Stories of Lou: Whitaker’s fans, teammates, and friends share stories of the Martinsville baseball legend | High School
Martinsville’s Lou Whitaker will have his jersey retired by the Detroit Tigers on Saturday. The Bulletin, this week, collected stories from people in the area who either know Whitaker, played with or against him, or are just fans of his.
Here are some of those stories.
(Note: These phone interviews and emails have been edited for clarity, grammar, and length.)
Ervin Carter, MartinsvilleThe first time I met Lou was after he signed with the Tigers. He would come back home and I would see him riding around on a bicycle. That was the first thing he purchased when he signed his contract from Detroit. His rookie season he came home and he purchased him a bicycle and he used to ride his bicycle around, and then later he bought him a Cadillac.
I would run into him on several occasions when he was home, and that’s when I started really being friends with him.
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Then I used to go up to see him play when they were in Baltimore. Me and three or four of my friends would ride up and we would go see him play. And every time he went up there we’d always give him a call. He’d always return our phone call and we would go pick him up and we would hang out in Baltimore. He would always give us baseball bats after the game. He even let us take him to the games on Sundays. He didn’t ride with the rest of the players, he would ride with us to the game. We’d take him to the game and he’d put us in special parking.
He would spend a lot of time with us even though he was Lou Whitaker. He never looked for fame. He never looked it. He never looked for the recognition.
Joy Beggarly, MartinsvilleI have never been much of a sports fan myself, but my mama, Margaret Watson in Chatham, was a rabid baseball fan. It must have been 1984 when the Tigers were in the World Series she began telling me about the talented player from Martinsville, which has been my home since 1971, who would be playing in the upcoming World Series. His name was Lou Whitaker and she kept dropping tidbits about him as the Series drew near.
One day shortly thereafter, I was walking on Church Street in uptown Martinsville and a woman was standing on the street wearing a warm-up shirt with “Whitaker” on the back. I stopped to speak to her and I said, “You must be a Detroit Tigers fan!” She just beamed and replied, “Lou Whitaker is my son.” It was his mother, Arlene Whitaker, that I chanced to meet that day.
I then told her that my mother was a true baseball fan and a person would risk life and limb if they got between her and the TV during the Series. That day, I wished her team success and the Tigers did not disappoint us.
After being honored by his Tigers team, it will then be a happy day for us all when our hometown hero, Lou Whitaker, is inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame.
Martinsville/RichmondI was a teammate of Lou on the Bulldog baseball team his senior year, 1975.
Coach Jerry Krecicki had arranged for a scout from the Baltimore Orioles to come to a practice to see Lou. Lou put on a show, hitting ten in a row over the right field fence.
He was a complete player—fantastic bunter, great speed, strong arm, hit with power, exceptional glove, and he could turn a double play. He made it look so natural and effortless, probably due to the thousands of hours he spent on the practice field as a youngster, much of that time with friend and teammate, Roy Clark.
Melody Cartwright, MartinsvilleLou Whitaker is a graduate of Martinsville High School Class of 1975. Lou’s full name as listed in the yearbook is Louis Rodman Whitaker.
His wife, Dianne Fleming Whitaker—his high school sweetheart—and I graduated with Louis. The entire class, school, and City of Martinsville, Virginia couldn’t be any prouder.
I remember him as a quiet, unassuming, humble, and sweet person. Guess he earned his nickname early on. His mother raised him well.
Congratulations Sweet Lou! Perhaps the most recognized sports player of any other Martinsville High School graduate. He’s No. 1.
Now on to a much deserved and long delayed Hall of Fame. There is no logical reason why he wasn’t inducted along with or before Alan Trammell. Career war of 75.1. Lou Whitaker’s stats don’t lie.
County AdministratorThe spring of ‘75 a lot of major league scouts were coming to our high school baseball practice (at Martinsville High School), and as a sophomore I was not high on the food chain, which was understandable.
