Somewhere the old black-and-white photograph of a young baseball player exists.
It might be in a dusty file at the Martinsville Bulletin.
It could be on an office bulletin board, buried by more recent history
Perhaps it takes up space in someone’s scrapbook, the adhesive on the Scotch Tape long gone dry.
Eyes closed now, the picture is as clear as yesterday.
The small boy, half the size of his coach, is standing on third base wearing a dark blue pitcher’s jacket, the better to keep the rocket right arm warm; a baserunner’s headgear, the two earpieces held by a cloth strap; and of course the stirrup socks, more noticeable because the little guy has one sticking out from the back of his right shoe.
Before he was the 1978 American League Rookie of the year, before he led the Detroit Tigers to a World Series championship, before he was known as “Sweet Lou,” and before the Tigers just retired his familiar jersey No. 1, the kid in the photo was simply Louis Whitaker.
Playing for a Pony League all-star team back in Martinsville-Henry County in 1970, he might have been standing on third base, but he sure wasn’t born there.
Whitaker was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 12, 1957, but he moved to Martinsville with his mother when he was just a year old.
The second of five children, he grew up in the small Piedmont furniture- and textile-producing city on Pipe Street, now called Joya Street and located on a hill overlooking Hooker Field, a local ballpark currently serving as the home of the amateur Martinsville Mustangs.
As a young boy, Whitaker and his friends would scale the kelly-green wooden fence surrounding the park, which was then called English Field.
Upon graduation from Martinsville High School in 1975, he began his climb to the Major Leagues.
Drafted in the fifth round by Detroit as a third baseman, Whitaker made the jump as quickly as a forbidden foray onto the old local diamond.
Rookie League ball in Bristol, Virginia, in the summer of ’75.
Single-A with Lakeland, Florida, in 1976, where he was the Florida State League’s Most Valuable Player.
Double-A in Montgomery, Alabama, in the Southern League in 1977, where he played second base until Sept. 9 when he and shortstop Alan Trammell were summoned to Detroit, beginning a 19-year partnership in the middle of the Tigers’ infield, the longest-serving double play combination in MLB history.
Whitaker was named the American League Rookie of the Year in 1978, beating out future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor for the honor.
He reached base nine times in five games as the Tigers swamped San Diego to win the 1984 World Series.
He was a five-time American League all-star, belting a home run off New York Mets ace Dwight Gooden in the 1986 Summer Classic.
He won four Silver Slugger Awards and three Gold Gloves, playing almost his entire career under manager Sparky Anderson.
Within a Detroit franchise whose all-time greats include Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Trammell, he ranks near the top of the career list in almost every offensive category while being noted as one of the premier defensive second basemen in MLB history.
Whitaker is second in walks and sacrifice flies, third in games played, fourth in runs scored, sixth in hits and doubles and seventh in home runs and extra-base hits.
When he retired, Whitaker was one of only three second baseman with at least 2,000 hits and 200 home runs.
On Aug. 6, the Tigers took all those numbers and boiled them down to just ‘1.’
The dark blue single digit Whitaker wore on his back of his uniform for all 19 of those big-league seasons — the same number he sported on a baggy dark blue-and-white Rives Theatre-sponsored Little League jersey in Martinsville — was retired by the Tigers during an on-field ceremony in front of family and friends.
When Whitaker took the podium at Comerica Park — fittingly set up in the infield — the past became present.
“I’d like to give a shoutout to ‘The Hill.’ We call it Martinsville, Virginia, and Henry County,” he told a crowd of more than 30,000. “We love baseball. We love basketball. We love football. We were an athletic city.
“A lot of my family, my friends. Some are here. Some are not. We played ball all day, all night, and they’re the reason I’m here today.”
Whitaker’s mother, Arlene, raised five children and managed to buy the family a home while working in a diner. She died in 2008 at age 72.
On Pipe Street, chores and homework were demanded with no debate.
“Arlene was definitely a powerful woman,” said Whitaker’s cousin, Martinsville resident Terry Carter. “Everybody knew that.”
But when it was time to play, there were no boundaries.
Martinsville resident Dru Rothrock had a summer job as a teenager, working for the city recreation department under longtime director Herb Hughes.
One of the crew’s duties was nightly grooming of the infield after a busy day of action on the basepaths.
When the work ended, the fun began.
“They had two doors that opened up like a barn,” Rothrock said. “We’d drive out and as soon as they closed it up, here they’d come, jumping over the fence, at least 20 of them every day.
“Herb would say, ‘Y’all got to go down and do the field again.’ Finally we’d tell [the kids], ‘Just take the bases. Throw them out in the outfield and play.’ And they did.”
