of their game on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays.
In talking to fans, former teammates and opponents, there was one sentiment that prevailed with them all. Whitaker is among the best to ever play in Martinsville, and it’s beyond time he gets his due.
‘THE BEST TEAM EVER ASSEMBLED’
Whitaker grew up in the Standpipe neighborhood of Martinsville, just a short walk to English Field, which was later renamed Hooker Field. He and other youngsters in the neighborhood would hop the fence to play baseball all day during the summer.
He eventually started playing on local Pony League and Connie Mack League teams in the area. And while there was no shortage of baseball talent in Martinsville and Henry County, he may have been one of the smallest players on the field, but he stood out from the rest.
Robert Hopkins (Martinsville Oilers teammate): I guess I was 10 years old the first time I saw Lou Whitaker play, and Lou was better than everybody else. He could just do things and he could play.
Ever since little league we all knew Lou was better than the rest of us. That’s how far back it went. And he was always a really nice guy. He was very humble, friendly. Just a good memory from my teenage years and childhood just saying I knew him.
Tim Hall (former teammate at Martinsville High School): Supremely talented. Anybody could see that. Even in high school, he was just gifted. And along with that gift he put the work in and the combination is what gets you to where he’s gotten. Awfully talented, awfully smart, great baseball instincts. He was blessed.
Danny Turner (former teammate at Martinsville High School): We knew that he had some extra skills. We also thought Roy Clark would make it too. We had a number of players who were fairly good at that time… Lou and Roy were both a head above everybody else.
Roy Clark (former MHS and Oilers teammate): We played together for eight or 10 years and he just went about his business. Was the same guy every day. Never too high, never too low. He was just a great, great influence, a great teammate.
At the time, there was no county or city parks and recreation baseball. Players of all ages went to tryouts for teams in the area, and simply hoped to get picked.
Whitaker, playing mainly third base and pitching, was part of a legendary Martinsville Oilers team of 17 and 18 year olds that went on to the Connie Mack League World Series in New Mexico. He played part of the season before signing a major league contract.
Hopkins: Baseball and sports in general was really what you had if you wanted to do something. It was tough making the team, and Lou was always the first guy picked. Always.
Clark: We started playing together, it was back in Pony League, which would be, what? Twelve years old? We were on the same Pony League and we just kind of played on all the summer league teams, high school teams, everything together until he signed his major league contract.
The first time I was introduced to Lou, we had a sheriff in Henry County named C.P. Witt. And C.P. Witt was putting together a Pony League team, so the younger age group he got the first two picks, because they were an expansion team. And he picked Lou and I, and that was how we started.
The older group, he got the first pick. And his pick was a guy named Talmadge Tanks, who ended up being a professional baseball player too, and a college football player. And that was how we all got introduced to each other.
Hopkins: I went to Laurel Park, but I lived just barely out of city limits on the North side, so I grew up with all the Martinsville guys more than I did the Laurel Park guys.
From little league all the way through I managed to be on the opposite team from Lou. And then in the summer of ’75, the city and the county had two Connie Mack league teams. Martinsville, Laurel Park, and Drewry Mason guys played for the Oilers, and Bassett and Fieldale Collinsville were the Outlaws. So that was a bit rivalry.
I was fortunate enough to be on the Oilers. The greatest team ever assembled in Martinsville and Henry County.
Clark: I don’t even know how many state tournaments we won in the summers. World Series. It was just amazing. And everybody was pulling for each other. We all worked hard and we had great coaches.
Hooker Field, whenever we would play, that place was packed. Every game it seemed like.
Hopkins: I caught him a few times that summer. He could make a baseball do more things from the pitcher’s mound than anybody I ever caught. He had a good arm. He could make it drop, curve, throw knuckle balls.
Ray Reynolds (former opponent): No one had the ability to do what he did for his size. And when you saw him play you knew he was special. He had a better arm than most anybody on any team around here. His arm was special.
