By Robert Grayson
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Michigan who thought legendary Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell didn’t belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That didn’t mean it was going to happen.
But there is a saying that good things come to those who wait. So Trammell waited—16 years—and finally, this year, he will get his plaque in Cooperstown.
However, his wait might not truly be over yet. Trammell was one-half of the talented double-play duo for the Detroit Tigers from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. The other half was second baseman Lou Whitaker.
They played together for 19 years, and both chuckle when someone mentions that their partnership endured longer than many marriages. No keystone combo played more games together—1,918—than Trammell and Whitaker.
Both were icons in the Motor City and the entire baseball world. They drew crowds wherever the Tigers played in the American League, not to mention when they were home at Tiger Stadium. During their playing days, when you thought “double play,” you thought Trammell and Whitaker. They were the two biggest names in the game when it came to twin killings.
Even non-baseball fans had heard of them. They were such a part of pop culture that the slick-fielding dynamos even appeared on an episode of the popular TV show “Magnum, P.I.,” starring Tom Selleck. Selleck, a big baseball fan, rooted for the Detroit Tigers, and so did his character in the TV series, Thomas Magnum. Magnum even wore a Tigers baseball cap during the run of the series from 1980 to 1988.
In one episode of the show, titled “A Sense of Debt,” Magnum goes to Detroit to investigate a case. The private detective normally worked out of Hawaii, but was born in Detroit – hence his love for the Tigers. In the episode, which first aired in 1983, Magnum was staying in a hotel just three blocks from Tiger Stadium but had no time to get to a game, even though the Tigers were home for 10 games during his visit to Motown.
At the end of the show, Magnum was in a bar complaining to the bartender about missing nine of the games because he was working and went on to say he could get to the final home game but it was sold out. Not a ticket to be had anywhere. Two guys standing next him in the bar heard Magnum’s woes and give him a pair of tickets to the 10th and final game of the home stand. After all, they said, they had been to all the other nine games.
Magnum doesn’t recognize the two good Samaritans, but they were none other than Trammell and Whitaker. After giving Magnum the tickets, the Tigers greats gave a classic exit line as they left the bar, “You’ll be sitting between home and first,” they tell the now-ecstatic detective. “We’ll be between first and third. Wave to us.” This memorable cameo on a top-rated TV show was just one of the ways the combo helped promote Detroit’s Major League Baseball club.
Tram remembers being on the show as “a cool experience.” But that was not the only time he met Selleck. He said the actor would come and take batting practice with the team whenever he was in the Motor City.
Tigers fans never mentioned Trammell without Whitaker, and vice versa. So, it’s no wonder that the pair hoped they’d both be inducted into baseball’s shrine in Cooperstown on the same afternoon. But, alas, Whitaker was not on the Hall of Fame’s Modern Era Committee ballot when it was announced late last year. The ballot included Trammell and nine other candidates for the game’s highest honor. Of the 10 candidates, the committee selected only two for Hall honors—Trammell and pitcher Jack Morris, a fellow longtime Detroit mainstay.
“I had a dream, and I was entitled to it, that one day Lou and I would go into the Hall of Fame together. We’re linked together and we should be. We were a double-play combination and we did it longer than any other duo in baseball history,” said the 60-year-old, four-time Gold Glove Award winner. “The dream didn’t happen. It would have been the ultimate. That would have been some story. But I’m grateful and honored to be going into the Hall of Fame. It’s a magical moment. This won’t change our relationship and what we accomplished together. I’m hoping that someday there’s more talk about it and Lou will be in the Hall of Fame, too. My take is, I love him regardless and I’m hoping for someday.”
Whitaker was the 1978 American League Rookie of the Year and a five-time All-Star with 2,369 hits to his credit. He turned 1,527 double plays during his playing days, all with the Tigers (1977-1995), the most in team history.
Trammell and Morris were teammates on the Tigers for a while as well, from 1977 to 1990, but it wasn’t the same. The two were buddies, but Tram and Lou, both middle infielders, were always mentioned in the same breath, like Tinker to Evers to Chance.
The partnership between Trammell and Whitaker goes back even further than their days in the Bigs wearing an old English D logo. They actually met as two skinny kids (Trammell, 19½, and Whitaker, 20) in the Florida Instructional League in the fall of 1976. Both were working on kicking their game up a notch. By the spring of 1977 these two Tiger cubs were playing side by side on Detroit’s Double-A Montgomery (Alabama) Rebels in the Southern League. The pair played their first game together for the Rebels on April 12, 1977.
