DETROIT -- Alan Trammell’s dream of seeing Lou Whitaker honored in Cooperstown won’t happen next summer. His dream -- and many Tigers fans’ dream -- of seeing Whitaker honored alongside him at Comerica Park will.
In a historic decision, the Tigers announced Tuesday that they’ll retire Whitaker’s No. 1 next season. He’ll become the 10th player to have his name and number on the brick wall at Comerica Park when the ceremony takes place on Aug. 29, prior to the Tigers’ 6:10 p.m. ET game against the Red Sox.
“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, Tigers chairman and CEO, 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.
“What a thrill it was to watch Lou Whitaker grace the diamond for nearly two decades -- a gifted talent in this glorious game. Without question, ‘Sweet Lou’ is one of the greatest players to ever wear the Olde English 'D'. His hustle. His grit. His dedication. On behalf of Tigers fans everywhere, it was a tremendous honor to call Lou a short time ago to inform him that the Tigers are retiring his iconic No. 1 at Comerica Park during the 2020 season -- where his name and number will occupy hallowed space alongside his longtime partner up the middle -- Alan Trammell. We congratulate Lou; a Tiger legend so deserving of this recognition."
Whitaker will become the fourth member of the 1984 World Series champion team to be honored, joining Trammell, Jack Morris and manager Sparky Anderson. The Tigers surprised Whitaker with the news in a Tuesday morning phone call.
“There aren’t a whole lot of words that could describe how I’m feeling right now -- but 'surreal' might be the closest one,” Whitaker said in a statement. “It was the honor of my life to wear the Olde English ‘D’ for all 19 years of my career, and share the diamond with so many talented ballplayers along the way. I’d like to thank Tigers ownership and front-office leadership for bestowing this honor on me, and I’m already looking forward to celebrating with all the great Tigers fans at Comerica Park next August!”
Seven of the other eight Tigers with their numbers retired have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the lone exception being hometown hero Willie Horton. Much like the late Tigers owner Michael Ilitch made the decision to retire Horton’s number, the younger Ilitch made the call with Whitaker, ensuring that the months-long campaign to honor Whitaker's career did not go unrewarded.
“I talked to Mr. Ilitch. We talked for a moment, and he just was thanking me for my career with the Tigers, the accomplishment that I did for the community,” Whitaker said in a Tuesday afternoon conference call. “And when Mr. Ilitch told me, there was just maybe a moment of joy and honor, and I guess after all the years, of recognition.”
Though the sentiment to honor Whitaker has gone on for years since his lone year on the Baseball Writers' Association of America Hall of Fame ballot in 2001, the campaign began in earnest when Trammell took part of his speech at Comerica Park in August 2018 to make the case for his longtime double-play partner.
“I’d like to extend a heartfelt congratulations to Lou Whitaker for this well-deserved honor,” Trammell said in a statement. “The fact that Lou and Tram will always be linked together on the outfield wall at Comerica Park makes me very proud, and is something that neither of us could have dreamt of when entering this organization over 40 years ago.
“It means everything to me that the numbers 1 and 3 will be retired together, and I’m truly looking forward to this summer when all of our former teammates and Tigers fans from across the globe will come together to celebrate [Whitaker's] accomplishments. We’ve been waiting on this day for a long time, and I couldn’t be happier for my brother -- Sweet Lou.”
To many, Tram and Lou were the faces of the 1984 Tigers, great enough and cool enough to land on television with a cameo appearance on Magnum P.I. alongside famous Tigers fan Tom Selleck. To others, Trammell and Whitaker formed arguably the greatest double-play tandem in modern baseball history and among the greatest pair of teammates the game has known. They set an American League record with 1,918 games played together. Whitaker’s 1,527 double-plays turned mark the most ever by a Tiger and rank fourth all-time for Major League second basemen; six of the top eight are in the Hall of Fame.
Individually, Whitaker’s case for Cooperstown also applies to his case for Comerica’s wall. His 75.1 Wins Above Replacement, according to baseball-reference, rank 78th all-time and 49th among position players. He has a higher WAR than Michigan native and former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who has a strong chance to be an unanimous choice for induction when the Hall of Fame releases voting results next month.
When Whitaker retired after the 1995 season, he joined Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan as the only second basemen to post 1,000 runs, 1,000 RBIs, 2,000 hits and 200 home runs.
Among position players eligible for induction, only Barry Bonds and Bill Dahlen had a higher WAR than Whitaker, something noted baseball historian and analyst Bill James has pointed out.
"Listening to all the fans bringing up the WAR, I think that was a big thing to me,” Whitaker said. “They really showed over the years what I had done as a baseball player with the Detroit Tigers.”
Many Tigers fans, obviously, have taken up Whitaker’s cause, including the question of retiring his number regardless. Tuesday’s announcement and next summer’s ceremony mark a vindication for them as much as for Whitaker.
Though retiring a non-Hall of Famer’s number is a rarity for the Tigers, it’s less rare around baseball. Among those on other clubs are former Royals second baseman Frank White, former Twins slugger Kent Hrbek, former Reds shortstop Dave Concepcion and former Yankees greats Don Mattingly, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada. Mattingly, Steve Garvey, Thurman Munson and Dale Murphy have their numbers retired, and all joined Whitaker on the Modern Baseball Era ballot.
Whitaker could still get into the Hall of Fame when its Modern Baseball Era Committee meets again in three years. The Tigers, however, aren’t going to wait that long to give him his day.
“You just don't know what to say, even after watching the wall with all the names for 19 years,” Whitaker said. “Now it's hard to put into words the meaning. It's just so much love and appreciation that goes with it for the many years that I played there, and the support from all the fans, of course from the Detroit organization, giving me the opportunity. I can only say thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
“My eyes will probably light up, tears probably somewhere along the way. I've had a taste of it. I was there for Tram and Jack. Just their excitement sort of lets you know what it's going to be like.”
The Tigers will sell game tickets for the Aug. 29 ceremony as part of a Double Play Ticket Package celebrating Whitaker. The two-game package includes their March 30 home opener against the Royals as well as a replica Whitaker 1984 road jersey to be given away on Aug. 29. Ticket packages start at $29 and are available at tigers.com/Lou.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.