So our high school coach basically stationed me and another sophomore or freshman outside the fence at the Martinsville High School fence, which is up top there. He stationed us outside the fence on a daily basis to try to recover the home run balls that Lou would hit when he was taking batting practice in front of the scouts. So I kidded a lot of folks that I was on the team but they really didn’t let me in because I was chasing home run balls.
In the summer of ‘78, that was his debut year, and he ended up winning rookie of the year. I was playing for the (Martinsville) Oilers then and I thought I was pretty good.
Lou, I remember distinctly coming back during the all-star break. He came back home and he worked out with us during the all-star break, and he asked me to throw batting practice to him. I was like, oh my gosh, what an honor. It’s Lou.
So I’m up on the mound and he goes, ‘No come of the mound a little bit.’ So I come off the mound and come towards home plate.
And he goes, ‘No come a little closer.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll come in closer, but I don’t have a screen in front of me and you could kill me.’ And he says, ‘Give me your best fast ball. I’m going to hit it to the left-centerfield alley.’
Now, Lou’s left-handed and I’m left-handed. I’m thinking, there’s no way he’s going to hit my best fast ball.
Well he told me where he was going to hit it, I gave him one, and he hit it exactly where he said he was going to hit it, to the left-centerfield wall.
And he says, ‘Throw me a breaking ball, I’m going to pull that down the right field line.’ So I did that, he pulled it down to right field.
This went on for BP for ten minutes. He would tell me what to throw and where he was going to hit it. And then finally he pulls me in a little further. And I said, ‘Lou, I’m kind of getting uncomfortable this close.’ And he says, ‘I won’t swing at this one, but come up about 25 feet away, something like that. Probably halfway to home plate, and throw it as hard as you can.’ So I did that. And he said, ‘That’s what a bad Ron Guidry fastball looks like from 60 feet, 6 inches,’ and he just laughed.
I just remember thinking I’m throwing my best stuff at a guy I basically grew up watching. Not only is he rattling the fence off of me, he’s picking which section of the fence he’s going to rattle, and that was pretty impressive.
Robert Hopkins, MartinsvilleI was fortunate enough to be on the Oilers, the greatest team ever assembled in Martinsville and Henry County. We ended up going to the Connie Mack World Series in New Mexico, but we did it without Lou. He left us.
I remember the night Lou left. The last game he played for the Oilers. It’s been a long time ago, but I remember he was really emotional about it all because he lived across the street from English Field, and he lived up the street from Martinsville High School. And Lou hadn’t covered much ground in his life other than playing baseball.
The last night Lou played I remember he was really kind of emotional or nervous about what was going to happen the next day because he was leaving. He was going to sign with the Tigers and he was leaving us. He made an error, which Lou never did, and he came in and pitched in relief and was the losing pitcher. And we all said, ‘Well, it’s been good knowing you Lou, but we wish you would have left yesterday.’ Just joking.
I started in left field the next game, which was one of my few starts for the team, but I sure had a good time. So I used to tell everybody I replaced Lou Whitaker in the Oilers lineup and carried the team on my back to the World Series. It was kind of a one game deal, but I had a good game.
That was the night Lou left and that was where the team ended up after Lou left. (Injured star) Roy (Clark) came back and we had some good pitching. We missed Lou. We would have been better with him.
Eddy Lloyd, DanvilleI believe I covered Lou’s last game as a baseball player at Martinsville. I was working as a sports stringer for the Martinsville Bulletin.
The Bulldogs were in regional play at Amherst County High School. Whitaker normally played shortstop, but went to the mound this game to face a tough left-hander for the Lancers, Dewayne Kitts.
Martinsville was without second baseman Roy Clark, who went on and played collegiately at the University of North Carolina.
Both pitchers were outstanding in the game and the score was 0-0 heading to the bottom of the sixth. Whitaker walked a batter in the bottom of the sixth and when the runner attempted to steal second, no one covered the bag. The ball sailed into centerfield and the runner continued to third. The throw from center took a bad hop and got by the third baseman and the runner crossed the plate.