The energetic youngsters led the Rebels to the Southern League Championship in 1977, clinching the title on Sept. 7, 1977. The next day they were both on a plane to Boston to join the Detroit Tigers for a weekend series at Fenway Park. When they arrived, then-Tigers manager Ralph Houk inserted Trammell and Whitaker in the starting lineup for the second game of a Sept. 9 doubleheader against the Bosox.
Few realized at the time that they were seeing history in the making. By that Sept. 9 game, Tram and Sweet Lou were ready for prime time, and the tandem functioned like a well-oiled machine. They didn’t get a double play in their first major league game. But they made an impact with their bats. Whitaker had three hits and Trammell had two.
The next day, Red Sox outfielder Fred Lynn hit into a 4-6-3 twin killing in the first inning. The Tigers’ keystone duo had their first major league double play ever.
As the 1977 season waned, the Tigers slowly worked Trammell and Whitaker into the everyday lineup, platooning them with other middle infielders on the big league roster. That process continued during spring training in 1978 and at the start of the season, but by late May 1978, Tram and Sweet Lou were fixtures at short and second. The Tigers’ middle infield would be set for a couple of decades.
Whitaker patrolled second base for 19 years with the Tigers, through the end of the 1995 season. Trammell would make it an even 20 years with the team and call it a career when the 1996 season came a close. “We knew each other’s moves pretty well,” Trammell said, “but that started early on. We clicked. It was natural, nothing forced.”
Many who watched them play, felt Trammell and Whitaker turning a double play was like watching one fluid motion. The duo even won awards in the same year for their glove work. In 1983 and ’84 the two middle infielders each won a Gold Glove at their respective positions. Trammell ended up winning four of the defensive awards in his career, claiming the Gold Glove in 1980 and ’81 as well. Whitaker picked up a third Gold Glove on his own in 1985.
Growing up in San Diego, Trammell was, not surprisingly, a fan of the Padres. The team was established in 1969 when the future major league shortstop was just 11 years old. Little did Trammell know, as a youngster rooting for his hometown Padres, that one day he and his Tigers teammates would break San Diegans’ hearts by beating the Padres 4 games to 1 in the 1984 Fall Classic.
Local sports fans in San Diego were well aware of Trammell’s athletic talents long before he burst onto the Major League Baseball scene. For a while, the six-foot California native was known even more for his basketball skills than for his baseball prowess. As a point guard for San Diego’s Kearny High School Komets, he led the team to the California Interscholastic Federation San Diego Section Championship in 1976. In the title game against Santana High School, the determined senior kept pushing through the opponents’ full court press to score and earned the game’s Most Valuable Player honors. From there he had a great senior year on the baseball diamond, batting over .400 while dazzling fans and major league scouts with his fielding at shortstop.
Tram could have gone to college on a basketball or a baseball scholarship, but the Tigers selected him in the second round of the 1976 amateur draft. The decision to turn pro wasn’t easy for the future major league All-Star, but he felt the Tigers must have “liked what they saw,” he said. “I felt they wanted me and that persuaded me to sign professionally.”
Smiling, Tram thinks back on his high school baseball days and remembers, “In high school, there are those bleachers, the ones that don’t really hold a lot of people, so the major league scouts sort of stick out like a sore thumb. As a player you can easily see them (the scouts) from the field and they are there to see you. That’s when you start to think that you have a chance to play in the big leagues.”
Jack Taylor, Trammell’s high school baseball coach, told his star player that he was going to get drafted and probably early in the process. “I had signed a letter of intent to go to UCLA and that’s where I was headed, but when the Tigers drafted me, well, it was hard not to think about playing professionally,” recalled Trammell. “I guess, you can say, kind of against my parents’ wishes, I signed with the Tigers. But my folks knew I wanted to play, so they didn’t hold me back.”
Once he inked the contract with Detroit, Trammell said he was intent on making it to “The Show” and “Nothing was going to stand in my way.” Of course, breaking into the big leagues can be a daunting task for a young kid, especially one just coming out of high school. The three-time Silver Slugger Award winner said that, once again, Lou Whitaker eased his way: “We were always together, so it wasn’t just one guy going through this. To me that made a big difference.”