But he was so small. At the time he was like 5’7, 5’8, 150 pounds. But when he threw it he got your respect. And when he hit it, you always could tell if you were in the stands and he was hitting. You could tell because of the way the ball would come of the bat. It just had a different sound to it.
Clark: He was a tremendous teammate. We knew he was a great player. At that time in the area there was a lot of good baseball players, but Lou always stuck out. You never heard that much about him and how good he was. He was so humble, just went out and played the game. He could have been a tremendous pitcher if he wanted to. He was so good.
Reynolds: Him playing third base in high school, I don’t ever remember him getting an error. He was like a vacuum. Everything hit to him he got.
Hopkins: Lou was a little guy. I don’t think he ever hit a ball out of Hooker Field. He hit 200 and something home runs in the major leagues, but I don’t really remember him hitting a ball out of there.
But Lou could do things with the baseball. He could hit, pitch, played infield, just whatever you wanted him to do.
Clark: The scouts started coming around and you realized he could run, he was a well above-average fielder, well above-average arm. I didn’t know he was going to hit for that kind of power that he did when he got to the major leagues, but he’s such a great athlete I guess nothing should surprise me.
The nickname “Sweet Lou,” it was not only his ability and tools, but it was definitely his demeanor. He always had a smile on his face. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say one negative about anything. He’s just that kind of person and always had been.
Hall: I think it shows that anything is possible no matter where you live. If you’re talented, they will find you, but it’s not enough being talented. There’s a whole lot of guys that are talented that never got outside of the city/county borders.
The drive to succeed, to achieve, the quiet confidence. Lou all along knew he was better than probably some folks thought he was. Whether that drove him or not, I don’t know, but he was special. Is special. I don’t want to talk about him in the past tense. He was a phenomenal athlete who probably could have succeeded in a whole other sport if he had tried to.
Clark: Put it this way. I’ve been in scouting for 40 years. I’m looking for the next Lou Whitaker.
After leaving for Detroit, fans and friends in Martinsville continued to follow Whitaker’s baseball career.
Mike Smith (former Martinsville Bulletin Sports Writer and Editor): I came to work at the Bulletin the fall of ’77, so I guess he was winding down in Lakeland (Florida) then (with the Tigers minor league)
When the ’78 season started, it sort of got handed off to me to keep an eye on Lou. I can’t remember exactly everything I did on Lou that year but I know I did a spring training piece and something when Lou stated getting hot that summer.
It was obvious he was the real deal. We started running this little graphic, I can’t remember if it was on 1A or 1B on Fridays, but it was called Whitaker’s Week. It was just a picture of Sweet Lou and then key stats from that week for him.
If they had had a game on Thursday night, I would have to try to get it on Friday morning in time. And we were an afternoon paper then, so we went to press at 10:30 or 11 o’clock (in the morning), and there was a time change. Man, I came close to making stuff up a couple times. It was just hard to get.
But we ended up with a good working relationship with the team, and we did that the whole summer.
Ervin Carter (friend and fan in Martinsville): When he signed to play with Detroit I started following his career then. The Martinsville Bulletin used to have what they called Whitaker’s Week. They later changed it to Whitaker’s Corner, and I started following that every week. From there on I followed him.
Robert Hopkins (former teammate): One of the biggest thrills I remember having. Lou and Alan Trammell got matched up in the Tiger’s organization. The Tigers were pretty lousy, and they called them both up.
I remember me and Danny Turner, he lived in my neighborhood, sitting in the den at my house back when Saturday afternoon baseball was the only game you had on TV. We were watching one of the first games Lou and Trammell played with the Tigers. That was quite a thrill for me.
I had met (Bassett’s) Randy Hundley (who played in MLB), but to see a guy you felt like you grew up with and knew playing in the major leagues. By that time I was pretty much relegated to church league softball. So I was very proud of Lou.
Smith: It was a great time for Martinsville baseball.
