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Clothes Don’t Always Make The Man

September 28, 1994 GMT

Undated (AP) _ Turned out in a white stretch limo, purple pinstripes and gold-rimmed sunglasses last week, Lou Whitaker looked more like someone on his way into the Academy Awards than a striking ballplayer ducking into a union meeting in Tampa, Fla.

The getup didn’t just make headlines on a slow news day. It also made the Tigers second baseman look like something he most definitely is not: another greedy soldier in the war of attrition that has replaced baseball.

″It’s the way the thing got blown out of proportion that I took exception to,″ Whitaker’s wife, Crystal, called to complain the other day.

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″Until the pictures came out and the stories portrayed him that way, what have you ever heard bad, or negative, about Lou Whitaker? Nothing.

″Here’s a man who worked hard year after year, for 18 years, to earn everything he has. ... And after all that, to be remembered for something as insignificant as how he arrived, or what he wore,″ she paused, ″it just isn’t fair.″

She’s right. It wasn’t just the car or the clothes that made her husband such a convenient target, or even what he said when asked how his admittedly grand entrance would go over with the fans: ″I make money,″ Lou said. ″I got a Rolls Royce, limo, big house ... What’s going to make me look bad?″

More than anything, what made Whitaker look bad was our short memories. Soured by a strike that pits uncaring billionaires against mostly uncaring millionaires, we are only too willing to believe the worst about the whole lot of them. But in failing to make distinctions, we have done him a great disservice.

Whitaker is one of the good guys and always has been. When he broke into the majors in 1977, the minimum salary was $19,000. Starting the next season and for every season after that (excluding the strike-shortened 1981 season), he never played less than 127 games. Over that span, he made a couple of All- Star teams, won a few Gold Gloves, averaged .275, 13 home runs and 58 RBIs. He also became - as he pointed out - very, very rich.

More to the point, however, Whitaker did all those things as self- effacingly as a ballplayer can. He never called attention to himself with his mouth and never moaned about how much he was making.

″I don’t remember who said it,″ Crystal said at one point, ″but the best description I ever heard about Louis was the guy who called him a tumbleweed. You know, he rolls into work, does his job, and rolls out so quietly nobody notices.″

This is not to say her husband is not a proud man. Whitaker felt so betrayed by last week’s stories that rather than defend himself, he simply clammed up. But a story told by an old friend sheds light on just how deeply he was stung.

When the Tigers’ organization tried to sign him in 1974, scout Bill Lajoie made several trips to Whitaker’s Martinsville, Va., home, but came away empty- handed each time. Sitting on the family’s front porch one day, Whitaker’s mother finally took pity on Lajoie and explained her son’s hesitation. It seems Lou didn’t have a decent suit of clothes to wear and was too embarrassed to travel anywhere without one.

Lajoie took care of the matter that same day and the rest, as they say, is history. Or at least was - until the events of last week.

″Believe me,″ Crystal said, ″if I felt this was just a little blip on the screen, I would have let the whole thing pass. But we’ve heard from friends all over the country. ...

″And the worst treatment he got was in Detroit, which I know is a union town. But it’s also the place where Lou played his heart out all those years.″

In a one-woman crusade, Crystal started making calls and wrote an editorial for the newspaper in Lakeland, Fla., where the couple and their four daughters live during the off-season. She pointed out that if any owner arrived the way Lou had, no one would have noticed. She also noted that the family-owned limo, which might look out of place at union meetings or the drive-thru at McDonald’s, is very useful in her line of work, which is running a record company.

″But I guess looking back, if we had any intuition what kind of headache it would cause, Lou would have worn the cutoffs and raggedy T-shirt he gardens in. And,″ she said, ″he would driven up in something like a hot-dog truck.″