The longtime Tigers shortstop said he set incremental goals for himself as a young player. “It’s not like you start out in the minors and say, ‘I want to be in the Hall of Fame one day.’ In fact, you are not even thinking about that,” he said. “Your first goal is getting to the big leagues and you think about how great that would be. Once you are there, you want to stay and then you want to stay for a long time and do well. I don’t think there is an athlete who plays who doesn’t want to do well. The added bonus here is to be linked for an entire career with one team and the same person as a double-play combination. That is something special.”
His mindset when he turned pro was to establish himself and be good. “You have to contribute to be around in this game for a while,” the defensive marvel said. “I’m proud to have been a Tiger my entire career. There aren’t many baseball players who can look at the back of their baseball cards and say they were with one team for their whole career. That might not mean a lot to some people, but it means a heck of a lot to me.”
Another guiding force in the San Diego native’s career was discipline: “My high school coach, Jack Taylor, really touched my life. He was one of my mentors. He was all about discipline and structure. I bought right in. He was an extension of my parents and that’s how it was in those days.”
Taylor, the big-time playmaker notes, “taught me the proper way to play.”
The guidance and discipline continued in the pros with Sparky Anderson, the man who served as Tram’s manager (1979-1995) for most of the shortstop’s career. “Don’t forget I came up when I was 19. There were a lot of young players. We needed some structure. I believe in that very strongly. There was some tough love there early on, but he (Anderson) did it for a reason. I played for him for 17 years and we had a very special relationship. I am very thankful and appreciative that our lives crossed because without him, my career wouldn’t have been the same,” Trammell said.
When the news first broke that Anderson was going to be the Tigers’ skipper, Tram could hardly believe it: “I remembered him from when I watched the game as a kid when he was the manager of the Big Red Machine. Who didn’t? I thought, ‘This guy is coming over to the Tigers.’ I was in awe.”
Trammell recalled that Anderson had a knack for pushing the right buttons when it came to motivating players, especially young players. “When I signed, I was maybe 165 pounds. I wasn’t ready for the big leagues. I could play defense. That’s the one thing that I will say initially kept me in the big leagues. But hitting was a problem. Sparky used to say—and this just ticked me off—you look like you are hitting with a wet newspaper,” Trammell said. “That was kind of a driving force behind me. I thought, ‘OK I’m going to show this guy.’”
Anderson batted his fledgling star ninth. “I didn’t want to bat ninth, Trammell said of his early days on the big-league roster. “I didn’t like it. But that’s where I deserved to bat until I improved. It got me to work hard and improve quickly.”
Trammell would eventually move to the middle of the batting order, and even spent some time hitting cleanup. The shortstop batted .300 or better in seven seasons during his 20-year career.
Anderson inherited a young, up-and-coming, but struggling Tigers team in 1979. “As young athletes, we thought we were good, and we thought we knew what we were doing. Little did we know we didn’t know squat. We really didn’t. Sparky got us over the hump. He taught us what we needed to know to win,” Trammell said.
He added, “My career was helped a lot by being in the right place at the right time. In life, timing is everything. In the mid-’70s the Tigers weren’t very good. But they were doing a good job of drafting young players. Lance Parrish, Mark Fidrych, Jack Morris, Lou Whitaker, were all part of that.
“Many of us got to the big leagues when we were teenagers. That doesn’t happen very often. We probably didn’t deserve it, but, like I said, the team wasn’t very good and they needed us, so we advanced quickly. That’s where timing comes in. If the team was winning on the major league level, they wouldn’t have rushed us like they did. That was very helpful and instrumental in getting us to the big leagues at an early age and I’m happy that it worked out that way. I’m happy that I got that opportunity and was able to take advantage of it.”
Trammell had a breakout year in 1980 when he batted .300 for the first time.
He didn’t return to the .300 plateau again until 1983 when he pummeled the ball, compiling a .319 batting average and had 14 home runs as the Tigers were setting the stage for their historic run in 1984. Though Tram won only one world championship in his career, it came with all the bells and whistles any athlete could hope for.
The 1984 Tigers jumped into first place in the American League East on Opening Day and never relinquished the top spot. Clawing through opponents, the Tigers won 35 of their first 40 games and Trammell batted a hefty .405 during the onslaught. The 1984 Tigers featured Whitaker leading off and Trammell batting second. The team won 104 games. The Tigers took no prisoners in the American League Championship Series, beating the Kansas City Royals, the best in the West, three games to none.