He understood the importance of his hometown paper for his family and friends in the community. I had his phone number probably until I left the Bulletin in 2000. He would change it and I would get it. I talked to his wife many times.
The bigger he got the more difficult it was to get in touch with him just because everybody wanted a piece of him, but we always managed to talk to him at least once a year.
We watched a lot of Saturday Tigers games in the newsroom then. It was a fun time for me. I was a rookie in the newsroom. We had like 25 people in the newsroom then. We had a three and a half man sports staff.
When I got here he was just a guy that was trying to make the big club. Six months later, he was the American League Rookie of the Year.
Carter: He went out there and he made it look easy. This guy was 160 pounds and probably about four or five years in the league he started hitting home runs. If you just look at him you wouldn’t have thought he could hang with the George Bretts, the Reggie Jacksons, but if you look at his WAR, he was ahead of Reggie Jackson. And that tells you what type of player he was.
I was just impressed by him. I always said if I ever got to be famous I would want to handle it the way he handled it. He didn’t look for the recognition, but it came to him. And I admire him so much.
Whitaker’s star power grew, and he got many opportunities in and outside of baseball. He wasn’t always well-liked, though, either by the media in Detroit or at home. But who he was never changed for those who knew him.
Ray Reynolds (fan and former opponent): He got to be on Magnum P.I. When you get to talk to him you need to ask about that cause he’ll smile real big and say, ‘Yea, I got to do that.’
Magnum always had a Detroit hat, Tom Selleck, and he used go to up to Spring Training and hang out.
Smith: Lou got a lot of undue criticism at home that he didn’t do enough for his home town team. I don’t know what people expected of him. He came home, he did what he was supposed to do.
Carter: A lot of people in Martinsville took Lou the wrong way. They thought he didn’t care anything about Martinsville because if you look at a lot of his baseball cards it would say, ‘Born in Brooklyn, New York.’ Lou was born in Brooklyn, NY and his mom moved back down here, I don’t think he was even a year old. So some of the cards would say, ‘Born in Brooklyn, NY.’ Some of the cards would say, ‘Born in Brooklyn, NY, but raised in Martinsville, Virginia.’
I know for a fact when I used to attend games in Baltimore it would say, ‘Born in Brooklyn, NY, but raised in nearby Martinsville.’ A lot of people from Martinsville took offense to that. They thought he was denying he was from Martinsville, but he didn’t. He loved Martinsville. He still does.
Smith: I just found him very down to earth. He sort of had that Martinsville work ethic about him, and he wasn’t flashy. And in the long run, not being flashy may have hurt him.
Carter: He was just a quiet, country boy. He played baseball like it was his every day job. He took baseball serious. He came in, he played, he’d go back to his room or whatever and he’d do it again the next day.
Smith: He sort of solidified Martinsville and Henry County in the baseball world. It shined a really positive light on Martinsville, and I’m sure in the long run it helped youth baseball in the area.
‘HE SHOULD BE IN’
Whitaker’s name was on Major League Baseball’s Modern Era Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame in 2019, but he came up well short of the votes needed for induction. The Modern Era Committee considered candidates who played Major League Baseball from 1970-1987 who had fallen off the regular ballot because they didn’t receive 5 percent of the vote or weren’t elected for 10 years.
Needing 12 votes for induction, Whitaker received just 6 of the 16 voters.
Whitaker’s double-play partner for all 19 years of his career, Alan Trammell, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018, and many in baseball – especially fans of Whitaker’s locally – believe it is an injustice one longtime Tigers infielder got into Cooperstown and not the other. Whitaker’s stats speak for themselves – he was one of the most productive second basemen in the game throughout the 1980’s. And modern statistics such as Wins Above Replacement have shown him to be even better than originally thought.
Many people have theories as to why he never got his name called.
Terry Carter (cousin): My opinion, he should be in, he should have been in years ago.