Rothrock said Whitaker and company scoured the woods for baseballs and often took broken bats they collected at the field and taped or nailed them together to use on the big field.
One day he noticed Whitaker was wielding a 34-ounce model.
“I was 15, so he was 10 or 11. He was just a tiny mite, swinging a 34,” Rothrock said. “If you look at his hands in the [MLB] videos, it’s just a classic hand-eye swing.”
The Tigers and Bally Sports put out a 30-minute documentary video about Whitaker’s life and career in which former beat writer Pat Caputo cited the team’s scouting department for finding the future All-Star “under a rock” when they made him a fifth-round draft pick in the summer of 1975.
Henry County might be known in the sports world for Martinsville Speedway, but the area hardly was a baseball wasteland in the 1960s and ’70s.
When the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs battled for the National League East title in 1969 both starting catchers — the Mets’ J.C. Martin (Drewry Mason) and the Cubs’ Randy Hundley (Bassett) — hailed from local high schools.
If Whitaker ever was overlooked, it is because he was just about the smallest player on the field at almost every level.
He grew to 5 feet, 11 inches and 170 pounds in the majors, but throughout youth-league ball and high school, Whitaker was tiny.
“He was the smallest and wasn’t that fast,” high school teammate Rusty Stadler said. “But one thing we remember is he had a cannon for an arm, an absolute cannon.”
Whitaker took his rocket right arm into professional baseball, but he hardly was a can’t-miss prospect at age 18.
“I didn’t know he was going to be that good,” high school teammate and classmate Roy Clark said. “I knew he was the best player I ever played with, but you don’t know. I remember seeing him in Rookie ball and he looked like he was 12 playing out there with grown men.”
Clark knows a thing or two about judging baseball talent.
He was a Junior College All-American at Ferrum in 1977, later playing at the University of North Carolina and eventually reaching the Triple-A level with Seattle.
Clark later became the scouting director for the Atlanta Braves and an assistant general manager for the Washington Nationals.
But in 1975 Clark was playing shortstop and Whitaker was the third baseman for the highly successful Martinsville-Henry County Oilers Connie Mack League team.
That was until Clark was sidelined after undergoing surgery, and Whitaker moved to shortstop.
“I don’t know how many games he played there,” Clark said. “The best shortstop I’ve ever seen … ever. I’ve been scouting for 30-some years. That’s how good he was.”
Whitaker did not finish the summer season with the Oilers, who advanced all the way to the Connie Mack League World Series in Farmington, New Mexico, where they finished fourth.
Planning to attend Ferrum, Whitaker wound up signing with the Tigers and reporting to Bristol.
He batted .237 in 42 games.
The climb had begun.
Stadler served as an assistant coach for the Oilers while home from college. During one summer, Whitaker visited family in Martinsville during a short break in his season and decided to come down to the field and take some cuts.
“One of my tasks was to throw [batting practice],” said Stadler, a former backup catcher at Virginia Tech. “I’ll never forget, at English Field he put everything I threw into the woods. It was unbelievable. I said, ‘Man, you sure have gotten stronger,’ and he just laughed.”
The joke soon was on the Major League teams that passed on Whitaker before the Tigers drafted him with the 99th pick.
Twenty-seven months later, Whitaker was in The Show.
Whitaker and Trammell made their MLB debuts in Boston. Whitaker went 3 for 5 with an RBI and a stolen base, while Trammell had two hits.
It was only the beginning of a symbiotic statistical relationship.
The final career numbers:
Games played: Whitaker 2,390, Trammell 2,293.
At bats: Whitaker 8,570, Trammell 8,288.
Hits: Whitaker 2,369, Trammell 2,365.
Runs: Whitaker 1,385, Trammell 1,231.
RBIs: Whitaker 1,084, Trammell 1,003.
Home runs: Whitaker 244, Trammell 185.
Triples: Whitaker 65, Trammell 55.
Doubles: Whitaker 420, Trammell 415.
On base/slugging percentage: Whitaker .789, Trammell .767.
In 19 seasons together at old Tiger Stadium on the corner of Trumbull and Michigan, Trammell and Whitaker turned more double plays (751) than any keystone duo in MLB history and set the American League record for most games played as teammates in Whitaker’s final season in 1995.
They shared the field once again Aug. 6 at Comerica Park when Whitaker, wearing a suit and sunglasses, threw out the first pitch prior to Detroit’s game against Tampa Bay.
Behind the plate was Trammell, who took the throw and dished out an assist.
“There’s no doubt Lou Whitaker was born to play baseball,” Trammell said during the jersey retirement ceremony. “Lou was so smooth. Lou just seemed to glide around the baseball field. He also had the inner confidence that great players have.
“Lou made it look easy, but Lou worked his tail off.”