Trammell hit a scorching .364 in the ALCS. There was some pressure on the Tigers going into the 1984 World Series against the National League Champion San Diego Padres, Trammell recalled. Detroit had such a good season that losing the Fall Classic was not even something Tigers fans could fathom.
As the series opened in Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, Whitaker and Trammell put that worry to rest right away. Sweet Lou led off in the top of the first in Game 1 with a double and Tram, batting second, knocked him in with a single. The Padres came up with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first. But the Tigers regained the lead with two runs in the top of the fifth and went on to win the game.
The boys from Motown showed the determination that would set the tone for them for the entire series. The Padres did win Game 2 in San Diego, but when the Fall Classic shifted to Detroit for three games, the Tigers swept their National League opponents and claimed their first world championship since 1968. Of course every team likes going home, as the Tigers did for the middle three games of the 1984 World Series, but Trammell was home for the first two games as well. He still lived in San Diego.
“We (the Tigers) came to San Diego to open the World Series. I didn’t even stay with the team. I stayed home. I slept in my own bed. I think I was the only guy who could say that,” Trammell said with a smile. “It was a very special moment, a very special time for me. There’s a lot of moments in my career I look back on very fondly, but none more than that.”
As a youngster, Tram not only went to Jack Murphy Stadium to watch a number of sporting events, he was a vendor there. “But this (the 1984 World Series) was the first time I ever played there. To be on your hometown field in the World Series is what you dream of as a kid. It was very, very special,” he said.
So was the entire World Series for the Tigers shortstop. He batted .450 in the series, which the Tigers won in five games, and had six RBI. He hit two home runs, each with a man on, in Game 4 to account for all the Tiger runs in the contest and give them the win 4–2. Trammell was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1984 Fall Classic.
Though 1984 was pretty good for the Tigers shortstop, many believe 1987 was Tram’s best season, and it would be hard to argue with that. He batted .343, his best ever in the majors, with 28 homers. The shortstop amassed 205 hits and 105 RBI, making him the first Tiger to collect more than 200 hits and 100 RBI in the same season since Al Kaline did it in 1955. Add to that 34 doubles and it made for quite a season. But Trammell came in second in the American League MVP voting to George Bell, the Toronto Blue Jays’ left fielder. It was one of the closest, and most controversial MVP votes ever.
Bell slumped toward the end of the season, going 2 for 26 during a critical time for his team, with the division title on the line. Still, Bell ended the 1987 season batting .308 with 47 homers. Meanwhile Tram added to his numbers as the season was winding down and the Tigers were making a run for the American League East. He powered the Tigers’ offense in September, batting .416 with 17 RBI, six homers and nine doubles. He fashioned an 18-game hitting streak during that last month of the season.
To Tigers fans, there was no doubt their shortstop was the AL MVP, but, much to their disappointment, Bell beat him out. Whitaker didn’t wait for the official MVP announcement, which came in November 1987. After the last game of the 1987 season on Oct. 4, at Tiger Stadium, Trammell’s double-play partner snatched second base from the field and presented it to his teammate. Whitaker wrote a special inscription on the base: “To Alan Trammell, 1987 MVP, From Lou Whitaker.” Trammell cherishes the base to this day and says he always will.
As a result of Trammell’s relentless performance in 1987, the Tigers won the AL East, beating out Bell’s Blue Jays by two games. However, Detroit lost the 1987 American League Championship Series to the Minnesota Twins in five games.
A lifetime .285 hitter, Tram is not one to give short shrift to the offensive part of the game, but admits that defense is his passion. “I don’t think defense is emphasized enough in today’s game. Defense is huge. If you ask me which I felt was more important—offense or defense—defense is always number one,” he said.
Trammell retired as a player in 1996, and first appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballot in 2002, but received only 15.7 percent of the vote. He remained on the ballot for the maximum 15 years, but never garnered enough votes to win election to Cooperstown by the baseball writers. However, Tram did get the nod from the Hall’s Modern Era Committee meeting in December 2017 and became part of Cooperstown’s Class of 2018 and baseball’s elite.
“Going into the Hall of Fame is very meaningful and so is having recognition for that 1984 team. A lot of Tiger fans thought our team was being overlooked and now you can put that to rest with me and Jack (Morris) going into the Hall of Fame,” Trammell said.
“When I signed up to play professional ball, I never expected to end up in the Hall of Fame. I just wanted to be part of a team and do my part. I guess this (going into the Hall of Fame) is the culmination of that. It’s saying, ‘Job well done.’”
Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.