Mike Smith (former Martinsville Bulletin Sports Editor): I don’t understand all this WAR stuff, but I just know that for that era, if I had to pick a second baseman, I would have picked him over (Ryne) Sandberg.
Ervin Carter (friend and fan): Where I think it kind of hurt him, the baseball writers will vote you in. Lou didn’t give the baseball writers much interviews, and to me I think that played a part in him not getting into the Hall of Fame. What him and Alan Trammell did as baseball players, there’s no way you should put Alan Trammell in the Hall of Fame and not Lou. They’re the best double play combination in baseball history. They should have went in together.
If he had played in a bigger market and gave more interviews, I think he would be in the Hall of Fame now. I think they kind of held that against him.
Smith: He was not that guy. And he played in Detroit. And I know Trammell got a long, but Trammell was a little more vocal and those sorts of things. He was the go-to guy. You know in sports, if you go to a guy once and he shoots you down, you can find another guy when you’re on deadline and he’s going to talk to you every time. And that’s the guy you remember.
If he played in L.A. or New York, he would have been in the Hall of Fame the first year. Even if he didn’t get along with the media, he would have been in on the first ballot. Playing on television every night makes a world of difference.
Ervin Carter: Later on after he retired, you talk to him now he won’t stop talking. That makes up for those 19 years that he didn’t talk to the media.
He’s a very humble guy. He didn’t ask for recognition.
Terry Carter: He played for 19 years, Trammell played for 20. They played side-by-side for 19 years. The numbers are very similar. Trammel gets in, he doesn’t get in. That part is hard to understand. I definitely feel like he deserves to get in.
Ray Reynolds (fan and former high school opponent): Nineteen years in the Major Leagues. He should be in the Hall of Fame. I think he’s been cheated by not getting in there. With his number getting retired, he’ll be in there in the next four years. You mark my words. He’ll get in.
Whitaker will get another chance at the Hall when the MLB Veteran’s Committee meets at the end of 2023.
Ervin Carter: The Veteran’s Committee will meet again next year, and from what I’ve been reading in the media, baseball made a huge mistake by not putting him in. I truly believe the Veteran’s Committee will put him into the Hall of Fame.
But if you listen to Lou talk about it, he won’t talk much about it. He’ll just say, ‘We’ll wait and see.’ But if baseball wants to do some justice, they’ll do the right thing and they’ll put him in the Hall of Fame. If you read anything on the internet, the talk is he needs to be in the Hall of Fame, and I think he will.
Terry Carter: He still has a chance to get in the Hall of Fame. Hopefully that will happen. Hopefully he’ll get his just dues he deserves.
Tim Hall (former MHS teammate): It’s about time he’s getting the accolades he deserves. Hopefully the people of Cooperstown follow.
‘A LEGEND OF HIS TIME’
Whether Whitaker ever gets into the Hall of Famer, he’s a hall of famer at home, and friends, fans, and former teammates will never forget him in Martinsville.
Danny Turner (Martinsville City Councilman): The state senate of Virginia, Les Adams on the house side and Bill Stanley on the senate side, and the General Assembly passed resolutions to honor him on the occasion of his jersey retirement.
We’re having him recognized at the state level, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to give it to him. We enjoyed playing ball together and I always enjoyed following his career.
Where does Whitaker rank among all-time great Martinsville sports figures?
Tim Hall (former MHS teammate): I think you could answer that question with a question. How many other athletes, as good as Martinsville and Henry County has been at producing athletes—and we have certainly had our share of famous professional athletes—there are very few, I don’t know of any others, I could be wrong, who are in any kind of hall of fame discussion. Be it the team’s hall of fame or the great injustice of him not being in the Major League Hall of Fame.
Mike Smith (former Martinsville Bulletin Sports Writer and Editor): When you look at professional sports accomplishments, Lou Whitaker has got to be No. 1
Carl Hairston did great things with the Eagles. He started in the NFL for 10 years. Sonny Wade did great things in the Canadian Football League. David Bailey was great at motocross, but Lou did it year after year. He won gold gloves, he was an all-star.