Trammell first joined Whitaker in the Florida Instructional League under manager Jim Leyland following the 1976 season. Whitaker might have made headlines as the Florida State League MVP, but the Tigers had some news of their own for the young star.
They were moving him from third base to second base.
“I don’t know about you, but if I’d have just won the MVP of the league, I might have said something,” Trammell said. But in typical Lou Whitaker fashion, he did what was best of the team.”
Whitaker’s youth league and high school teammates tell the same tale.
“He was always humble,” Clark said. “There are lot of personalities out there in professional sports, Lou just did his job.”
Clark was instrumental in the Braves’ signing players such as Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Adam Wainwright during his career with the Braves. He recently took a position in the Kansas City Royals organization.
“I’ve been scouting for 35 years,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of success. I’m still waiting and looking for the next Lou Whitaker. That’s how good a player he was. It wasn’t necessarily because he was so talented. I mean, he could run, hit, field, throw. I never thought he’d hit with that kind of power, but he did.
“But his demeanor, on and off the field. In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. That’s what winners are made of.”
Whitaker’s final hit was a big one, a walk-off home run in Tiger Stadium against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sept. 13, 1995.
Detroit retired Trammell’s old No. 3 in 2018, a fact the former All-Star shortstop noted during Whitaker’s ceremony.
“For over four years I’ve been uncomfortable,” Trammell said. “I’m extremely honored and grateful to have my Number 3 retired. But there wouldn’t be a Number 3 on the wall without Number 1.
“Today, Lou Whitaker gets his due, and I couldn’t be prouder to have Number 1 and Number 3 linked together. And you know what’s next? The Hall of Fame.”
That remains the big question. Will Whitaker be enshrined in Cooperstown?
Trammell received the call from the Hall in 2018. While Whitaker’s career offensive statistics are a shade above his longtime teammate’s, his phone has been silent.
Whitaker’s name appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot in 2001, but he fell far short of the 5% of the votes needed for future inclusion by the BBWAA.
His next chance died in 2019 when the Modern Era Committee — which approved Trammell and former Tigers ace Jack Morris — did not give him 75% (12 of 16) votes needed.
Now it’s up to a group called the Contemporary Baseball Era committee, which will meet later this year to determine whether to add a deserving player whose played post-1980.
Whitaker went about his job with little self-promotion. If he made any missteps with the media, they were minor.
“One thing that stands out was how you let you game do the talking. And it spoke loud and clear for 19 years at an all-star level,” former Tigers teammate Larry Herndon said in a video presentation during the retirement ceremony.
Whitaker might not be in the Hall of Fame, but he is in the Smithsonian.
He forgot to bring his uniform to the 1985 All-Star Game in Minnesota. A replica jersey was purchased and a number ‘1’ was hastily colored in with a magic marker.
Officials at the Smithsonian requested the instantly famous jersey.
In 1983, He and Trammell got a different sort of national exposure when they made a cameo appearance on the television show “Magnum P.I.” where series star Tom Selleck was known for wearing a Tigers hat.
Whitaker has returned close to home. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, an hour from his Virginia roots with his wife, Dianne Fleming Whitaker, also a 1975 Martinsville High graduate.
Two days after his jersey was retired, Whitaker was back in Martinsville, where former mayor and current city councilman Danny Turner presented him with a joint resolution by the Virginia Senate marking the occasion.
The landscape has changed since Whitaker and his friends climbed the English Field fence.
Rives Theatre, for whom Whitaker first donned jersey No. 1 in Little League, burned down in 2019.
The baseball program at Martinsville High, where Whitaker’s red-and-white jersey No. 1 is displayed in the hallway, is a shell of its former self.
And Tiger Stadium, where Whitaker played all his home games with a navy blue No. 1 on the back of his uniform, closed in 2001 and was demolished in 2008.
The jersey retirement ceremony originally was scheduled for 2020, but it was delayed for more than two years because of COVID-19.
The list of former Tigers who attended was impressive: Leyland, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Dan Petry, Dave Rozema and Tom Brookens, along with three ex-Detroit stars whose jersey numbers already adorned the brick wall of honor in left-center field: Trammell, Willie Horton and Jack Morris.
Serenaded by a chorus of “Loooooouuuu” when he entered the field from the third-base dugout, Whitaker’s speech was short, and of course, sweet.
“I truly tell you that this will be one of the greatest moments in my life,” he said, “just knowing that my number will be retired and I’ll get to see my name will be on the wall with the legends of Tiger history. What a great honor.”
The Sunday Detroit Free Press got it right with its sports front page headline.
Aug. 6 was “1 for the ages.”
Anderson graduated from Martinsville High School one year ahead of Whitaker.