Growing up just down the street from the formerly named English Field, Lou Whitaker called the Martinsville landmark home for much of his childhood.
Whitaker graduated from Martinsville High School in 1975, and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers soon after. In the years leading up to his graduation, Whitaker and the rest of the young athletes in Martinsville would play baseball at English Field, now known as Hooker Field, every day.
“Twice on Sunday. Saturday and Sunday,” Whitaker said by phone Friday.
Bats and baseballs were hard to come by, so the players would chase the balls that players for the Martinsville Pirates and Oilers would hit out of the ballpark. When those same semi-pro players would break their wooden bats, Whitaker and his friends would either tape them back up or put nails in the broken parts to make them usable again.
“If they were able to be used to play we used them,” Whitaker said. “Today they have aluminum bats. Back in our day that would have lasted us forever.”
The day would starts with Whitaker and a few others in the neighborhood playing ball in the middle of Williams Street with a little rubber ball and whatever they could find to use as a makeshift bat. As others kids would fill in, the group would eventually grow from six or seven to 18, enough for full squad scrimmages.
“Ballpark, here we come,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker said the talent around the area was deep. It wasn’t just at Martinsville. Drewry Mason had players. Laurel Park had players. Bassett, Fieldale, all throughout Henry County, there were baseball players.
Which is why Whitaker said he’s still unsure how he was the one to get attention.
Whitaker was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the fifth round of the 1975 Major League Baseball Draft, just over a month after his 18th birthday. He spent 19 seasons playing for the Tigers, winning American League Rookie of the Year in 1978, a World Series in 1984, four silver slugger awards, and three gold gloves as a premiere second baseman, one half of a legendary double-play combo alongside MLB Hall of Famer Alan Trammell.
Trammel was inducted into the hall of fame in 2018, and this week it was announced that Whitaker will have a chance to join him. The Martinsville native will be put on the Modern Era Hall of Fame ballot, for players who played Major League Baseball between 1970-1987 who have fallen off the regular ballot because they didn’t receive 5% of the vote or weren’t elected for 10 years. As with the regular vote, a Modern Era candidate needs at least 75% of the vote to be elected.
Whitaker was taken off the first Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballot after just one year because he didn’t receive enough votes to stay on. But with new advanced stats has come more appreciation for the former Bulldogs’ career, and he has a better chance of getting into Cooperstown a second time around.
Baseball was always the first choice for Whitaker. He loved football, and could throw, catch, and run, but he didn’t like the idea of playing competitively because he saw too many of his friends come away from games with dislocated shoulders and broken legs.
“Messed up arms, messed up shoulders, that messes up your throwing,” Whitaker said.
He was convinced to try out for the Martinsville basketball team his senior year by friends Jesse Martin and JoeJoe Holt, who Whitaker would play with at a city park off of Starling Avenue.
Whitaker said he was the “16th man on a 15-man team,” and quit about three games into the season.
The team went on to win the state championship that year.
“I used to sit down and root for the guys,” he said. “I missed my ring, my state championship ring, by quitting.”
None of the other sports brought Whitaker the joy baseball brought. Baseball was the sport he wanted to continue beyond high school.
“I always thought about someday playing, but really in reality it was like, ‘Wow what do people even do to get drafted or be seen?’” he said.
The only times Whitaker ever played outside of Martinsville was when his all-star teams would make big tournaments. He’s still not sure how he got noticed.
“It was something... others around Martinsville was seeing something in a young person, in a kid, and just passing the information around,” he said. “So it was word of mouth. This person tells that person, this person tells that person, so who knows where it started.”
Unlike players today who start on travel teams as young as 10 years old, Whitaker learned everything about baseball close to home at English Field.
He credits the talent of the players he grew up playing alongside with making him better.
“Martinsville always had good baseball players,” he said. “They just always did and I was just proud to watch people before me play because that’s how I learned. And then the people that I played with, some of the greatest 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 year olds that I thought ever put on a baseball uniform. They were just exceptional ball players and it’s really a compliment from me to them that made me just excel at that game that I really loved and always wanted as a kid… because being from Martinsville, who’s really out there looking at someone from Martinsville.”
Things have obviously changed since Whitaker’s days running around the east side of town. He now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife. But he still vividly remembers his hometown and his home field. There were talented ballplayers before him who helped shape his skills, and many more who came after.
Whitaker’s nephew, Jeff, played at Martinsville and was drafted in 1991, and Whitaker recalls at least five others who were also drafted not long after him.
Roy Clark, who worked as senior advisor to amateur scouting for the Atlanta Braves, also grew up playing at English Field.
“I’ve thought about the faces over the years that I’ve played with. That was my era,’ Whitaker said. “Just think about all the people that were before me that I watched and played against growing up out here on the field.
“We worked on it. It just didn’t fall out of the sky. We worked on it every day at the ball park.”
From a game that started with just some kids playing in the streets around Martinsville, the town could soon be home to a hall of famer.
“We just had a lot of fun as a kids and here I am talking to you about being inducted, or maybe, or being looked at once again,” Whitaker said. “Who knows how this is going to work out.”
The Modern Era Committee will meet on December 8 to vote on its hall of fame ballot. Selectees will be inducted into Cooperstown next spring.
(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series talking with Lou Whitaker about his time growing up in Martinsville and his chances of getting into the MLB Hall of Fame. Part 2 will run in Tuesday’s paper.)
Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at (276)638-8801 ext. 241.