Terry Carter (cousin): In any sport, you play 19 years for one team, and he had multiple all-star appearances, he had multiple gold glove awards, silver slugger awards, and a World Series. He put up really good numbers.
For me, for course, in the Martinsville area, he has to be at the top. You’ve got to put him up there with the best of this area. His numbers speak for itself.
Smith: To me it’s always important when a big player in any sport puts a small town on the map. That may have been the first time in a long time Martinsville was recognized for anything other than Martinsville Speedway.
Hall: I know Sonny Wade is in the CFL Hall of Fame. I may be missing some others. But from a professional standpoint, I think Lou set the bar of what success looked like and what success took to achieve. He didn’t mail it in. He weighed 100 pounds when he was 12 years old. He looked like a tongue depressor. But he played and he played and he played, and he got better and he got better.
The guys I hung out with in high school knew that we were seeing something special when we were on the outside of the fence.
No matter where he ranks, Whitaker will always be a fan favorite here and across the country.
Terry Carter (cousin): I saw it first-hand. I knew it from going to the games when he was playing how they cheered for him.
Robert Hopkins (former teammate): He had a big fan base in Detroit. And I’ll tell you how I know that. I worked at the fire department and Checkered Pig. The owner was an old buddy of mine from the neighborhood. He had to travel to barbecue road show, and we went to Bay City, Michigan to do a barbecue festival.
So the first time I had ever been to Michigan, and this guy comes up the counter and he’s got a Lou Whitaker Detroit Tigers jersey. And I go, ‘Hey, I grew up with this guy. Played ball with him.’
Next thing I know, he’s done went and told everybody he knew that was there that we’ve got a guy over here that grew up with Lou Whitaker.
And this is like probably 2005. Lou had been retired, but he still had people walking around with his Tiger’s jersey on in Michigan. Made me feel like a celebrity again just sitting there slapping barbecue sauce and saying I knew the guy.
He has a big following in Michigan.
Lou Whitaker is Martinsville’s own, and those who knew and know him are glad to see him getting the respect he’s so long deserved.
Ray Reynolds (former high school opponent): I’ve been trying to think of the word that describes him, and it would be legend.
Whitaker was a legend here. Everything you hear about him was true and even more. What he has done for this area should show all the kids here that nothing is impossible. He should be a poster child for what can happen if you put the work ethic into it.
Hall: I guess everybody has people like that in their home towns, but the more I watched—I was a sports writer for a long time and I covered minor league baseball for 10 years—I didn’t see that. I saw it at home. And in retrospect I’m thinking, man, oh man, were we lucky to see that talent in that setting and see him succeed.
Hopkins: There were a lot of professional athletes that came through town then. Lou, he was one of the best.
My generation had a lot of sports heroes, and he was one of us that did something big.
Ervin Carter: I talked to the city councilman a number of years ago and I tried to get him some recognition. If it wasn’t nothing but naming the field after him or even naming that highway after him. We’ve got a guy here that played professional baseball for 19 years, he’s going up for the Hall of Fame, but if you drive through Martinsville you wouldn’t know this is his home town.
I would say in the last week or so, you can’t hardly go out the door. Everybody is talking about Lou Whitaker now. Lou Whitaker, Lou Whitaker.
I think the city could benefit from him. You come into Martinsville, you drive into Martinsville, you see, this is the home of Lou Whitaker. I think that’s a draw.
And sooner or later I think he’ll be a hall of famer. We’ll have a hall of famer from right here in Martinsville, Virginia. Started off playing street baseball right up there at English Field, and he had a marvelous career for 19 years. It doesn’t happen every day. It’s a one in a million that you find a Lou Whitaker. It’s a one in a million.
Cara Cooper is a sports writer for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at email@example.com