Martinsville lost that game 1-0, although Whitaker finished the game with 18 strikeouts.
Nancy and Kyle Love, CollinsvilleIn 1978, Lou Whitaker was the Grand Marshall of the Martinsville Christmas parade. It was also the day that my fiancé and I went to the courthouse to get a marriage license.
When we arrived at the courthouse, the women working in the office asked us to please wait because they wanted to see Lou Whitaker. They were basically hanging out a window to see Lou. This was O.K., but in the excitement when they typed the license, they put my fiancé’s birth date as 8/8/1978 instead of 1948.
Fortunately, our minister noticed the incorrect date which would have made the license invalid. He was kind enough to get the license corrected before our marriage on December 16, 1978.
We will celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary this year.
Willie Martin, Dyers StoreI played against Lou Whitaker for three years. He played for Martinsville and I played for Laurel Park. During our senior year, we faced each other in a very close game. He was summoned to the mound to pitch to me with the bases loaded and a two ball, no strike count. His first pitch was a ball to make it 3-0. I had a take sign, and he threw a strike.
With a take sign on 3-1, he threw another strike. With the count 3-2, he threw one of those “Uncle Charlie” curveballs, and I took it for strike three.
After we both graduated from our respective high schools in 1975, we then played on a very fine Martinsville Oiler baseball team—a team that went on to play in the Connie Mack World Series in Farmington, New Mexico. That season started with Lou playing shortstop, after moving from third base because the starting shortstop, Roy Clark, had an injury that sidelined him for a couple of weeks. I was the starting left fielder, and when Lou signed with Detroit that summer I was switched to shortstop for a brief period (but what a relief when Roy Clark was cleared to play).
I can only imagine what would have happened if Lou had played the entire summer with that Oiler team.
The one talent that stood out the most for me about this very special player was his quick bat. He certainly had a “sweet swing” and, thus, the nickname Sweet Lou. However, his lighting quick hands made him the hitter he was.
Dru Rothrock, MartinsvilleBack in 1968 or ‘69 I was working for the city recreation on the baseball field cleanup or maintenance. We fixed baseball fields during the day for little league, Pony, Jr. Pony, Connie Mack, whatever.
So we would go to English Field at that time and get the field ready for the Connie Mack or Pony League back then, and you exited out of left centerfield. They had a big door out there where you could drive your truck out, so we had our tractor and trailer out there, and as soon as we would close that door, Lou and about 20 of his friend would jump over that fence, come out onto the field, and play ball all day long.
And their bats were usually broken from the Connie Mack. They’d collect all the broken bats from the Connie Mack Martinsville Oilers or C.P. Outlaws, and tape them up, put a nail in them, whatever, and use all the bats. And then they would collect all the foul balls so they had balls and bats from the Oilers baseball team and they played.
So then, finally, we got tired of having to go back and fix the field again. So we said, ‘O.K. guys, how about you guys take the bases up and put them in the outfield and play all day. So they said, ‘O.K.’ So we would fix the field, we’d go out the left field fence door, we watch them hop the fence, Lou and his buddies.
I was 15 or 16, and Lou was four years younger, so he was 10 and 11.
They played, they had t-shirts on, they were dusty. It didn’t make any difference. That’s where Lou, I think, learned to hit the ball so well, because he was using a heavier bat. He was used to using a 34 ounce bat, and that’s where it started as a 10 or 11 year old.
When he made it to Detroit then I began to really become a Lou fan. One by knowing him when he was younger and an adolescent. I’d see him and say, ‘I remember you, Sweet Lou, you used to jump over the fence.’ And he’d just laugh.
They’d take up the bases and move them wherever and they’d play ball and play ball and play ball. I loved watching them use the broken bats and they would tape them up where they were almost as good as the new ones, so they had means of making things happen.
That was my Sweet Lou claim to fame because we would run them off the field and they’d come right back. And we’d run them off, and they’d come right back. His love for the game started right there.
Frances Scales, MartinsvilleHe went to school with my brother and I went to the school with his sister, Matilda.
When we were younger, I was playing softball with them one time in the middle of the road. This always stuck in my mind. His sister was a terrific softball player also. She could catch his pitches.
We weren’t no more than 10 or 11 or 12 because I moved from up there at an early age, so we were young. I remember standing behind her so if she missed the ball I would get it. So I could see the ball coming at me, and he would be throwing a softball so fast it would move up and down through there and it would flatten out. The velocity would flatten the ball, that’s how fast he was throwing it. He wasn’t even in high school, and it was a softball. It wasn’t even a baseball. It was bigger.
That’s how I really remember Louis. I went to school with his sister and we all played together all the time on Martin Street, but that one day just sticks in my mind forever because I can just see that ball.
And she would catch it. That was the amazing part. His sister didn’t miss it. I didn’t have to get the ball. She would squat down in the catcher’s position and he would pitch. I was watching the ball like a referee, or whatever you call it. And it was coming in doing spins, and every time it came in it was flat.
He was really a nice guy. I wish we could get a bus together to go see him and we all could get together and go (to Detroit for the jersey retirement), because he’s really got a lot of fans here in Martinsville.
I’ll never forget him for that reason. Me and his sister, we graduated together, and she was still around here when he went off to play ball and we all kept up with him like that also.
Martinsville should really think about naming that field after him out there. There really isn’t a reason it shouldn’t be. He’s really the only professional ballplayer that really made it that far from around here. And that was his home field. He played all on it all the time. That’s his home field right next to his house. That’s where they grew up.
They should consider naming that field after him. I don’t know why it’s taken so long.
Mike Smith, former Martinsville Bulletin Sports Writer and EditorI talked to him a couple times during the summer (when he played). I had his phone number, but I was hard to get him. Obviously there were no cell phones then. It’s hard to catch him at home.
But someone from MLB called up at the end of the season and said, ‘Look, Lou is going to be the rookie of the year. We’re going to announce it on such and such day. We’re going to call him at his house in Martinsville.’
For some reason they were going to call him at 6 o’clock in the morning. And he already knew, it was just a formality. So we got in touch with him mom, Arlene. And said, ‘Hey do you mind if (Bulletin photographer) Mike Wray and I come over for when the phone call comes.’ And she says, ‘Sure, we’ll have breakfast.’ So we were there, Mike Wray and myself, Lou, his mom, Arlene. He had a younger sister and a younger brother.
I just thought that was so cool. I told somebody about that yesterday and they just couldn’t believe it. We were there when the phone call came.
And we had done a ton of stuff. The two guys closest to him were Paul Molitor, which everybody remembers. Paul Molitor placed second in voting. I think Lou had 21 votes, and it was like three for Molitor, and Carney Lansford, for California, got one vote. But I got in touch with those guys and interviewed those guys for a story, which I thought was pretty cool.
Danny Turner, Martinsville City Councilman, former Mayor of MartinsvilleWe played in the southeast regionals of the Connie Mack League tournament at the University of Kentucky, with the winner going to the world series.
I was warming the bench and we got down to the end of the bench and Lou, they brought him from third to pitch because he could throw an overhand curve ball that nobody could hit. And I went to third and I replaced him. I remember I made a play at third and we tagged somebody out at third and we won the next inning.
All our games were broadcast on the radio so I was all excited about that and I came home and it just so happened Richard Nixon had resigned and they interrupted the broadcast of the ballgame to announce Richard Nixon had resigned, so nobody got to hear me play when I took Lou’s place at third.
When we were playing, when you threw a curveball it broke sideways. A major league curveball for the most part breaks straight down, and Lou mastered that. We called it a drop ball. They’d bring Lou in from third to pitch and get one tough hitter out and put him back on third and bring the pitcher back. He just came in in one spot to get people out at times.
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